Soldiers in a Nigerian state at the heart of an Islamist revolt shut down all venues preparing to screen live World Cup matches on Wednesday, hoping to stave off the kind of attacks that have killed more than 20 people in the past two weeks.
The Nigerian government also advised residents of Abuja to avoid public viewing centres as the 2014 World Cup kicks off in Brazil in case of attacks.
Nigeria has seen an increasingly bold series of assaults over the past five years by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, including the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April.
Since then, militants have set off a car bomb that killed 18 people watching a game on television at a centre in the settlement of Gavan, in the northeastern state of Adamawa, on June 1.
A week before, a suicide bomber set out for an open-air screening of a match in Nigeria’s central city of Jos. His car blew up on the way, killing three people.
Such assaults on often-ramshackle television viewing centres across Africa have raised fears militant groups will target supporters gathering to cheer on the global soccer contest.
“Our action is not to stop Nigerians … watching the World Cup. It is to protect their lives,” Brigadier-General Nicholas Rogers said on Wednesday in Yola, the capital of Adamawa state, which has been hit regularly by Boko Haram raids.
Many fans had been relying on the viewing centres – often open-sided structures with televisions set up in shops and side streets – to watch live coverage of their national squad, the “Super Eagles” – seen by many as Africa’s main champion in the contest.
Minister Bala Mohamed issued a directive for Abuju ordering high vigilance in places such as motor parks, restaurants, markets, supermarkets, shopping malls, banks, churches, mosques, hotels, viewing centres and hospitals.
“Apart from installing separate close circuit televisions (CCTVs), they are required to liaise with appropriate security agencies and engage well trained uniformed security personnel who shall be equipped with bomb detectors,” the minister said.
The shutdown in the impoverished regional state bordering Cameroon came a day before the tournament’s opening ceremony and first match between Brazil and Croatia.
But vegetable-seller Mary Toba said she welcomed the decision, especially after the Gavan blast.
“I had told my husband and children they would have to kill me before I let them go out to watch football. I have dreams about the danger … I thank the military for their action,” she told Reuters.
Boko Haram has declared war on all signs of what it sees as corrupting Western influence.
Security experts have said the viewing centres’ combination of soccer and, sometimes, alcohol made them a target.
Authorities have issued warnings about going to the venues in Kenya, Nigeria, and in Uganda, where memories are still fresh of bomb attacks on two centres that killed at least 74 people watching the last World Cup final.
While football is wildly popular in Africa, tennis is an almost invisible sport. However, this could be changing if new developments in two small West African countries, Togo and Benin, are anything to go by.
About ten years ago, several young Africans successfully gained good classifications from ATP, the governing body of men’s professional tennis circuits. Currently, however, there is not one black African among the 500 best tennis players in the world, as tennis enthusiast Boniface Papa Nouveau explains. The Ivorian is an initiator and promoter of two new tennis tournaments in West Africa and aims to develop his favourite sport across the continent.
An early passion Papa Nouveau works as a delegate for the international transport company Hesnault in Togo and Benin, where he currently lives. Having grown up in France, he discovered his passion for tennis early in his life. At the age of ten, when the French-Cameroonian tennis player Yannik Noah won the Roland Garros tournament, he got his first tennis racket. Since then Papa Nouveau never got away from the sport. Due to a severe arm injury in his youth, he had to give up his dream of becoming a professional player and taught tennis for many years instead. Today he still is an enthusiastic tennis player and hopes that one day an African could become the next world tennis champion.
International players coming to West Africa After organising his first successful tennis tournament in West Africa in 2012, Papa Nouveau decided to organise two more in a row in the following year. The first, called Open du Togo, was held from 9th to 14th of December 2013 in Togo’s capital Lomé. Fifty-four players from 12 different countries participated. The second, Open de Cotonou, ran from 16th to the 21st of December 2013 in Cotonou, Benin. With 78 young players coming from 13 different countries, the level at the tournament in Benin was already higher than the previous year. Among the participants were international tennis players such as the French Alexandre Renard, the Colombian Juan Gomez and the Franco-Beninese Alexis Klegou. The latter is the unbeaten winner of all three tournaments since 2012. Wanting to motivate numerous young players to participate in the tournaments, prize money was even handed out to players who only won one single match. The winner’s prize money from the competition in Togo was 700 000 CFA Francs (around USD$1500) and 1 000 000 CFA Francs (around USD$2100) in Benin. As Papa Nouveau explains, he was able to realise the tournaments thanks to the support of sponsors and corporates, but it is a challenge to find funding in general.
A sport for the rich? There are questions whether tennis – not being the cheapest of sports – has the potential to ever be really successful in developing regions like West Africa. “If you want to buy equipment in Africa, sometimes a city doesn’t even have a sports shop that sells rackets. If they do, it’s three times the price in Europe,” Frank Couraud, International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) development projects administrator, told CNN. Even though West Africa is one of the poorest regions in the world, Papa Nouveau does not think that tennis is a sport reserved for the rich. Take Clément N’Goran, one of Côte d’Ivoire’s greatest tennis champions. He grew up in a family of 13 in a poor neighbourhood in Abidjan. As his parents could not afford tennis rackets for their son, he learned how to play with wooden paddles that he made himself. At the height of his career he was the 150th ranked player in the world.
Also, many young Ivorians that succeeded in having a good classification were born into poor families. When they played well, the International Tennis Federation supported them. “After the age of 18 it should be up to the state to back them up. But as [the state] does not do so, most of them in the end become tennis coaches”, Papa Nouveau says.
Football wins over tennis One reason why it is so hard to implement tennis is because football still is the most popular sport in Africa. There is almost no visibility of tennis in the media, Papa Nouveau explains. ITF’s Frank Couraud told CNN: “If you look at our budget ($ 4.3 million each year) it’s what FIFA gives to maybe one or two nations. There’s a huge discrepancy.”
There are a lot of young talented tennis players in sub-Saharan Africa but many of them do not get the possibility to further develop their skills on an international level. One of the reasons for this is that there are not enough tennis matches in Africa, Papa Nouveau says. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, there used to be professional tennis tournaments a decade ago which gave players the chance to win ATP points. Today, national tournament don’t even exist. When young African players finally get the chance to compete professionally, they are not able to give their best because they are not used to playing in a match, Papa Nouveau says. He’s had many requests to organise tennis competitions in countries as Niger, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire.
According to CNN, Africa has not produced a grand slam singles finalist since South African Kevin Curren lost against Boris Becker at the 1985 Wimbledon Championships. Looking at the current ATP single rankings, there is only one African among the best 100 male players in the world – South African Kevin Anderson on rank 21. You can say as much for the best 100 female players, with Chanelle Scheepers from South Africa being the only African to be ranked 79th. This shows that tennis does not have the same reputation in all African countries. The situation in North Africa is much better – in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt there are a lot of tournaments, clubs and many young players with good classifications.
There are a small number of professional tennis tournaments where players can earn ATP ranking points in Africa. In 2013, Morocco was the only African country to host the ATP Wold Tour – the global professional tennis competition organised by the Association of Tennis Professionals. However other African countries have already hosted the Pro Circuit by the International Tennis Federation, which is an entry level of professional tennis tournaments. Last year, three North African countries (Egypt, Morocco, Senegal) and four sub-Saharan countries (Burundi, Gabon, Nigeria, Rwanda) hosted one of the ITF Pro Circuit’s tournaments.
A future for African tennis What is necessary for tennis to become more popular in sub-Saharan Africa? According to Papa Nouveau, three things: a big tennis tournament in every African country; tennis federations and governments need to do more to develop the sport; and more tennis clubs in order to initiate tournaments.
Papa Nouveau wants to continue promoting tennis in this region. “It would be great if we could add a competition in the women’s and doubles categories. Moreover I would love to have more young people coming from all over the world.”
He plans to organise three professional international tennis tournaments in West Africa this year – one in Côte d’Ivoire, one in Benin and one in Togo.
Tanja Schreiner studied journalism and communication in Germany and France. She has worked in several African countries and currently works as a journalist in Germany. Connect with her on Twitter.
Like many young men in Italy, the soccer players who put on their cleats for an afternoon match in this small Sicilian town dream of international stardom on the field. But for this group, having made it this far is already an achievement.
Each member of the 25-man amateur squad ASD Mineo is African. They risked their lives to cross the sea from Libya in overcrowded boats last year, a journey that killed hundreds of others in shipwrecks, in the hope of finding political asylum.
Their team – the first of its kind in Italy – was created and funded by the managers of the Mineo centre for asylum seekers, one of Europe’s largest such shelters.
ASD Mineo, as the team is called, is registered in the lowest category of Italy’s official football pyramid, which groups 600 divisions and in which, in theory, any team can rise to the top of the league, or Serie A. The team is on track to advance to the next division in its first season.
“We can make it all the way to Serie A,” 19-year-old Musa from Gambia said after defeating another – all-white – local team 4-0 on a recent Sunday. Like his teammates, Musa declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals against family members back home as he seeks political asylum.
In this country of soccer fanatics, ASD Mineo has become a test of racial integration. Though many Sicilians criticise local, national and European authorities for failing to provide enough resources to cope with the influx of immigrants, ASD Mineo has not suffered public resentment.
That’s not always the case at the national level, where racism has been a constant problem in football. Though top-flight teams include black and Muslim players, stadiums often echo with monkey chants. One of Italy’s best footballers, Mario Balotelli, a Sicilian-born son of Ghanaian immigrants who plays forward for AC Milan and Italy’s national team, has sometimes been on the receiving end.
Some argue that the problem is made worse by immigration rules which make it difficult for those whose families come from abroad to be accepted as Italians. Balotelli, for example, was not able to gain citizenship until he was 18.
Italy’s first black government minister, Cecile Kyenge, has tried to introduce a law allowing anyone born on Italian soil to become a citizen. She herself has been a target of racists – likened to an orangutan and pelted with bananas in public.
“Immigration is a terrible battleground for politicians,” says Maurizio Ambrosini, sociologist at the University of Milan. “But soccer can be a very effective tool in the fight against racism.”
Gateway to Europe Sicily, an island that on a map looks like a ball about to be kicked by the Italian “boot”, has been used as a stepping stone to the European mainland for millennia by, among others, Phoenicians, Greeks and Arabs.
Today it is a gateway for migrants and asylum seekers from as far away as India, Pakistan and the Syrian civil war. Most migrants come from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Italy has struggled to provide basic services to the 40 000 new arrivals last year amid its worst recession since World War Two.
The asylum centre in Lampedusa, Sicily was badly overcrowded last year. A video showing migrants standing naked in the cold while being sprayed for scabies stirred outrage and prompted authorities to transfer them out in December.
Many of the migrants ended up in the Mineo asylum centre, which sits in an isolated valley southwest of the smouldering, snow-capped Mount Etna volcano. Some 4 000 migrants from 40 nations occupy about 400 two-floor villas that once housed U.S. Navy personnel who worked at the nearby Sigonella NATO air base.
There has been occasional trouble: in October, residents of the shelter blocked the two-lane highway that runs next to the centre, threw rocks at police and destroyed cars to call for faster asylum and temporary permit procedures.
Many of the shelter’s residents had been waiting up to two years for documents needed to leave the camp and find work. Several of ASD Mineo’s soccer players have been waiting 10 months, though Italian guidelines say it should take between 45 days and six months to get through the asylum-request process.
‘Balotelli’ and ‘America’ Nineteen-year-old Mohammad from Togo – a defensive player on the team – was orphaned at age 12. Both his parents died of infection after what he described as a black magic ritual in which he and his parents were cut with machetes. He survived with deep crisscrossing scars on his thighs.
“In my village some people called me Balotelli, and then when I arrived in Italy they started calling me Balotelli,” says Mohammad, who sports a similar Mohawk haircut to the AC Milan star. The teenager says he left his village and, after crossing the Sahara desert, was stopped by police and imprisoned in Libya for not having legal travel documents. He managed to wrangle an exit from jail and get on a boat to Lampedusa.
The idea of forming a soccer team was hatched by the shelter’s director Sebastiano Maccarrone after he watched residents’ pick-up games. He asked a former professional player and employee of the shelter to form a team of the best players.
“Putting one team on the field was hard because there were so many good players to choose from,” saidGiuseppe Manzella, one of the two coaches. Those who made it got new soccer shoes and blue-and-white jerseys for games, and a red sweat suit.
“There are many people in the camp, and we are the lucky ones playing,” said Abu Anifa, a 19-year-old Ghanaian winger. “We are living better here than we did in Africa.”
Before stepping on the field one recent Sunday, six players removed their cleats and knelt for early afternoon Muslim prayers beside a ceramic statue of St. Agrippa, patron saint of the village. A handful of fans performed the same ritual on the sidelines. As the match started they shouted “Go America!”
“America” is the nickname of 19-year-old Ghanaian Abdullahi, top scorer in the league with 18 goals in 14 games. He chose the nickname because “I love America and want to go there”.
He did not disappoint, scoring two goals. ASD Mineo’s coaches say he is good enough to become a pro, and scouts from Catania’s Serie A team have showed an interest in him.
After the game, the African and Italian players shook hands. Some embraced, and they posed for pictures, winners and losers both smiling, arms around each others’ shoulders.
Côte d’Ivoire midfielder Yaya Toure was named the BBC’s African Footballer of the Year for 2013 on Monday.
It was the fifth straight year the Manchester City star had made the shortlist but the first time he’d taken the award.
“Thank you to all the fans around the world who continue to support me and who love me a lot,” said Toure in a BBC statement. “I’m very proud, I’m very happy, this award is amazing.
“It’s the fifth time in a row [being nominated] and this time is very special.”
Toure, who has scored 13 goals for club and country this year, was the choice of the BBC’s global audience.
He held off competition from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon and Borussia Dortmund), Victor Moses (Nigeria and Liverpool, on loan from Chelsea), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria and Chelsea), and Jonathan Pitroipa (Burkina Faso and Rennes).
Toure was presented with the award at Manchester City’s Carrington training ground on Monday.
“We are pleased for Yaya Toure that he has finally won the BBC African Footballer of the Year on his fifth nomination for the award,” said BBC Africa’s current affairs editor Vera Kwakofi.
“This shows the high esteem in which he is held by lovers of African football and the respect the fans have for his exploits for club and country.”
Toure now has the chance to complete an awards double having been selected among a 25-man shortlist for the African Football Confederation (CAF) African Footballer of the Year for 2013.
In contrast to the BBC award, Toure has won the CAF equivalent in each of the last two years and winning it for a third consecutive year would see him match the achievement of Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o, winner in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
The winner of the latest edition is due to be announced at a ceremony in Lagos, Nigeria, on January 9. – Sapa-AFP