NIAMEY — Last Saturday was a red-letter day in the history of Niger after its national team, the Mena, qualified for its first African Cup of Nations, more than four decades after the West African nation first competed in the qualifiers.
A deep sense of despair overwhelmed the capital Niamey after the team was whitewashed by Egypt 3-0 in Cairo, only to burst into raptures when state television ORTN announced that Niger got Group G’s ticket instead of South Africa as many had thought in the arid metropolis.
All and sundry took to the streets screaming, singing, dancing and beating djembe drums, as taxis drivers and motorcyclists deafened the air with unending honking of horns. Roadside maquis (beer parlours) and cafés soon filled up, as more Nigeriens went for a drink and ataille (herbal tea) to continue the celebration.
Local radio stations and all the TV channels played victory tunes all night, taking congratulatory phone calls in between tracks from listeners, most of whom dedicated the achievement to the Mena coach Harouna Doula and the new Head of State Mahamadou Issoufou.
Niger thus joins Botswana and Guinea Equatorial, who are making their debut in the continental showpiece early next year.
Niger football started shaping up off late. In 2010, the domestic league title holders ASFAN surprisingly reached the mini-league stage of the Caf Confederation Cup, after edging Ivorian club Issia Wazi, Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel, Congolese side Daring Club Motema Pembe and Sudan’s top flight El Merreikh. A number of the ASFAN stars play with the Mena.
Niger beat Nigeria to qualify for the 2011 African Nations Championship, the team’s first participation in a continental tournament, crashing out in the quarter-finals after a nerve-racking penalty shootout against hosts Sudan.
When many pundits predicted Niger to finish at the bottom of Group G by the end of the campaign, the team survived the storm, winning all its home games against the group’s supposed big guns – Egypt, South Africa and Sierra Leone.