Football defying the odds in the CAR

At first sight, all seems to be well with Central African Republic.  Newly returned to the top 100 of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Les Fauves (The Wild Beasts) also scored a historic win away to mighty Egypt in a 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier earlier this month.

Nevertheless, the day-to-day realities of life in the country pose many a problem for its footballers, as FIFA.com reports.

Beneath the towering trees of the Central African Republic’s rainforest, in the outskirts of Mbaiki, about an hour by road from Bangui, there lies a football pitch. To the locals it is more than just a pitch, it is a “stadium”.

To local eyes it is one of the better pitches around, yet running through it is a path used by livestock and people alike, while one part of the playing surface is bare ochre-coloured earth and the rest is dotted with patchy tufts of grass. Such is its condition that controlling a ball on it would be nothing short of a miracle.

And yet despite its inadequate state, the players of Les Viperes and Les Finances, who are facing each other in a match in the local Ligue de la Lobaye, still manage to bring the ball under control, dribble, swerve and feint past their opponents. Reacting intuitively to the inevitably unpredictable bounce of the ball, these talented young improvisers are the pulsing lifeblood of the game in the CAR.

“The Ligue de la Lobaye is made up of seven teams and seven referees, four of them trained locally and three by FIFA,” explained the league’s president Jean Kongola.

The competition forms part of Mbaiki’s regional league, which features 118 teams competing in sub-leagues. “We play from February to July,” continued Kongola. “We start after the rainy season, and it’s a bit of a rush to get things finished because the players all go away in July.”

There is, as it turns out, a perfectly reasonable explanation for their sudden disappearance: “It’s the caterpillar hunt. They appear at that time of year and all the players live in the forest to gather them. It’s a source of food and income here.”

Essential infrastructures
“If you make a pitch here without any fencing or protection, it gets destroyed within two days.” The words are those of the President of the Central African Republic Football Association (FCF), Patrice Ngaissona, and the subject of his frustration is not the lack of resources in one of the local leagues but the facilities at the FCF’s national football academy, near Bangui.

“I’ve got to welcome my national teams here. This is where they have to train,” he added. “Everything and everyone walks over here: bullocks, sheep, people, you name it. A simple fence, paid for by FIFA, is a big thing for us.”

Such basic necessities have to be funded by FIFA because the FCF does not have the means to pay for them itself. Aside from FIFA’s Financial Assistance Programme (FAP), the government is its sole source of income, as Ngaissona explained: “Obviously there are other priorities than football here. We don’t have a sponsor for the national team and we don’t even have a partnership in place with a kit manufacturer.”

Such is the shortage of funding that the money for the national teams’ kits, and for the strips worn by the leading men’s and women’s clubs, comes from Ngaissona’s own pocket.

“The only support football gets here comes from FIFA and individuals who do what they can to help the game develop,” commented Jean-Marie Dickeis, a member of the FCF’s Executive Committee and the chairman of its Women’s Football Committee. “We’ve got former players who want to coach, but they need to be trained first. And even then, there are no training cones, no balls, nothing to help you bring your club to life. Coaches have to buy everything themselves.”

There is a similar story to be heard at the FCF’s headquarters: “In some offices you won’t find any resources or equipment,” revealed Ngaissona. “There are no computers and no internet, which means you have to use paper. There’s no running water in this building and sometimes no electricity either, and the rain gets in too.”

Built with money provided by FIFA through its Goal programme and opened in 2005, the building has suffered both from the weather and the financial difficulties that beset the FCF, prevented as it is from devoting money to the upkeep of past investments by its long-standing debt problems.

I’ve got to welcome my national teams here. This is where they have to train. Everything and everyone walks over here: bullocks, sheep, people, you name it.
President of the Central African Republic Football Association, Patrice Ngaissona, on the challenges facing CAR

“The windfall we received from the FAP in 2010/11 came in very handy for us,” he smiled. “But we gave the regional leagues priority. With the resources we have we can’t do everything. We have to make choices in order to move forward, and with the new Goal project, we’ll be able to do that.”

Figuring high among the FCF’s priorities is women’s football. The national first division 1 has a fixed calendar, kits and referees, with some of its female officials even taking charge of men’s games. And though resources may be lacking, the same cannot be said of the desire to develop the game.

“I started to play football when I was 14, with the boys,” said Tatiana Yangueko, the vice-chairwoman of the Women’s Football Committee. “My adoptive father’s two boys both played and I wanted to be like them, even though my adoptive mother said it wasn’t something a girl should do.

“We used to play in our bare feet,” she went on. “Women’s teams were relegated to the fringes and there was no organisation. But we’ve got a championship up and running now and you know who the teams are and where they’re going to play.”

A sports journalist by trade, Yangueko took part in FIFA/AFP training courses in 2010, organised as part of FIFA’s Win in Africa with Africa programme.

“Our girls are just as good as Marta, but no-one sees that,” added a member of the FCF. As if to prove the point, one of the coaches in a match between Les Colombes and Les Amazones, played on a blaze pitch in Bangui, tries to attract the attention of a defensive midfielder by shouting, “Gattuso! Gattuso!”, while one of the team’s attacking midfielders goes by the name, during the game at least, of Cristiano.

Not far from there is another sign of football’s popularity in the CAR, with a second division match in the Bangui league taking place on an artificial pitch at the Stade Barthelemy Boganda. Funded by FIFA and Win in Africa with Africa, the pitch hosts two games a day from Tuesdays through to Sundays, in all divisions in the Bangui league.

A homecoming fit for heroes
The heat of Bangui is stifling. There are few cars to be seen on the roads, which in reality are little more than forest tracks. There is poverty everywhere you look, though the hardships of life did not prevent the locals from flocking to Bangui’s international airport a week last Sunday to welcome the national team back from Alexandria, where they had just defeated Egypt 3-2 in the first leg of their first-round 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying tie.

People are rightly proud of Les Fauves, though the team still has to finish the job off in the return leg, to be played in Bangui this Saturday. The fact remains, however, that just getting into that position is an achievement in itself for Herve Loungoundji’s side.

“It’s so much more difficult for minnows like us,” said Ngaissona. Perhaps fearful that the second leg may not go according to plan, he is refusing to get carried away. The stakes are high as well. Never before has the CAR qualified for the finals of a major international competition, a goal they are just three games away from achieving.

Loungoundji’s young side is a mixed bunch. Some of his players ply their trade in the French and English second and third divisions, while others can be seen in some of Africa’s major leagues, playing for sides of the calibre of Morocco's Raja Casablanca, or run out in the CAR’s first division.

The side’s recent and much-celebrated triumphs have come despite those differences in status, and together Les Fauves have given their proud fans something they are very grateful for: the chance to forget, just for a little while at least, the hardships of everyday life in the Central African Republic.