I post about the Africa Cup of Nations every year it seems and I suppose in a sporting year bereft of a World Cup, Olympics or football European Championships this years finals in South Africa could well be the source of the years biggest worldwide television audience.
My posts have been generally positive and the Africa Cup of Nations has, in the history of my blog, produced some outstanding players: Alex Song, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba to name three, this year though something has changed. The matches have been generally pretty poor, the quality of finishing dreadful and the passing seems to have regressed rather than continued the development of recent years. South Africa, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Tunisia are looking like the four most likely to advance but none of them have been entirely convincing. One of the more interesting stats to come out of the pre-tournament previews was that the number of African players based in England has decreased year on year for the past six years, it's noticeable that more players are from the lower leagues in France and Portugal this year and I think that has contributed to a lowering of standards.
The crowds have been generally poor as well, this is hardly surprising, Africa is a vast country with a lack of European style infrastructure throughout - even some of the journey times between South African cities hosting games is mind blowing and you get the feeling that football fans in Mali and Niger probably have more on their mind at the moment, not to mention new boys Cape Verde!
The stars so far have been Seydou Keita (Mali - ex Barcelona now based in China) and Moussa Mazzou who plays for Niger at international level but who has yet to be a success at any of the half a dozen clubs he has played for. Mazzou is a giant of a man who wears the number two shirt yet plays up front. He has power, pace and a good touch for somebody who looks like he has been quarried from granite - he reminds me of the old Bill Shankly invitation to journalists back in the early sixties to take a walk around his latest signing Ron Yeats.
A couple of the managers have also voiced their concerns over the perceived bias of the referees towards the bigger nations. Certainly in the Togo v Ivory Coast and South Africa v Cape Verde matches the Ivorians and the hosts did seem to get the majority of decisions.
The other thing that strikes me watching this, as somebody who now considers himself to be a veteran of such events, is how few African born coaches are coming through. I know from trawling various African football messageboards that this is something that has concerned African football fans for a while now, many are concerned that it continues to send out the wrong message to the continent, one that the white man is still somehow superior to the black man. Of the sixteen teams taking part in the finals nine have foreign born coaches and five of those nine were born in France, hardly surprising that there is a disproportionate number of French born coaches given its imperial past in the continent. The long term solution will of course be the result of more African born coaches gaining higher coaching qualifications, there is a general feeling that because African football has been traditionally the weakest of the three main football playing continents that the coaching qualifications are therefore lower than their European or South American counterparts. The other point of course is that it is still a relatively new experience for African footballers to play for top European sides, as those players who have succeeded at playing level take their coaching badges perhaps there will be more incentive for them to return to Africa and improve the standard of coaching and play rather than stay in Europe for the money.
I did have to smile during yesterdays coverage of Ivory Coast's 3-0 win over Tunisia on ITV4. Danny Mills was the summariser and he said at one point that Ivory Coast had nine or ten genuine world class players in their team. Not sure Arsenal fans would agree given that two of the eleven on the field at the time were Emmanuel Eboue and Gervinho, players who at their time with the Gunners rarely raised their game to Premier League levels let alone world.