Interview: John Bennett
Journalist with the BBC World Service, we had a chat with John about his AFCON experiences, and thoughts ahead of Equatorial Guinea 2015.
January 2015. By Salim Masoud Said.
John, thanks for taking the time to speak with SFG. The striking thing about you is you’re rare breed: an Englishman who is deeply into African football. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that but it deviates from the norm, so it does beg the question: why African football?
I have always been interested in African football but I guess the first time that I really had a connection to it is when I went on holiday to visit one of my friends, who was a BBC reporter in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and he took me to a couple of local games, one involving ASEC, the team which brought through Salomon Kalou and the Toure brothers, and I just got really interested from there.
And then I joined the BBC World Service in 2009 and my interest really took off. I started to take an interest for work but then it became a passion as well. I was lucky enough to go to go to the 2012 Cup of Nations, which was fantastic. I spent a month in Libreville, Gabon, following the tournament which was an unforgettable experience.
Since then I have done loads of reporting on African football. The moment where it really became a major passion for me is when I went to Dakar to cover the Senegal versus Ivory Coast match [Africa Cup of Nations 2013 qualifier 2nd leg, November 2012] which was an incredible couple of days covering football there.
The Cup of Nations is almost a sanitised view of African football. It is still a great atmosphere but you don’t get the home support that you get at the qualifiers. To go to a qualifier was the moment where I thought, “This is something special, African football.”
Basically, it was the day before the match between CIV and Senegal there were thousands of fans waiting for the teams outside the training. Just there to watch the training, not to watch the game. All of a sudden, the gates couldn’t hold them anymore so they had to let them in. Thousands of fans streamed into the stadium just to watch Senegal and Ivory Coast train. It was unbelievable. I don’t think you would get that in many other places in other parts of the world.
Do you think you get the holistic African international football experience at qualifiers rather than at Cup of Nations tournaments?
I’m relatively new to African football. 2009 was when I started to take a really major interest in it, before that my job involved watching the football league in England. From my relatively new experience, that’s definitely true. If you want a real view of African football don’t go to a Cup of Nations – although do eventually go to one as that is an incredible experience – but go to a qualifier in one of the west African countries or one of North African countries and watch a game where the home support are getting behind the team, because just for a few days the atmosphere is incredible and takes over whichever city it is in.
The Cup of Nations is great, and especially if you’re covering the host. I was lucky enough in Gabon to cover hosts Gabon and for every Gabon game and every South Africa game in 2013 the home support was fantastic. And you do get groups of supporters travelling like the Algerian fans, who are notoriously fantastic, and Moroccan fans. But to get a real sense of African football I would say go to a World Cup qualifier or Cup of Nations qualifier.
Is the African football angle something you incorporated into your work or a part of your remit?
It’s a big part of our remit at World Service. BBC World Service Sport is what I work on so I work for a number of shows. World Football is one of our shows. We have got Sportsworld, which is our weekend programme and Sport Today which is our daily programme. We have got a huge amount of listeners across Africa but particularly in West Africa, so in Ghana and Nigeria. That’s our hotbed, that’s where we have millions and millions of listeners. African football is a huge part of our remit, we really want to be across all the stories and covering the games. That will be the same thing at the Africa Cup of Nations as well. We will have a big focus on the tournament, we will have reporters out there and in the various countries, seeing how it’s being viewed across Africa. It’s a big interest for me and big passion for me but it is a big part of my job as well.
I’m going to put you on the spot. Who do you think will win Afcon and why? You’re only allowed once choice.
I’d have to say Cameroon.
[laughs] Yes, Cameroon. I think they are looking great, brilliant in qualifying and there is no off-field drama. I stayed in the team hotel with Cameroon in their final World Cup qualifier against Tunisia last year, and everything about Cameroon was a soap opera. There weren’t any incidents actually during that the time but everyone was waiting for some drama to happen, and this drama seemed to follow the team everywhere it went. Since the World Cup, though, Volker Finke seems to have got rid of that off-field drama. It seems to be all about the football, he is building a young team. Stephane Mbia is one of the oldest players in the squad and he is only 28. They just seem to be going in the right direction, they’ve got real good goalscorers in that team. So if you were to put me on the spot: Cameroon. Having said that, I think the top half of the draw is a lot easier than the bottom half so we will get a dark horse emerging from the top half…
I’m going to make you pick one dark horse too.
You have to look for Cape Verde. They were the first team to qualify for the Cup of Nations. They’ve been on this constant development, getting to the Cup of Nations in South Africa, nearly getting to the World Cup. They were really unlucky to be thrown out of qualifying for the World Cup. It seems like there is a real upward trajectory there. They seem to have something special going. If they can start the tournament well then anything can happen. I was really impressed with them in South Africa. I didn’t expect anything from them but they played some really good football and were very unlucky not to get to the very latter stages. So Cape Verde for me could be a real dark horse.
Three players to watch out for at the Cup of Nations?
Charles Kabore. I knew about Kabore because I am half French and follow French football and I always admired him at Marseille. But seeing him play live during the Cup of Nations I just thought he was an absolutely brilliant player, he has such an engine. I wish he came to the Premier League.
I know he’s not unknown but I think Yannick Bolasie is going to have an absolutely stormer of a tournament. I got to know him pretty well over the last two years, he is a really great guy. He works harder than any other footballer that I know – during pre-season he does extra sessions. I get annoyed because a lot of people say that he is unpredictable and doesn’t know what he’s doing at times, which is wrong.
And for Guinea, I would say, another player I have to know quite well over the last year or so, Ibrahima Traore. I think Guinea are a team to watch as well. They are in a very tough group but they’ve got huge motivation of trying to doing well for Guinea and trying to present a positive image of Guinea, a country that has been so badly effected by Ebola. The players are so motivated, so passionate, and they played really well in their last three qualifiers. Their star player for me is Ibrahima Traore so watch out for him.
Tell us about the bubble of tournament football. What does it feel like to be out there and cover it on the ground?
It is fantastic. It is absolutely exhausting, but you’re right to say it is a bubble. When I have been before I have followed a particular group. So for the two weeks during the group games you are definitely in a babble trying to get all the news stories and trying to cover all the developments involving these teams. You’ll arrive in the country and the first thing you want to do is make contact with all the teams.
So you will go to the hotels. Sometimes you will be waiting in the lobbies for the players, managers and officials to come down. Then there are various press conferences you go to every day before every game, 24 hours before every game there will be press conferences at the stadium.
But also you want one-to-one interviews, so quite often you will get into the hotel to try and pick up interviews. That’s a lot easier if you know people within the camps and you can make contact with these people because for some teams there is really tight security, particularly the Ivory Coast, for example. It is very difficult to get close to them unless you know someone who can get you access.
It just really takes over your life for two weeks. You are trying to get all the stories and trying to bring everyone the interviews from all the camps. It can be terrific. It depends. Some teams are easier to deal with than others. Some teams are very, very open. I would say I have always had a great experience covering Ghana. I think they are very easy to deal with, very accessible, the players are great.
Other teams are more difficult. Algeria are quite difficult, but I can understand why they are so difficult because the journalists that cover Algeria are among the most passionate I have ever met, they are always trying to get the story.
Talk us through your routine on an AFCON matchday.
It is a very long day, but really interesting day. You have to get to the stadium very, very early because it gets packed with people and they won’t let your car in beyond a certain time. So you get to the stadium early, which I enjoy because you can talk to the other journalists, find out what the talking points are, prepare for the game. You are there very early – sometimes 4 hours before the game out. Depending on which team you are watching, fans are already there. There will be reports I have to do before the game, might do some stuff for the BBC website, there will be different radio shows that I will go into.
The manic time starts during the game. We do commentaries on some of the games in the latter stages, but in the games before that we will contribute to the live text commentary on the BBC website or we’ll report into some of our programmes on BBC World Service.
After the game is the most fun bit. If you’re going to go to the Africa Cup of Nations the most fun is the mixed zone after the game it’s just…incredible [laughs] especially if North African teams are playing [laughs] because the Algerian and Moroccan journalists will really do anything to get their interviews. So after the game you go into the mixed zone, and basically every player has to walk through the mixed zone – they are forced to walk through. They don’t have to stop to do an interview but they are forced to walk through. You can stop them and try and stop them, and it’s a lot easier if you know them, they are more likely to stop.
The mixed zones can be absolutely mad. I did Salomon Kalou once after the 2012 final and he was one of the only Ivory Coast players to stop. I managed to get him to stop and I was interviewing him, and I could feel a scrum of people gathering around me. Suddenly, I could feel, literally, I keep thinking “Am I making this up?” but this is how I remember it…my feet were lifting off the ground as so many people were behind me. I remember thinking, “oh my god, I’m going to fall on Salomon Kalou here and cause him a serious injury!”
It just gets so manic. And Drogba as well, I’ve had a number of injuries because of Drogba walking through a mixed zone. I remember when he just signed for Galatasaray during the last Cup of Nations and everyone wanted a quote. It was incredible, just people chasing him around this mixed zone, this corridor, people bashing into me and all sorts.
It’s great fun though. If you go to the Cup of Nations I really enjoy the mixed zone after the game because it’s a real challenge to get those interviews particularly if the team has lost and sometimes you can get really good stuff in there. And most of the players will stop.
From your travels around Africa, if you had to recommend one stadium to experience the quintessential African football match day, which would it be?
Oooohhhh, that’s a real tough one. Like I say, I’m still early in my journey into African football so hopefully I will go to a lot more stadiums around Africa and be able to give you a better answer to that question. Ivory Coast is…there is something special about that country. The fans are special, absolutely brilliant, really get behind their team, very knowledgeable. The great players they’ve had means that whole country is obsessed with football. They expect a lot from their team, which is a general theme in West Africa, they have huge expectations. If I had to pick one stadium go to Stade Félix Houphouët–Boigny in Abidjan.
You get to go to African football international qualifiers and tournaments, visiting all sorts of different countries. You get to interview footballers. You get to write about it all. We at SFG think you have the dream job. Do you have the best job in the world?
[laughs] It’s probably not as glamorous as it looks or sounds. I know how lucky I am. Listen, I’m not at the top of my profession by any means. I’m one of the middling people probably in the sports room. There are people who have got the actual dream job that I work with and I think, “Wow, your job is amazing!”
But there is not one day where I don’t think about how lucky I am, particularly when I’m at big games. I have commentated on two Africa Cup of Nations finals now, and I do stand there and think, “God, you are lucky, enjoy this because you’re getting paid to watch football, something you’d do anyway.”
I know how lucky I am. You have to enjoy it as well, the day you stop enjoying it is maybe when you should finish it. You can’t help but get swept up in an atmosphere when you’re watching an Africa Cup of Nations final, like we did in South Africa two years ago, with 80,000 people. It’s just incredible.