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Why So Late?

There's something that's been gnawing at me for some time now. So, excuse me if I use this forum as an exorcism of sorts aimed at ridding myself of this annoyance once and for all. Here goes: why does Africa wait so long to name its annual footballer of the year? There, I've said what might seem like a trivial matter to some of you. But I can assure you it's a major irritant to me.

What's that you say? The timing of the announcement is no big deal. I couldn't disagree more. Carrying that argument to its illogical conclusion, why then doesn't the Confederation of African Football, CAF, make the announcement in July, August or even November of the following year if the timing is not important?

In my opinion, CAF has always been guilty of being a bit tardy in making this annual announcement. Maybe it's trying to build up the suspense! But, let's face it, April 30th is rather overdoing it, wouldn't you say? I know there were what CAF is calling "extenuating" circumstances. But could any of them have been that pressing so as to complicate what should have been a rather cut and dry and controversy-free process? My answer would have to be a resounding NO! But, then again, I'm not a CAF member privy to insider information.

All I know is that if CAF had stuck with its original schedule of naming the previous year's African Footballer of the Year before this year's Cup of Nations tournament got underway in Tunisia it could have saved itself a lot of aggravation, if not controversy. Sure the balloting had been conducted long before the first ball was struck in anger in Tunisia. And that's all well and good. After all, the voting was for performances in 2003 and 2003 alone. But as misfortune would have it, waiting until long after the Cup of Nations tournament to name Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o Fils the winner for 2003 proved a public relations disaster. Wait a minute. This is not to say I think Eto'o wasn't the deserved winner. He most certainly was the cream of the African crop for 2003, based primarily on his scintillating play in last year's Confederations Cup in France. In fact, Eto'o's play almost single handedly carried the Indomitable Lions to the championship. And if it weren't for a golden "sudden death" goal by Henri Thierry it may well have been Cameroon, rather than France, earning the extra special title, given the tragic death of captain Marc-Vivien Foe in the semi-final victory over Colombia.

And that performance by Eto'o, plus his non-pareil play for his Spanish club, Real Mallorca, made him the voters' resounding choice. So well done, Samuel. However, the unnecessary controversy was allowed to brew and stew when second place vote getter, Nigeria's Augustine "Jay Jay" Okocha, outplayed Eto'o in the Cup of Nations so thoroughly that the Bolton Wanderers' star scooped up almost every one of the tournament's major offensive awards in the process. Hey, you say, Okocha's outstanding play at the Cup of Nations shouldn't have any bearing whatsoever on the 2003 Africa Footballer of the Year award. You certainly won't get any argument out of me. In fact, I totally agree with you. But try telling that to the throngs of Okocha fans who showed their loyalty, but a total lack of knowledge of the clear cut rules, by nonetheless crying foul when Eto'o was named the 2003 winner of the prestigious award. I can hear the CAF officials in Cairo right now. They're totally justified in saying that they can't be held accountable to those fans, no matter how many who just don't understand the rules. But my point is why put yourself in that ticklish situation when it could have been so easily avoided? All you have to do, for goodness sakes, is to announce the award before the Cup of Nations tournament. End of story, no muss, no fuss!

Just to make sure I wasn't guilty of over reacting to what I consider CAF’s gross tardiness in this matter, I double-checked when some other similar continental awards were doled out. I was not surprised. The European Footballer of the Year award was handed out in December 2003, as was FIFA's World Player of the year honor. In fact, France's Zidane won the most coveted award for the third time on December 14th to be exact. And 2003's Asian Footballer of the Year award to Iran's Mehdi Mahdavikia came even earlier -- December 10th. So the question begging to be answered is if other confederations can get their act together and make these announcements in a timely fashion then why can't Africa? After all, doesn't it make sense to hand out such awards in the same calendar year as the honor was earned? That works for me.

All right, if you can't or won't buy that, for goodness sakes don't, for whatever reason, make a needless rod for your back by waiting until after your most prestigious tournament to do so. Isn't that just inviting potential trouble and controversy? And apparently there are many influential African football officials that agree with Da Ole Sports Emperor. One of these officials is Nigeria's Paul Bassey, who's a member of CAF's Media Committee. Mr. Bassey went on record as stating what I think is the obvious. He said that this year's Cup of Nations tournament in Tunisia should in no way affect the results of the 2003 African Player of the Year award since it fell in 2004. Well said, Mr. Bassey. It's just a shame that the point even had to be voiced in the first place. It seems no axiomatic.

Clearly, football, in general, and African football, in particular, has much bigger fish to fry without needlessly creating a problem that could be eliminated with just a modicum of common sense. Yes, Jay Jay Okocha had a wonderful Cup of Nations tournament and clearly warranted the plethora of hardware he carted off as a result. And if he continues that scintillating play the rest of 2004 he has to be the odds on favorite to win this year's version of the award. But there's still more football to be played so I'm sure Jay Jay would caution us not to get ahead of ourselves in that regard.

I hope I've made it perfectly clear my argument is not about who won the award. Rather, I see CAF's mishandling of the timing of honoring an African player as tarnishing the image of the continent. And that's the last thing fans of African football should tolerate, especially when it can so easily be avoided.