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A night with the African stars

Tuesday January 22 — Lawson Naidoo

Arriving in Sekondi after a fascinating yet arduous road trip from the capital, Accra, I am bewildered by the sight of the brand-spanking-new Sekondi Sports Stadium. It is an oasis in the desert that is Sekondi. The stadium resembles a space ship dropped in the middle of nowhere. Built by Chinese contractors and imported Chinese labourers, this 20 000-seater stadium is impressive.

Sekondi is joined at the hip by its Siamese twin town, Takoradi, the enchanting beach resort on this stretch of the Cape coast. Joined they may be, yet they are vastly different. Sekondi looks about as interesting as Secunda, while Takoradi holds the promise of undiscovered treasures like the Wild Coast.

The Mighty Elephants edged out the match 1-0 over the Super Eagles with a special goal by Chelsea’s Solomon Kalou after a great run and dribble through the static Nigerian defence midway through the second half.

Accompanied by “Mama T”, the disarmingly charming woman from Nike who looks after its sponsored African (and East European) players, I head for the team hotels after the game so Mama T can check that her players are happy — these players are based across Europe and this is a wonderful opportunity for her to see them all in one country, at least.

The Nigerian team hotel is marshalled and patrolled by the Ghanaian police, security personnel and officials from the Nigerian Football Association. All visitors are screened at the gate and very few get through. The Nigerian team have secured the whole hotel and the players express their gratitude for the peace and quiet this affords them: no bustling fans, autograph hunters and ravenous media to disturb their tranquil surrounds here. It takes a call to the coach of the Nigerian Under-23 team, with the exquisite nickname “World Cup” — to which he hopes to add the moniker “Olympic” if his charges defeat South Africa in Abuja in March — to get us into the hotel.

Once inside, players appear from all corners of the hotel to greet and embrace Mama T. We are soon sitting around with Yakubu, Taye Taiwo, Yobo, Mikel Obi, Ejide and Odemwingie (who was born in Uzbekistan). They are delighted to see Mama T, but the mood is flat and after a while the tension in the camp comes to the fore — the senior players are not happy with some of the team selections. They lament the tinkering with the team and contrast it with the settled look of the Mighty Elephants. They also feel neglected by their fans and talk of having played an “away” game against the Ivorians, yet Sekondi is closer to Nigeria than Côte d’Ivoire. The Ivorian fans certainly outnumbered their opponents in the stadium in numbers and in decibels.

A prayer meeting gets under way within earshot and Odemwingie excuses himself to join the prayers. Meanwhile, Bertie Vogts and his team of technical advisers sit in the restaurant deep in discussions.

The players talk of regrouping, winning their remaining group games and advancing to the next round, but their confidence and swagger has been severely dented by this defeat. After the game the Nigerian fans who arrogantly predicted that Nigeria were in town to take the Cup “home” were despondent to the extent of giving up on their team making it past Mali and Benin.

It is easier to gain access to the Ivorian hotel. It is much later now and most players are in their rooms, but word gets round that Mama T is here. The imposing figure of Didier Drogba appears after a while — it is his first meeting with Mama T. She usually deals with him via his agent.

He is a gentle and humble soul to whom playing in the showpiece event of African football means so much. He is passionate about playing at “home” and becomes embarrassed when told that our film crew earlier travelled on a bus from the Ivorian border with fans from his village who said they were on the way to “see their son play”.

He was very pumped up during the game and it has not all worn off yet, but it is now blended with the exhilaration of having dealt a body blow to their big enemy. Asked about the prospect of playing alongside Nicholas Anelka at Chelsea, Drogba responds warmly, saying that he knows him well and he is looking forward to creating a partnership with him that will terrorise English and European defences. So is Drogba set to stay at Chelsea?

As we leave he cautions us to be safe on the road as we prepare for the four-hour trek back to Accra. A night with the stars almost ends in a night under the stars as we nearly run out of fuel on the way back!

In victory and defeat, both teams demonstrated how much this tournament means to them — they may be huge stars in Europe but their heart is at “home” in Africa. They are playing for their villagers, their teams, their nations, but most of all they are playing for Africa.