Sports Nut

Africa’s Soccer Impostors

The bizarre, sad tale of Togo’s fake national team.

Football players claiming to represent Togo

Last month, impostors pretending to be Togo’s national soccer team traveled 3,500 miles from West Africa to the Persian Gulf, where they played a match against the national team of Bahrain. Bahrain won easily, 3-0, which was unusual enough for Bahrain that it made the team suspicious—Josef Hickersberger, Bahrain’s Austrian coach, noted in surprise that the Togo players “were not fit enough to play 90 minutes.” When word of the match traveled back to Africa, the Togolese soccer authorities were shocked. “The players who took part in the friendly against Bahrain were completely fake,”thundered Gen. Seyi Memene, the president of Togo’s soccer federation. “We have not sent any team of footballers to Bahrain.”

Togo, which occupies a sliver of land between Ghana and Benin on the Gulf of Guinea, is a soccer-loving country, and the news that a mysterious group of easily winded players had impersonated the national team provoked a public outcry. Investigations were launched, and the nation’s sports minister muttered to the press about “shadowy handlers” and “mafia groups.” After what must have been a grueling piece of detective work, the investigators pinned their suspicions on Tchanile Bana, a former national-team coach who had recently been suspended for taking another fake team to a tournament in Egypt. Bana confessed, apologized, was banned from the game for three years, and insisted—maybe a little too fervently—that he had acted alone.

In the United States, Bana’s misadventure caused a minor ripple of amusement, then disappeared as soon as the next prostitute-soliciting high-school football coach rolled into view. In Togo, however, this bizarre story has continued to dominate the public’s attention. Over the past few weeks, it has gone beyond a simple case of mistaken identity to include layers of conspiracy, fraud, corruption, political instability, and horrific violence. The fake team that played in Bahrain, then, can be seen as a stand-in for all the difficulties that face African soccer, where sports and political instability are often juxtaposed and where day-to-day reality can be starkly different from the cheerful picture painted during this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.

To understand the situation in Togo, you have to go back to the afternoon of Jan. 8, 2010, when the national team—the real one—traveled by bus into Angola’s Cabinda province, the site of its first match in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament. The game never should have been held in Cabinda, an oil-rich region with a long history of violent secessionist conflict. The decision to stage part of the Cup of Nations there was widely seen as a move by the Angolan government to reassure oil companies that it was fully in control of the province.

It didn’t work. As the Togo team’s bus crossed into Cabinda, armed soldiers from a separatist sect opened fire, killing the driver and two staff members and wounding several players. The team’s French manager, Herbert Velud, was shot in the arm. For around half an hour, the rebels fired on the bus with machine guns and fought with the team’s Angolan security force while the players crawled under the seats. After the attack—which the Angolan government used as an excuse to crack down on human rights activists—Togo withdrew its team from the Cup of Nations. Incredibly, this withdrawal led Togo to be banned from competing in the next two tournaments. The ban was later rescinded, but not before Emanuel Adebayor, Togo’s star striker, retired from international soccer, saying that he was “haunted” by what had happened in Cabinda.

Long before the bus shooting, Togo had one of the most dysfunctional soccer cultures in the world, one marked by a range of scandals and tragedies that extended from World Cup labor disputes to helicopter crashes. Only a month before the attack, FIFA had disbanded the country’s soccer council, which was headed by the brother of Togo’s semi-dictatorial president, and installed an interim committee led by Gen. Memene. The interim committee was supposed to be replaced by a permanent federation this July, but—partly due to the chaos that followed the Cabinda attack—its mandate was extended by three months, with new elections scheduled for October.

Flash forward to the fake team that played against Bahrain. Despite Tchanile Bana’s insistence that he was the scam’s lone mastermind, it was obvious he had help—the Bahraini authorities had received correspondence and paperwork directly from the interim committee. The sublimely named Antoine Folly, a member of the interim committee, was livid with rage. “I feel hurt, profoundly shocked by this criminal behavior,” he seethed. “All light must be shed on this matter to unmask and sanction any accomplices [Bana] may have at the heart of the federation.” A few days later, Folly was arrested for his alleged role in the fraud. He was joined in prison by the soccer federation’s secretary—who also happens to be the brother-in-law of Gen. Memene.

In other words, the machinations of a crooked regime in Angola led to a fearsome attack on the Togo national team, which in turn preserved the power of a group of conspirators who perpetrated the fraud of the bogus national team. (Their motive appears to have been money; estimatesof the payoff vary, but at least $60,000 was fronted for the team’s expenses by the controversial Singaporean agent Wilson Perumal.) Corruption leads to violence; violence leads to corruption. There’s nothing distinctively African about that pattern—it repeats wherever a wildly popular sport and dirty politics are placed too tantalizingly in one another’s way. But because the superstructure of the game is still fragile in Africa, and the political corruption often very deep-seated, it’s a story that seems to occur on the continent with depressing frequency.

Zimbabwe, whose soccer-federation head was arrested for match-fixing in August, sent a fake team to play a friendly against Malaysia in 2009. In South Africa, an official who revealed corruption in the handling of World Cup construction contracts was fired from his job, then murdered. Illegal soccer academies in Ghana lure young players with the promise of tryouts at top European clubs, then take their money and abandon them in Paris or Milan. FIFA, which is deeply committed to an image of African football as a thriving and vibrant industry, tends to downplay or ignore stories like these. African fans and journalists, too, sometimes feel that dwelling on these grim tales diminishes accomplishments—hosting a successful World Cup, producing some of the best players on earth—that ought to be celebrated.

From an outside perspective, though, a queasy feeling descends when you realize how much is hidden behind FIFA’s patronizing insistence on an Africa where happy soccer fans have “shown themselves and the whole world that they are capable of achieving things,” as Sepp Blatter gushed after the World Cup. Every twist in every account of Togo’s fake national team seems to open onto another, more troubling possibility. For instance: Antoine Folly, the jailed co-conspirator, has served as the secretary general of an opposition political party, the Union des Démocrates Socialistes du Togo. Is he being punished by the regime for reasons that have nothing to do with soccer? It’s impossible to say. The cameras keep showing cheering fans and sunlit stadiums, the Western media keeps up its stream of stories about the comic and the bizarre, and the people in charge keep their own secrets. The rest of us are left to wonder whether we’re dealing not only with counterfeit players but also with counterfeit truths.

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