Empty seats at the AFCON 2013 Opening Ceremony at the National Stadium in Johannesburg  *** image courtesy of zimbio ***
Empty seats at the AFCON 2013 Opening Ceremony at the National Stadium in Johannesburg *** image courtesy of zimbio ***

The festive mood had reached its climax and the festival was bound to begin. Or so everyone thought.

The 2013 African Cup of Nations has started in a mixed, somewhat confused manner. As expected, the vuvuzelas can be heard blowing. The fans can be heard passionately cheering on their countries. And the stadiums are, two years after hosting the World Cup, still top notch.

However, the stands have been conspicuously empty. Predicted to be a sold out tournament, not all games have seen fans come out in the numbers that the voices portray. Indeed, the signs were there when in the opening game, there was a low turnout, even though the hosts were in action, and it was a weekend.

Not only have the fans seemingly gone missing, the football also has. Most games have been drab, leaving even the commentators to slip into monotones and seem like on a perpetual quest for boring soliloquy. The Mexican wave has been a constant feature; and we all know that if the crowd is resorting to organising itself into a choreographed standing-and-waving-then-sitting-down sequence, then they probably have nothing better to do, or watch.

Certainly, it has not all been boring, but most of it has. Even the president of CAF, Africa’s football ruling body, has on the odd occasion, when cameras have gone his way, been caught napping or struggling to keep up with the proceedings on the pitch.

But all is not lost. Tunisia’s Youssef Msakni showed that even if 89 minutes can drag on, one minute can change everything. With a swing of his hips, he cut inside and with his right boot unleashed a shot which to its perfection found the top corner. That has not been all. Cape Verde and Ethiopia have shown that they will not be pushovers. The latter managed a point with continental champions Zambia despite being down to 10 men for a long period. It was their playing style – intricate short passing and the willingness to take players on — that most appealed to all who watched them.

DR Congo also came up with one of the best worked team goal of the tournament so far with their first of two against favourites Ghana. The way underdogs have shown that they fear nobody has been impressive, for everyone loves a good old fashioned result in the underdog’s favour.

The favourites meantime have failed to show their full mettle. Besides Zambia and Ghana being held, Algeria was totally outplayed by neighbours Tunisia. This made a sham of the FIFA rankings, as Algeria is in 22nd spot, (second in Africa) to Tunisia’s 53rd (ninth in Africa).

There was also Ivory Coast who failed to impress. Granted, they did get their win 2-1 win over Togo, but it was nervy. However, it was totally deserved, and those who have hailed them as champions-elect will probably argue that it was just a manifestation of that undeniable champions quality, where even with minimum effort, the maximum result can be achieved.

Still though, the tournament is yet to come alive in an all consuming manner. It could be that all the pre-tournament hype was just anticipation that the reality could not live up to.

Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti once said:

“A stadium is the skeleton of the crowd.”

So far, low turnout of fans has indicated that the stadium has remained a skeleton without its body. That may just be the cause for all the dullness. But in truth, those fans that have turned out have more than done their part. Beyond the empty seats, there have been fans with voices and colour. Colours of their nations and beyond. Bright and gleeful. Cheerful and electric.  They have blown their vuvuzelas and worn their over-sized hats and spectacles. Unfortunately, they have not enjoyed a spectacle.

The relationship between the fans and the players is a symbiotic one. Fans need the players to play well, and players need the fans to cheer them on. When one is not performing, there is an imbalance.

It could be that the imbalance is stemming from the lack of entertainment on the pitch. There is so much that the fans can do, so high a level they can reach. Even the fanatical is fuelled by the depths of beauty to which the players can reach. Players not performing may be the reason fans are not thronging into stadiums.

Or vice-versa.

There may have been a change however. When the hosts South Africa beat Angola in the second round, there was a sense that finally, the tournament was coming alive. That was carried on later when Cape Verde scored first against former giants Morocco. Platini, the man with the famous name, scored what will forever be a famous goal in Cape Verde’s history, as it was their first ever in a Nations Cup. But as Youssef El Arabi would go on to equalise, Cape Verde would be denied a famous win. Still, it was an impressive showing.

That may bring crowds to the stadium. That may liven up the rest of the tournament. It may signal the time for the favourites, the big names, the stars to step up. That the underdogs prove their worth even more by going that extra mile and genuinely surprise us.

It may be time for the tournament to live up to its match ball, ‘Katlego,’ which means ‘success.’ The only good thing about the tournament starting in such a slow manner is that we can only hope that things will only get better.