The African Women’s Championship and the Curious Case of Equatorial Guinea

I suspect few world fans knew that South Africa’s first post-World Cup chance to host an international soccer event starts this week.  In fact, in trying to track down information about the 2010 African Women’s Championships—which are scheduled to start October 31st and conclude November 14th—I’ve come to suspect that few South Africans themselves know much about the event (though President Jacob Zuma did make a late appeal for national support).  The challenges faced by women’s soccer in achieving support and recognition are nowhere more stark than in Africa.  Fortunately for fans like me, that doesn’t mean there is an absence of good soccer stories.

Though I’ve written previously on Pitch Invasion about women’s soccer in Africa, I don’t claim any special expertise on this specific event—particularly as I write from my distant home office on another continent.  But given all the attention to the men’s World Cup in South Africa last summer, and various vague claims that the event would help develop the game at all levels, I do find myself intrigued by the women’s championship as an opportunity to fulfill that promise.  Also, given the many social, historical, and structural obstacles to the women’s game in Africa, I just admire the pluck of many African women’s players who do succeed.

Nevertheless, although it will determine Africa’s two representatives to the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, the 2010 African Women’s Championship promises to be a relatively modest endeavor (the eight competitors are South Africa, Tanzania, Nigeria, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana). Not only are none of the 2010 men’s World Cup stadiums being used, but almost all the games are being held at one 15,000 seat stadium in the far eastern townships of the greater Johannesburg area.  That stadium was refurbished for the men’s World Cup and served as the training base for New Zealand—though it’s most notable World Cup moment may have been when cooking smoke from the nearby township forced the Kiwis to modify their training. (Another small neighboring stadium will be used for two of the last group stage games, presumably to accommodate concurrent kick-offs).

Even these arrangements were only made public last month—a circumstance Peter Alegi rightly identified as an “inexcusable delay [that] makes it more difficult for fans and media to participate in and cover the premier event in women’s football on the continent.”  As if to substantiate that point, as of the week-end before the tournament begins the official tournament page on the Confederation of African Football (CAF) web-site had only been updated once since September—and ironically that update was to announce that the deadline to apply for press credentials had been extended.

CAF does have the excuse of not having much practice in hosting continental championships for women.  Though there were official competitions in 1991 and 1995, those were played on a home and away basis, so the first centrally hosted tournament was played in Nigeria in 1998.  Since that event, the African Women’s Championship has been hosted biannually in either Nigeria or South Africa—with the lone exception of the 2008 tournament hosted in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea also happens to be the only country to win the continental women’s championship besides Nigeria—which had won every African women’s championship prior to 2008, and is the only African team to attend every Women’s World Cup.  In my mind, this raises two interesting questions: why has Nigeria been so good, and how could Equatorial Guinea be their only competition?

The Champions

The reasons Nigeria have tended to be so good is probably at least partially attributable to the simple fact that Nigeria is a populous place with a lot of talented women.  According to a 2003 case study by Martha Saavedra, “women have been playing football on a regular basis in Nigeria only since 1978” but since there have been several iterations of reasonably successful women’s clubs and leagues—which is more than can be said for many African nations.  In addition, Saavedra notes, the relative strength of Nigerian women’s soccer may relate to a more general “history of activism among Nigerian women, especially in the South.”  More recently there has been some concern that the full women’s national team has lost some of its dominance, and that broader problems in Nigerian soccer may hurt further improvements, but there are also signs of hope: as was noted here on Pitch Invasion over the summer, the Nigerian U-20 women were an impressive success ending up as the first African team to reach the final of a FIFA World Cup of any sort.

The case of Equatorial Guinea is harder to figure, partially just because it seems to be a generally curious place.  I’ve never been there, and don’t feel able to fully pass judgment, but in the world of African politics Equatorial Guinea is known mostly for suspicious oddities.  A former Spanish colony comprising a tiny set of islands and land near the coasts of Cameroon and Gabon with only around 600,000 people, it has massive oil income that the United Nations computes to a GDP per capita higher than that of Italy or Bahrain (at $30,627), but a human poverty index worse than Haiti (according to IRIN News, estimates suggest that “60 percent of its population lives on less than US$1 a day”).  This extreme discrepancy is often attributed to massive corruption, particularly among its dictatorial ruling family—whose son Teodoro Obiang is known for buying a $35 million mansion in Malibu and paying $700,000 for a spin on a yacht to impress sometime girlfriend/rapper Eve, and whose patriarch has been in the news for promoting a multi-million dollar UNESCO prize to publicize science and perhaps distract people from his poor human rights record.  The problems of the ruling family even emboldened a group of mercenary South African plotters with few local connections, linked famously to Margaret Thatcher’s son, to attempt a (failed) coup in 2004.

So how did a place like Equatorial Guinea end up hosting a women’s African championship tournament, and becoming the first winner other than Nigeria?  The event generated so little media attention that it is almost impossible to know, but I’d be interested to learn.  I’m particularly intrigued by how a country of only 600,000 people—which wouldn’t even qualify as one of the top ten most-populous cities in Nigeria—manages to produce a continental class football team.

I do know what the Nigerians said: that the Equatorial Guinea women’s team succeeds by not limiting itself to women.  In another curious twist that was mentioned by Jennifer Doyle here on Pitch Invasion, and discussed in a bit more detail on the TransGriot blog, the Nigerians claimed at least two of Equatorial Guinea’s players were men (a claim that doesn’t seem to have any evidence other than appearance).  Sadly, these claims seem to get flung around fairly casually in African women’s soccer—in a 2009 story that TransGriot described as “Nigerian Gender Chickens Coming Home To Roost” a Nigerian women’s player was excluded because “while being given her medical exam for the national team they discovered she was intersex.”  These and other events led to the claim that CAF was going to institute ‘gender testing’ before the 2010 championship—something that I’ve not seen any news of since 2009, and suspect fell prey to the realization that ‘gender testing’ in sports is far from an objective scientific process (something particularly loaded in South Africa after last year’s messy Caster Semenya controversy).

So barring the gender bending argument, my best guess is simply that Equatorial Guinea has actually decided to support women’s soccer—possibly as a part of a larger strategy of soccer diplomacy that includes its status as a co-host of the 2012 men’s African Cup of Nations (with Gabon—another oil rich neighbor).  If you’re rich and dictatorial, what better PR boost than good old-fashioned sport success?  Though this is just a guess, it is supported by the silver medal performance of a youth women’s national team from Equatorial Guinea at last summer’s Youth Olympic Games.  How else could a tiny oil dictatorship whose prior athletic fame derived entirely from mocking ‘Eric the Eel’ have turned itself into a presence in African soccer?  And that is not meant only as a rhetorical question—does anyone out there know the whole story?

Other Stories and Legacies

One other curious story from the 2010 African Women’s Championship that may actually get some documentation is the first appearance of Tanzania’s ‘Twiga Stars.’  In fact, the only two films I know of about women’s soccer in Africa are both set in Tanzania: in addition to an excellent 2007 documentary on women’s soccer in Zanzibar (which combined with Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania), it now seems another film-maker has been following the Tanzanian women’s national team (if you’re curious, check out the goal around 1:02 of the trailer—it’s a cracker).  As part of their reward for qualifying the team earned a sponsored trip to Seattle to train and play local teams—ending up with a mixed record against amateur women’s teams from Washington state.  Given their record against the locals in Seattle, the Twiga Stars may not yet be world class on the field—but the fact that they were there at all, and that Tanzania seems to be starting to take women’s soccer seriously, seems well worth documenting.

Ultimately I suspect that each of the eight women’s teams at the African Women’s Championship in South Africa represents many more fascinating stories that we’ll never see.    Even South Africa, with its relatively developed infrastructure and a history of some support for women’s soccer, is struggling to get Banyana Banyana to an international level (at last summer’s U-17 Women’s World Cup South Africa finished the group stage with 2 goals for and 17 against, including a 10-1 drubbing by Germany).  So, as Peter Alegi notes, beyond its limited press attention perhaps the most important question of this particular tournament is: “what will be the impact of this tournament on the development and growth of South African (and African) women’s football at junior, amateur, and elite levels?  This is a crucial question given that the number of female players — mostly black — continues to grow alongside their ongoing marginalization and exclusion in a male-dominated football world.”

Because if the legacy of the South African World Cup isn’t to develop the game at all levels, we’ll not only miss some good soccer stories—we’ll miss good soccer.

Comments are closed.