African Cup struggles hamper push for WCup spots
African football's call for more places at the World Cup was undermined on Friday as African Cup organizers again conceded to a number of struggles with their troublesome tournament.
Problems on the eve of the cup ranged from high numbers of unsold tickets and a humble projected profit for organizers, down to a shortage of desks for reporters at the tournament-opening game on Saturday at Soccer City - a venue that hosted the last World Cup final, football's biggest game, without any problems.
The setbacks put comments by the Cameroon and Ghana federation presidents that African football deserved more respect in perspective.
Confederation of African Football secretary general Hicham El Amrani said it was ''satisfied'' with South Africa's overall preparations for the African Cup, but said CAF and its flagship tournament were still ''very very far away'' from UEFA and its European Championship.
''We have different realities and different environments (in Africa),'' El Amrani said.
Despite that, Cameroon Football Federation president Mohammed Iya said earlier Friday that African football leaders were ''convinced we deserve more'' than the five places at the World Cup in Russia in 2018, and picked out Europe as the confederation that should give up spots.
''Europe has 14. I'm very sure that half of those teams are at the same level as African teams,'' Iya said.
Although Africa has undoubtedly made progress on the pitch since Tunisia was the first team to win a World Cup game in 1978, its lasting impact on the world showpiece has been limited.
After Pele's prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000, no African team has ever made the last four, and only three teams have made the quarterfinals in the 80 years of the World Cup: Cameroon, Senegal and, most recently, Ghana in South Africa three years ago.
More than that, the African Cup continues to underperform financially and as a marketing exercise for African football, giving FIFA little reason to increase Africa's allocation at the World Cup.
Although 2010 World Cup host South Africa surpassed its target of selling 500,000 tickets for the African Cup and reached just over 560,000 on the eve of the tournament on Friday, according to organizers, there were still nearly 300,000 tickets unsold - nearly 30 percent.
And while South Africa was given little time to prepare after the African Cup was moved from Libya at short notice, half empty stadiums would still hurt African football's reputation, whatever the reason.
At the African Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, some games not involving the co-hosts had as little as a few thousand fans watching.
''It's always a subject that comes back on the table,'' El Amrani said of the unsold tickets. ''We quite often have empty stadiums, or not quite full up. But comparisons to the World Cup are unfair because there are different demands for a tournament of this size.''
Likewise, CAF's projections of revenue of around $10 million for the 2013 tournament would do little to force FIFA to take notice of the advantage of having more African teams in the World Cup. FIFA's revenue from the World Cup runs into the billions.
Mvuzo Mbebe, the chief executive of the local organizing committee for the African Cup, became clearly frustrated at the end of the pre-tournament news conference as reporters criticized the ticket sales.
''It's a frustration sometimes,'' Mbebe said, pointing out Saturday's opening game between South Africa and Cape Verde was sold out at the near 90,000-capacity Soccer City in Johannesburg. ''We are doing our utmost best. We know there will always be hitches and glitches when hosting a tournament of this nature.''
The Feb. 10 final was also already halfway to being sold out with 45,000 tickets moved, Mbebe said.
There were real worries, however, for the more faraway venues in Port Elizabeth on the south coast, and Nelspruit in the north east. Those stadiums were less than 50 percent full for many games, the LOC said.
There was some good news, with El Amrani noting the television viewing figures had increased by over 200 percent between the 2010 and 2012 tournaments, hinting the African Cup had the potential to grow into a more commercially significant tournament in world football.
And on the pitch and within the teams, there continued to be fascinating stories that maybe only African football could provide.
On Saturday, the team from the tiny island nation of Cape Verde will make its debut at a major tournament in the opening game against South Africa, Didier Drogba's superstar-filled Ivory Coast will resume its desperate search for a first title in 20 years, and Ethiopia will make an emotional return to the tournament it helped create after a 31-year absence.
''Come tomorrow, the whole of the continent is going to be proud of what we have,'' Mbebe said. ''And afterward I'm sure we'll sit down all of us and say: `Wow, this was a different Cup of Nations.''
Follow Gerald Imray at: http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP