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 city divided

Ethnic enclaves are not unusual in many cities and towns across Sudan, but in Port Sudan, this polarized structure instigated and facilitated communal violence.

The imperial forest

Gregg Mitman’s ‘Empire of Rubber’ is less a historical reading of Liberia than a history of America and racial capitalism through the lens of a US corporate giant.

Africa’s next great war

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa’s Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri’s novel ‘Maymuna’ demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


It’s not common knowledge that there is Iran in Africa and there is Africa in Iran. But there are commonplace signs of this connection.

It could happen to us

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries, but let’s hope their own increasing vulnerability instills greater solidarity.