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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 June 2006, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
World Cup putting Togo on the map
By James Helm
BBC News

Street football in Lome
Many children grow up playing football on the street
When Togo played Saudi Arabia in a World Cup warm-up in Sittard, Holland, only a few hundred people turned up to watch.

But what they lacked in numbers, Togo's supporters, grouped behind a goal, made up for with their noise.

The drums beat out a constant rhythm, flags were waved, and the songs exuberant.

A Togolese woman in traditional dress waved a national flag: "I feel so good about this day," she laughed.

"You know, if you say you come from Togo, people don't know where Togo is. It is such a small country. Maybe now, with the World Cup, they will know about Togo."

Anticipation

Eric Akoto, a tall defender who plays his club football in Austria, can hardly wait for Togo's first appearance at the tournament.

The whole of the Togolese people is united behind Les Eperviers. It's something very impressive and very positive. I think football is bringing unity in this country
Prime Minister Edem Kodjo

"We appreciate a lot that we're going to the World Cup. Everyone's happy in Togo. I think they all pray for us, that we're going to make a surprise in the World Cup."

In Lome, Togo's capital, one of the first things you notice is that football is everywhere.

On back streets flooded by the wet season's downpours, young boys chase a ball. On waste ground, teenagers splash around in the rainwater. On the long expanse of sand beside the Atlantic Ocean, clubs hold their training sessions.

Map of Togo

The yellow shirts of Les Eperviers, the Hawks, as they are known here, are on sale on market stalls. The name of Emmanuel Adebayor, Arsenal's striker and Togo's star striker, is emblazoned on the back of most.

In this French-speaking country of five million, wedged between Ghana and Benin, the surprise of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time has given way to sheer, undiluted excitement at the prospect of taking on South Korea, Switzerland, and, best of all, France in Group G.

On a busy main street, one fan in a football shirt put it like this: "The World Cup to me is like a big celebration. For the first time Togo has qualified and that is great, it's something we should rejoice about."

When Togo qualified last October, its people did rejoice. The team made it ahead of Senegal, impressive performers at the last World Cup. Ecstatic crowds spilled on to Lome's streets to celebrate. Nervous authorities switched off the electricity.

Difficulties

Since then, the preparations for Togo's World Cup debut have been difficult.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The World Cup is the best sporting festival. It's fascinating to see all the different teams
Bruce Castle, London

A dismal showing at the African Cup of Nations led to the sacking of the coach, Stephen Keshi, amid stories of rifts within the camp. Otto Pfister, a German veteran who has coached across Africa, was brought in.

Once the region's commercial hub, Lome's economy has floundered in recent years, and the city has seen better days.

Recent times have also seen political discord. Last year its President, Gnassingbe Eyadema, Africa's longest-serving ruler, died after 38 years in power.

His son, Faure Gnassingbe, took over. The new president's brother, Rock, runs Togo's football federation. There was a disputed election, and riots and bloodshed on Lome's streets. Bitter political divisions remain.

Training session on the beach
Some clubs hold training sessions on the beach
The Prime Minister, Edem Kodjo, told me: "The whole of the Togolese people is united behind Les Eperviers. It's something very impressive and very positive. I think football is bringing unity in this country."

One opposition leader, while wholeheartedly supporting the team, told me he disagreed.

The cost of buying tickets and getting to Germany means the trip is far beyond the reach of most Togolese fans.

That won't lessen the fervour of the supporters here. They will gather in the sort of place where I watched the Champions League final.

It was a small, sweltering room on a main street, which was crammed with around 200 fans. The noise was deafening, the mood good-humoured, as some cheered for Arsenal, the club of Adebayor, others for Barcelona.

Once the dust settles on Germany 2006, once the TVs have been switched off and the kickabouts have resumed in the back streets, will it all have made any difference to Togo - its people, and the country's profile?

Opportunity

Klaus Gunther Grohmann is the German Ambassador in Lome, and a keen football fan.

He said: "I think this is a unique opportunity for this country to present itself. Togo is a small country. I think this gives the chance to present Togolese culture, Togolese politics, even the possibility of investment in this country."

Togo are outsiders, a small West African state which many global World Cup viewers will have difficulty placing on a map.

Otto Pfister is aware of the challenges ahead, but he also knows that a football-mad country is watching, full of hope and expectation.

"It is like a religion," he told me after training. "Everybody is behind the team, from grandfather to baby. When Togo plays a game, no-one is in the street."

James Helm's full report on Togo's World Cup odyssey can be heard in full on Assignment on BBC World Service Radio on Thursday 8 June and on Saturday 10 June.




SEE ALSO
Country profile: Togo
21 Mar 06 |  Country profiles



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