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Oct 13, 2010

The good, the bad and the Muti

Television equipment stuck at a rainy airport, a team banned from international competition and reinstated two days later, a cholera epidemic, a deported coach, a goat and a North African giant brought to its knees. Sound like a slapstick comedy featuring someone from Kazakhstan in his mankini? It's not. It's a list of six elements that sum up the latest round of African Nations Cup (AFCON) qualifiers.

Let's start in the country that had the world's eyes tuned on them just four months ago: South Africa. The public were so wooed by their national team that Bafana Bafana have now become demigods. People who didn't even know who Aaron Mokoena was now want to watch his men march to the continental championship. Interest in national football is at an all-time high, Pitso Mosimane's side beat Niger in the first qualifier and on Sunday they were preparing to erase their "bad travellers" label in Sierra Leone.

South Africans waited anxiously for 6.30pm to watch the battle of Freetown. About three hours before it was scheduled to kick off, the Macufe Cup match between Bloemfontein Celtics and Kaiser Chiefs had a broad strap on the lower third of the screen. There would be no Bafana Bafana to cheer for on the airwaves that night. The SABC would not be broadcasting the match.

The official line was that their camera equipment was stranded in the Ivory Coast and inclement weather meant they had not been able to reach Sierra Leone. The general public couldn't have cared less if the cameras had been hijacked by the Kazaks, they were furious. The national broadcaster faced a barrage of abuse and has been summoned to meet with the South African Football Association this week.

The broadcaster wasn't the only one shooting blanks. Bafana played out a goalless draw with Sierra Leone although it was the hosts who had more chances. Out of form midfielder Teko Modise started in place of the injured Steven Pienaar and some reports claim he had a good game. With no one able to see the match, I don't think anyone really knows.

Still, the result allows South Africa to hold on to the top spot in Group G, because Egypt suffered a shock 1-0 loss to Niger in Niamy. Pharoahs' fans are in shock but the team should be able to shift the blame quite easily. A witchdoctor was seen walking around the pitch with a black goat before kick-off and the animal is believed to be an instrument of black magic. Muti, or 'traditional medicine' in Zulu has long been believed to play a part in football results in Africa and this time it seems to have got the better of the six-time continental champions.

Fellow former champions, Cameroon, also had a bad omen hanging over their match. The Indomitable Lions' game against the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was due to be played in the capital, Yaonde, but Cameroon officials wanted it to be moved to the northern town of Garoua. The only problem is that Garoua is in the middle of a cholera epidemic. DRC officials didn't want to move the match and claimed they had already paid for hotels in the capital but the Confederation of African Football (CAF) sided with the hosts. Both teams had to be vaccinated against cholera before their match, a 1-1 draw that sees Cameroon now sit second in Group E. They are two points behind Senegal, who hammered Mauritius 7-0.

There was hammering of a different sort going on when FIFA finally banged the mallet down on Nigeria's ban last Wednesday. Government interference was cited as the reason for the ban; court action was allegedly barring elected officials from doing their work at the Nigerian Football Federation and the Sports Minister wanted to restart the local league without relegations.

Two days later, FIFA U-turned on its decision, provisionally lifting sanctions until October 26, when the court can vacate the court order. That gave the Super Eagles some flying space and ensured their AFCON qualifier could take place as scheduled. They might be wishing they were still banned because they travelled to Guinea and lost 1-0, leaving them second in Group B.

Politics also weaved its way into Zimbabwean football when their Belgian coach, Tom Saintfiet, was deported because immigration authorities said he did not have a valid work permit. That was four days before the Warriors' match against Cape Verde. The match was a goalless draw which allows the Islanders to hold on to their credible record of losing just one of their last eight matches. That sequence includes a draw against Portugal in March this year and puts them on top of Group A.

A record of far bigger proportions was achieved when the Central African Republic stunned Algeria by beating them 2-0. The Low-Ubangui Fawns are an elusive bunch and last entered AFCON qualification in 2002. They rarely enter World Cup qualifications and are virtual strangers to international competition. This victory was their first since 1973 and only their second win in AFCON qualification.

While shockwaves hit Algiers, there was some semblance of sanity in other cities. Traditional African giants like Morroco, Ivory Coast and Tunisia recorded wins over Tanzania, Burundi and Togo respectively. All that drama will have to keep us satisfied until March next year when the qualifiers resume.

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