Sunday, February 5, 2012

NIAMEY DIARIES: A Journey into the desert.


When the opportunity came to visit Niger to cover the AFCON2012, qualifiers game between the Mena of Niger and Bafana Bafana of South Africa (via Supersport) I just couldn’t pass, not because Niger is your favorite tourist destination, but it was a chance to see firsthand what the country was all about and the take a look at the Mena (Niger national team) who had been ruffling a few feathers during the qualifying series for the 2012 Africa cup of nations to be co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Going against popular opinion by some friends to go by air decided to take the plunge and take the eleven hour trip by road to enjoy the scenery and see the country side first hand.



I left Nigeria on the 2nd of September and embarked on a journey of a lifetime, it was strenuous and adventurous at the same time as we criss-crossed northern Nigerian and finally got into Niger about six hours later, we got to the border post where I changed my monies from Naira to the CFA, we were checked for contraband by the gendarmes’ and after about thirty minutes we were off and on our way.
Passing through towns on our way to Niamey (the capital city) I was amazed at the simplicity of the people and their business savvy ways, both men and women, young and old were out with wares, selling and calling on the travelers to but their goods. The country side was arid and full of shrubs, another fact that caught my eye was the architecture of the people, there wasn’t any aesthetics to their buildings, everything was just squared or boxed, no curvatures or tilts of any sorts, very unusual I must say but unique in its own way.
After about five hours, we arrived at the bus terminal in Niamey; the town was lit with lights and people who were still trading at about 1am in the morning. I was able to get a taxi to Hotel D’Grande, checked in, took my bath and slept off.
Billboard: The Mena are well loved and followed here

Day 1
The sun rises early in this part of the world as I was told, woke up around 7 am and proceeded to the Airtel head office to get connected to the internet, I bought a pair of sim cards and got it configured for the net, I also got another from orange (network carrier) and was able to call South Africa and Nigeria. That done, i took a cab to the Hotel Gaweye , a beautiful hotel lying just behind the flows of the River Niger, where the South Africa contingent was staying after they flew into the country the previous night, I met the media officer of the Bafana Bafana, who gave me audience with coach Pitso Mosimane and team Captain Siphiwe Tshabalala. Both were optimistic of a good result against the Mena of Niger,
 “We are here brimming with confidence and rearing to go, the weather is not an excuse as we played under much more intense heat in Freetown against sierra Leone” Tshabalala said, the boys are ready to give a 100 percent and we hope that will be enough to gain the three points.
Coach Pitso Misomane was also positive about the outcome of the game “the game is another opportunity for us to garner more points in our drive towards qualification, even though we are missing seven regulars like David sonma, Moneeb josephs and others he told me”.
I enquired about the availability of star striker Katlego Mphela, he said “killer has an injury problem, but he is here with us, the medical team will give him a late fitness test and then we will see “
After the interviews I rushed down to the secretariat of the Niger Football federation to see if I could get any exclusive. The whole place was empty as I was told the team was at the stadium for training.
Later in the afternoon, I joined the South African team for a training session at the Stade Seydou Kountche’, venue of the match. The players went through their paces and other tactical preparations were made, the training went smoothly as anxious Nigeriens fans struggled to catch a glimpse of their South African heroes. Training finished the team headed back to the hotel as I sought for the president of FENIFOOT to get my exclusive, I wasn’t successful, but I met the manager of the ‘Mena, he granted me audience and spoke to me about the national team and plans for the future.


MENA: GROWTH AND SUCCESS
The Nigerien national side has come up in leaps and bounds in the last three years, careful planning and strategizing has brought the national side to within inches of qualification for the 2012 African Cup of Nations, led by Col.  Djibrilla Hima Hamidou Pele hasn’t lost any game at home so far. “The president of Niger, His Excellency, Alhaji Mahamadou Issofou is directly involved with the team and has helped to get sponsors like Orange, Sonitel and Hotel Gaweye on board the Mena project” he told me.
Another angle to our progress he continued ‘is that majority of our players are now based in other leagues in Africa and Europe, we have players like Kamilou Daouda with Sfax in Tunisia, Souleymane Sakou of MangaSports of Gabon, Coton Sport of Cameroun supplies Kader Amadou, Karim Konate and goalkeeper Kasali Daouda, there is also Losenni Doumbia from D.C Motema Pembe from the Congo DR, Yacouba Ali from Africa Sports in Abidjan, the European leagues bring star man Maazou Moussa from Zulte Waregem in the Jupiler Ligue in Belgium, youngster Olivier Harouna from French giants Lille and dreadlocked midfielder William Ngounou from Sweden he said flipping a dossier of files to me., we are also in the process of looking round Europe  and France in particular to find any players with Nigerien background to convince to play for us”, if we can harness that , then we will be a force to reckon with on the continent. He ended our conversation by telling me that Coach Daoulla Harouna has been giving a free hand to tinker the team without the usual interference from the FENIFOOT and Government.

He was quite sure that Niger will win the games as we shook hands and he promised to see me after the game. I made my way pitch side to feel the green, it was okay but a bit bumpy in some areas, Bafana Bafana do have their work cut out. The rest of the evening was spent going round Niamey and having a feel of the people, their ways, mannerism and all, Nigeriens are very peaceful and accommodating people who are always willing to assist you, especially if you are a foreigner. The night life is surprisingly vibrant for a pre dominantly Muslim country as the bars and night clubs where in full swing as the night went by, I am not a night person per se, so I just ignored the beautiful neon lights and headed up straight to my hotel room to rest and prepare for the big game the next day.
Day 3: MATCH DAY
I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to roll out for the big game, looking out through my room window I could see the Nigeriens were really psyched up for the game as I saw them in their numbers dressed in their national teams traditional colors, singing and chanting, you could feel football fever in the air, most that meet me outside the hotel were pointing two fingers at me (meaning, South Africa were going to lose by two goals to nil) I wonder how the concluded I was south African. I hurriedly grabbed my gear and went down to the South African team hotel to talk to the media officer and get my accreditation for the game. I managed to speak to some journalists from South Africa and all were confident the team was going to get a result out of the game.
While at the hotel lobby we discussed the game and were following results from all over the continent as they were trickling in, Jonty Mark (@jontymark), a South African journalist was extremely helpful in that regard, the network around the hotel was bad, we had to make use of the wireless facility at the hotel lobby which was fairly good, permutations and banter were thrown at each other to ease the tension as game time drew nearer. Having had lunch and gotten our gear ready, we headed out to the stadium to set up our equipment and get vintage positions to cover the game effectively. The atmosphere at the stadium was electric, the fans had trooped in, in their thousands, and there was barely a seat left at the Stade Seydou Kountche an hour before kickoff, there was a lot of security personnel at the stadium, it got a bit rowdy when the president came into the stadium, and the fans were ecstatic started chanting. The atmosphere was electric; I didn’t know Nigeriens loved their football.
There was a mild commotion at the state box area of the stadium as the security operatives were trying to clear that area for the president and his entourage, the SAFA president was seated around that but things were sorted out before they got out of hand.
The match commenced on a high tempo with Niger taking the game to South Africa, spear headed by Maazou Mouusa from Zulte Waregem, early pressure paid off as Kofi Dankwa put Niger in the lead in the 16th minute of the game when Bafana Bafana failed to clear their lines in the eighteen. Teko Modise and Andile Jali were trying their best to contain the Niger midfield led by William Ngounou, while Skipper Tshabalala was pulling the strings from the left side of midfield, the Nigeriens continued to press but Gould and Sangweni stood firm. The Nigerien were extremely physical in their approach while South Africa were relying most on counter attacks, the first half ended with the South Africans on the ascendency. The Nigerien President HE Issoufou Mahamadou left at half time to another thunderous applause. The second half started just like the first, barely two minutes into the half, South Africa lost the ball in the midfield, a long punt evaded Tsepo Masilela who misjudged the bounce of the ball, and fell to Maazou who scored off the post, with Khune stranded.
SA line up for the game
The goal galvanized South Africa who finally woke up and came into the game, the introduction of Daylon Claasens for Thulani Serero at the break, added more creativity to the midfield as Andile Jali moved further upfield with Teko Modise. Coach Pitso introduced Kaiser Chiefs man Majoro and it all started happening for the Bafana Bafana, first Majoro tested Daouda kassalli, and then Claasens had another effort saved. South Africa got a goal back as Claasens set up Jali who beat two players before slotting home on 79 minutes, South Africa continued to press and Niger were content with setting up a perimeter around their defence. Claasens had a legitimate penalty call in added time but was instead booked for simulation. The game ended on a sour note as players of Bafana Bafana remonstrated with the Referee over management of the added time, someone from the Niger camp dressed in casuals pushed and shoved a South African official and then the fans invaded the Pitch, the security did a good job of escorting the South African team to their dressing and cordoned off the area where South African Journalist, Supporters and officials were, i have never witnessed such a massive influx of spectators unto the pitch, it was a bit scary, but we managed to get out of the stadium back to the hotel
Crowd trouble at the end of the game
I got to speak with Coach Pitso after the game and he was philosophical in defeat
“we played a good game “he said “we were slow off the blocks and they got their goals through elementary mistakes by our defence, , I wasn’t worried after the first goal, but the second goal early in the second half hit us, I was still optimistic were could get back in the game, we kept pressing after the goal, but unfortunately we could not get a second goal we piled pressure and played better, but didn’t take our chances, the pitch was bumpy that was why Masilela missed the clearance that lead to the second goal, we will now go back and prepare for the next game “ he ended.
The players had to go and refresh to be ready for the return flight back to South Africa, we bantered a bit at the hotel lobby, discussed issues related to African football and finally bade farewell to each other.

With SA goalscorer Andile Jali
As I packed my bags for the journey back home, I could not help but say the experience was an eye opener, Niger is not the most popular football destinations, but I saw something new I had not seen in other places, their simplicity and love for football bellies the issues the country is known for, the people are nice despite the pitch invasion, their tea was something else, very tasty and sugary at the same time, I got to taste new menus I hadn’t seen before and met some really wonderful people who helped during my stay in Niamey. My taxi driver and guide Yacouba Daouda taught me a lot about the culture and administration of the Capital city, will I want to go back? Yes, a definite yes.



4 comments:

  1. The most Challenging football game i'v had to cover, interesting yet tiring

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am not a night person per se (same with me) -----> My respect for you just went up a notch sir.

    Great report, really Interesting, learnt a couple of things too. Good job on this blog too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks @osesax, just getting back on the beat after a six year absence, my Cameroun experience will come up soon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Let's have the Cameroon experience already. Looking forward to it sir. Just bookmarked this blog so I will be checking it regularly for new blog posts.

      Delete