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Rise of Africa in World Cup threatened by disarray

November 26, 1997

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ This is supposed to be a glorious era for African soccer.

Through decades of disaster and misery, of coups and disease and famine, soccer has been the major success and spirit-raising force on a continent that worships the sport.

Nigeria won the Olympic gold medal last year and for the first time, five African nations _ Cameroon, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia _ have qualified for the World Cup. Scores of African players fill foreign teams, with stars such as George Weah and Tony Yeboah as well-known in Europe as at home.

But the disarray that has marked Africa’s emergence from colonialism continues and could undermine the performances of some of its top teams at the world soccer showcase in France next summer.

``True collaboration does not exist again, and each of my decisions is contested, if not rejected,″ Cameroon coach Henri Depireux wrote in his resignation letter last June.

Nigeria, which advanced to the second round in 1994 during its first World Cup appearance, will miss the African Nations Cup for the second straight time. In 1996, Nigeria’s government boycotted the tournament in South Africa because of a political dispute. As a result, the Nigerians were suspended for February’s tournament in Burkina Faso.

Memories of the street celebrations and bonuses paid players after they won the Olympic gold last year have faded in the repeated disputes between government and soccer officials over money and control.

``I am very disappointed,″ said Navy Gen. Augustus Aikhomu, a soccer buff. ``At the rate we are going, I have my fears that we will not do well in France.″

Emmanuel Amunike, who scored the winning goal against Argentina in the Olympics final, tore knee ligaments earlier this month and may miss the tournament. Nwankwo Kanu, 21, is just starting to play following surgery last year to correct a defective heart valve.

And Nigeria has been without a coach since Phillipe Troussier was fired in September, forcing the team to cancel exhibition games.

``We do not want to hurry into recruiting a coach,″ said Abdulmuminu Aminu, chairman of the Nigerian Soccer Federation. ``We need more time.″

Nigeria has formidable talent, much of it performing in top European leagues. Victor Ikpeba plays for AS Monaco, while Finidi George is with Real Betis in Spain and goalkeeper Abiodun Baruwa with FC Zurich in Switzerland.

Sunday Oliseh and Tijani Babangida are regulars with the Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam, and Celestine Babayaro plays for Chelsea in England’s Premier League. Daniel Amokachi and John Okocha are in the Turkish league.

Cameroon, which in 1990 became the only African side to reach the World Cup quarterfinals, also has a confused coaching situation. The government and sports officials aren’t on the best of terms, either.

In 1994, players threatened not to take the field for a World Cup game unless they were paid. The team went 0-2-1 and finished last in its group.

Since Depireux’s departure as coach, the Indomitable Lions have had four men sharing the coaching duties.

``I only hope that the administration will take its turn so that we don’t witness the sad experiences″ of 1994, retired captain Roger Milla said.

South Africa, banned from soccer from 1964-1992 because of apartheid, qualified for the first time and is led by defenders Mark Fish and Lucas Radebe and forward Phil Masinga. The South Africans also won the ’96 African Nations Cup but have yet to win on another continent, losing 2-1 at England and at France and 3-0 at Germany in exhibition games.

``We must realize it will be difficult, but we must be careful that we do not put ourselves under unnecessary pressure,″ Masinga said. ``As long as we know what we want to achieve, we should start now to put those objectives in place. People will be critical, but it is important we stay focused.″

Tunisia, which lost 2-0 to South Africa in the African Nations Cup final last year, is led by flamboyant goalkeeper Chokri el Ouaer and makes its second appearance. It failed to get past the first round in 1978.

Led by former France coach Henri Michel, Morocco has qualified for a fourth time. It reached the second round in Mexico in 1986, winning its group, but lost to West Germany in the second round.

End Adv for weekend editions, Nov. 29-30

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