From the smile of a child at a waterfall in the heart of the forest, Togo reveals itself as the land of little miracles, a sparkling gem on the shores of the azure waters of the Gulf of Benin in West Africa.
Togo is a tiny country in West Africa bordered by Ghana to the West, Benin to the East and Burkina Faso to the North. It extends south to the Gulf of Guinea, where the capital Lome is located.
It is a tropical sub-Saharan country highly depended on agriculture, with a climate that provides good growing seasons. It is one of the smallest countries in all of Africa. The official language is French, with many other languages spoken in Togo, particularly those in the Gbe family.
We arrived in Lome on Friday, April 25 for the crucial FIFA 1998 World Cup qualifier featuring South Africa against Congo. The reason why the match was played in Togo was because there was political unrest in Brazzaville and FIFA requested Congo to select a neutral venue where the game would be played. Congo selected Togo.
And so the traveling media we accompanied Bafana Bafana on a chartered flight from Johannesburg to Lome. On arrival, we discovered that the stadium was actually situated a walking distance from the hotel where we were staying. Coach Clive Barker suggested that the team take a walk-about both to stretch their legs and to get a feel of the venue.
But I am racing far ahead of the story. Let me point out that I was not supposed to have traveled to Togo in the first place. I was at that time Soccer Editor for the Sunday Times newspaper. But I also doubled-up as a football analyst of the SABC during their Mabaleng live broadcasts on weekend with Mafa Maponyane while Lucas Sithole was the anchor.
Rob Rodgers, then Production Manager of SABC Sport, ruled that I would not be required to travel with the rest of the crew to Lome. But my employers – The Sunday Times – took a decision that I should go regardless of the game being played on the same day that we would be publishing.
When we arrived at the stadium, the SABC’s Brian Mulder, who had been in Lome since Tuesday, demanded to interview Barker and I waited my turn. When Mulder had finished his interview, I remember listening to Barker giving my SABC colleague the line-up that would start on Sunday.
But someone was missing from the starting eleven Barker had given Mulder. I asked Clive why he had omitted his captain Neil Tovey from the starting eleven or if my ears were playing tricks on me. He explained to me why he had opted against fielding Tovey during that crucial stage of the qualifiers.
I asked Barker who in Tovey’s absence would captain the team. Barker smiled and then revealed that Ntuba Lucas Radebe would be the captain and should we qualify for France, nothing would please him more than to see Ntuba Radebe leading South Africa at the Mundial at France.
I filed my story to Johannesburg that night. It naturally caused a sensation in our newsroom. They called me intermittently, seeking assurance that Tovey had indeed been dropped. And after I informed them that I got it straight from the horse’s mouth. They ran with the story as their front-page lead.
We were having dinner as members of the fourth estate on Saturday night when I revealed to them that Tovey had been dropped. I swear if a bomb had been detonated, perhaps the reaction could have been better.
The entire South Africa contingent looked at me as if I resembled something the cat had dragged home. I could see the incredulous looks and I guess they were wondering if I was leading them down the garden path or was actually telling the truth.
The dilemma was, I’m sure, whether I was indeed telling the truth and if so, why reveal it and not keep it to myself as an exclusive? Again, I suppose they were wondering, what if it turned out to be true and Tovey would indeed get dropped? They knew deep down that they would look foolish for ignoring such a juicy story.
The next morning, news reached us in Lome, that the Sunday Times were leading with a story by yours truly, which implied that Tovey had been dropped from the starting eleven. And some of my colleagues (out of earshot, of course), passed remarks that “some people needed their heads examined and no way would Barker drop Tovey from this team!”
We received the starting line-up an hour before kickoff and lo and behold, Tovey was on the bench! I sipped a mango juice and watched Mulder scrambling to a clearly gutted Tovey, trying to snatch an interview from “Mokoko” to ask him how he felt about being left out of the team.
Billy Cooper, then with The Citizen and Alfie Keonyaditse of Motsweding FM both congratulated me for breaking such a brilliant story from right under their noses, but I faced a grilling from Rob Rodgers that night. He kind of felt that I had proved to be not a team player and should have “tipped off” his crew about the story instead of keeping it to myself.
I informed him that Brian Mulder had the story all along and why he did not play it was beyond me. Mulder swore by his forefathers that he did not have the story. I requested them both to replay the interview he had with Barker. And there it was! Still, Rodgers felt that since I was “more experienced” than Mulder, I should have pointed out the obvious to the SABC anchorman!
I tried to explain how I had stumbled across the story and how no one really paid attention. And in fact, they all laughed in my face when I tried to tip them off about the story, but Rodgers blamed me regardless for the roasting he had apparently received from his then boss Edward Griffiths for tripping on the job and failing to read the signs.
I was permanently removed from the SABC crew after that incident. Rodgers informed me very diplomatically that I should not bother to attend the weekly plenary meeting we held every Tuesday at Auckland Park and he would call me…that was back in 1997. I am still waiting for the call.