Back in 2002 Mali was a backwater of African football and, as the fifth poorest country in the world according to the most recent UN survey, seemed a strange choice to host the African Cup of Nations. I arrived for my first Cup of Nations wondering how on earth the expenditure of US$60million (Dh220m) on stadiums and other infrastructure could be justified when so much of the country was illiterate and subsisted on a handful of rice and some spring onions each day. When the president, Alpha Oumar Konare, waddled out on to the pitch after the opening ceremony to take a ceremonial kick-off, it was all too easy to roll the eyes and see another African leader plunging his country into debt in order to bolster his ego.
And yet even at that opening ceremony, the first shafts of justification began to break through. The stadium was packed, the atmosphere joyous; fans outside the stadium clung to a rock a couple of hundred metres away from which they could peer over one of the stands and see half the pitch. A couple of days later the mayor of Sikasso, a city on Mali's southern border, gave an address on the radio in which he admitted that accidents had more than trebled in the previous week on the stretch of new road where the town's first traffic lights had been installed. Then he explained how the traffic lights should be used - red for stop; green for go - and admitted that he was probably at fault for not having ensured those basics were well known before turning them on. Again, it was hard not to wonder whether the expenditure was really worth it.
But then, at the end of the tournament's first week, Mali held Nigeria to a goalless draw, which was arguably the best result they had achieved since reaching the final of the competition in 1972. Fans gathered on the roads, many riding their scooters with the silencers removed, dragging the lids of petrol cans on the ground to send up showers of sparks; others dancing. Four people died when travelling on the roof of a mini-bus which overturned, but even that just seemed to be taken as proof of the level of excitement. One elderly man I spoke to said it was the best night Bamako had known since independence 42 years before. And that was the moment at which I was won over. Perhaps $60m would have meant a few extra grains of rice per person per day if invested differently, but the impression I got from most locals was that they would happily sacrifice that - and as everybody knows, the chances of the money actually reaching those who needed it most are minimal - for a three-week long festival celebrating their country. Some things transcend the utilitarian assessment of the bean-counters.
And that is without taking into account the knock-on benefits. The World Travel and Tourism Council reported that over the decade Mali is the 87th fastest growing tourist destination in the world, which might not sound like much, but given it lies 151st in the overall list, it is improving. Growth is predicted to continue at 4.8per cent per year over the next decade, so that by 2019 it will be contributing $829.7m a year to national GDP. It is impossible to say how much the football has helped that figure, but attracting a few hundred European visitors, many of them journalists, who then go home and tell their friends and family - or their readers or viewers - how much they enjoyed Mali, cannot have hurt. Add in the economic benefits of five stadiums, and improved road and air links, and $60m suddenly doesn't look that much.
Football in Mali has improved since then as well. They reached the semi-finals in 2002 and although they haven't reached such heights since, players such as Lassana Diarra, Mahamadou Diarra, Momo Sissoko, Seydou Keita and Fredi Kanoute are established at top sides in England, Spain and Italy. All have spoken at various times of the boost in profile and confidence Malian football received in the aftermath of hosting the tournament.
Angola, which hosts the first match of the 16-team 2010 tournament tomorrow, hopes for similar benefits. "Angola is being paid back," said Fabrice Akwa, the former Angola captain whose goals helped them qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Back then he stressed again and again the importance of letting the world know that Angola "is not just about war, oil and poverty", and he sees this tournament as another step along the same road to Angola's emergence into the world. "The hosting of the tournament has led to a drastic development of infrastructure, construction of hotels, expanded telecommunications and more significantly it will enhance tourism," he said. "This is the best opportunity to showcase Angola to the rest of the world as well as interact and exchange ideas and culture with people from various backgrounds."
Economics and development are only part of it. The African Cup of Nations is different to other tournaments, a world away from the tightly regulated corporate atmosphere than can infect the World Cup or the European Championship. To speak of the colour of the tournament seems almost patronising, but the truth is that fans at the tournament are more diverse and less self-conscious than anywhere else. There are the Nigerians with their brass band; Ali, the Tunisian in the fez with his lute and his slapstick routine; the Ghanaians with the hot coals carried on their heads in colanders; the Guinean who slits the throats of guinea fowl for luck before each game; various witch doctors, some of them genuine, many just dressed up; and drummers from everywhere. Players are not removed from the rest of the world in luxury hotels behind layers and layers of security, but are accessible to fans and journalists. There is a distinctive Africanness to the whole event.
That is as it should be, for the tournament was established with the specific aim of striking a blow for African football. When the Confederation of African Football (CAF) set up the tournament in 1957, it was a noble enterprise, a response to what they saw as Fifa's refusal to acknowledge the progression made by African football around the middle of the last century. It was after African sides decided to boycott the 1966 World Cup in protest at Fifa offering them only one of the 16 available qualifying places that the tournament really took off, with 22 sides entering the 1968 tournament. It is that history, existing almost as an alternative to the World Cup rather than in parallel to it, that has led to the tournament being played on a bi-annual basis, rather than every four years like most other confederational championships.
Those who would prefer the tournament to be shifted so as not to clash with the western European season are doomed to be defeated by the African climate, but there are voices in Africa that acknowledge the tournament's prestige may be enhanced by halving its frequency - and the decision to use the World Cup qualifiers as qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations is a step towards an accommodation with the major thrust of European opinion. That, though, will not happen in the near future, with Equatorial Guinea and Gabon already slated to co-host the tournament in 2012 and Libya in 2014.
Given their 27-year civil war only came to an end in 2002 - and in Cabinda, the exclave in Congo that will host the group including the Ivory Coast and Ghana, not till 2006 - Angola is at least as strange a choice to host the tournament as Mali was. But then a major tournament is not there merely to determine the best team or even to provide a spectacle that celebrates the football of the region from which its teams are drawn; it is also intended to leave a legacy in the host nation. Around $100m has been spent on building stadiums in the four major cities - one of 50,000 capacity in the capital Luanda, one of 35,000 in Benguela, and 20,000 each in Cabinda and Lubango, while some estimates of the total investment in infrastructure approach $1bn.
"A lot of benefits will come our way through the hosting of the tournament," said the director of the local organising committee, Antonio Mangueira. "Firstly, it is an opportunity to showcase Angola to rest of the world and also enhance development in the country. As a prelude to the World Cup in South Africa, we will also portray that Africa can organise big events by staging a successful tournament. The tournament has also led to the development of infrastructure with the construction of four new world-class stadia and renovation of 13 others. Through the tournament, we are also sending a message to all that Angola is a nice country, the war is over and we are united. It is also an opportunity to recover our pride."
For Angola, the tournament is largely about PR and social benefits. Economically they are not so in need of a boost as, say, Mali, with growth for 2010 predicted to exceed eight per cent, despite the downturn in the market for its two key exports, oil and diamonds. "The cup will increase the passion for sport," said the minister of youth and sports, Goncalves Muandumba. "And that will increase a sense of social inclusion. We must strengthen patriotic education and a sense of citizenship and the Cup can help us fight poverty and famine."
Those are real enough issues - around 75 per cent of Angola's estimated 18million population lives on under $2 per day, while a third are classed as illiterate - but if the $6bn annual income from oil, or indeed the billions extended by China or the recent $1.5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund, itself a sign of Angola's growing financial credibility, has not been enough to alleviate the problems, it is hard to see why football should be any more successful at directing revenues to the masses rather than into the pockets of a wealthy few.
Inevitably there have been problems in preparation. The stadiums were only completed in December, which led to rumours that the tournament might at the last be switched to South Africa. Accommodation, particularly in Luanda, is hard to come by, and shockingly expensive and that, allied to the global economic downturn, seems to have dampened the appetite of many potential foreign visitors. Nobody is sure how many came from abroad to watch the tournament in Ghana two years ago - the official estimate of a million was laughably overblown, but 40-50,000 was certainly possible; this time the estimated influx is only 8,000. In Ghana there were around 2,000 foreign journalists; this time it would be a surprise if there were many more than half that. Many have been put off by visa complications, with Byzantine bureaucracy made yet more tortuous by CAF's absurd tardiness in issuing accreditations. Not for the first time, the thought occurs that African football deserves rather better than CAF, and that the Cup has rather outgrown its inefficient governance. It is too easy simply to shrug and blame local infrastructure for basic issues of incompetence.
The tournament, though, continues to grow in importance because the players grow in importance. It is a mark of the strength of African football and the respect now afforded the tournament that the threats of player withdrawals to focus on their club sides that even six years ago characterised the build-up are now forgotten. "This is for our country," said the Inter Milan and Cameroon forward Samuel Eto'o. "We all want to play in this tournament." Increasingly the world wants to watch. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org