Football Underdogs and Politricks

The fortunes of Sudan and Equatorial Guinea at AFCON 2012. The latter especially, a squad cobbled together by naturalizing players from Brazil and Spain.

President Teodoro Obiang at a South Korea summit (The Embassy of Equatorial Guinea via Flickr CC).

The knockout phase of the Cup of Nations started this weekend and by next Sunday we’ll have a new champion. Events in Port Said, along with the Zimbabwean match-fixing scandal have made it a dreadful week for African football–but there has not been any question of postponing the remaining fixtures. The quarter-final line-up is without the tournament’s biggest losers, Senegal. Morocco and Angola also miss out. Earlier today red-hot Zambia played Sudan (in the end, Sudan came up short) and hosts Equatorial Guinea take on favorites Côte d’Ivoire now. Then tomorrow Gabon will play Mali before Ghana face Tunisia, in what should be the tie of the round. The two major surprise quarter-finalists are Equatorial Guinea and Sudan, but they have very different back-stories.

The tournament is over for Sudan now, but when they arrived at this tournament they were the quintessential underdog. Since their coronation as African champions in 1970 things haven’t gone well at all. They were without a Cup of Nations point, or even a goal, in 36 years until their 2-2 draw with Angola last week. A 2-1 victory over Burkina Faso sent them into the quarter-finals. It was the first time Sudan had won a game at the finals in 42 years.

Every member of Sudan’s squad is based in the Sudanese league, mainly with Omdurman rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Merreikh. They are the first side since Tunisia in 1996 to make it to the quarter-final stage with a completely locally-based side. Coach Mohamed Abdalla Ahmed (nicknamed “Mazda”) was the captain of the national team and then worked as a university professor. For 16 of the players this is their first involvement in a Cup of Nations. When they were drawn in the tournament’s toughest-looking group, they were widely expected to be crushed in all three of their fixtures.

Equatorial Guinea certainly lack Sudan’s footballing pedigree. This is their Cup of Nations debut, and it’s incredible that they are still in contention. But while their progress from Group A at the expense of Libya and Senegal was an impressive achievement, it possesses none of the charm of the Sudanese run.

The Equatoguinean squad has been cobbled together by bringing in players with more or less tenuous connections to the country from all over the place (mainly Brazil and Spain).

If that wasn’t off-putting enough, their great performances on the pitch have been hijacked by everyone’s favourite forestry-minister-cum-Michael-Jackson-memorabilia-enthusiast-cum-non-rapping-rapper-cum-professional-nincompoop, Teodorin Obiang. Yes, he of the Global Witness smackdown and the seized assets.

Always a fan of splurging other people’s money (well the people of Equitorial Guinea) on costly ego-massages, Teodorin turned up after the opening game victory over Libya with a dodgy hairstyle and a cheque for a million dollars.

He assured everyone that it wasn’t government money, and there’s no reason not to take him at his word. After all, if the government of Equatorial Guinea had a million dollars sitting around, he’d be sure to nick it.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.