Saturday, February 24, 2024

African teams out to prove continent’s growth at FIBA World Cup

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While traditional African basketball powerhouse Nigeria will not be present at the FIBA World Cup, starting August 25, five other countries are ready to show how their games, and young players, have developed.

African basketball has boomed since the last FIBA World Cup in 2019, with the introduction of the NBA’s Basketball Africa League (BAL) putting particular emphasis on showcasing continental talent.

Côte d’Ivoire and Angola are the only two of the five teams competing this year in Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines who were there at the 2019 tournament, where Nigeria were the highest-ranked African team in 17th place.

South Sudan, Egypt and Cape Verde replace Nigeria, Tunisia and Senegal after earning their spots via qualifying. The top-ranked African team at the World Cup will automatically qualify for the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Angola

Group A with Dominican Republic, Philippines and Italy

Angola are experienced heads among the African quintet competing at the World Cup. They were the dominant force in African basketball throughout the early 2000s and they are still among the best teams on the continent.

It has been difficult to replace the golden generation which won AfroBasket six times in a row between 1999 and 2009, but Angola’s roster is finally beginning to take on a different, younger, shape.

“I think it’s possible [to bring a new generation through], because we only have one old guy, Carlos [Morais] – our best player. We’re all young, 26, 25, Lukeny Gonçalves is 27,” Aboubacar Gakou told ESPN.

This was after Angola’s top club, Petro de Luanda, lost their BAL third-place playoff in a shock defeat to Stade Malien in Rwanda in May. Petro had been pre-tournament favourites.

However, the man who Gakou described as Petro’s “best player.” Morais, is not part of the team this time – a controversial omission indeed.

Angola are still a talented side, and they have a reasonably favourable draw, but it will be difficult for them to outplay their problems while in the middle of a transitional phase.

South Sudan

Group B with Serbia, China and Puerto Rico

Angola built a basketball dynasty in the wake of war and South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, are following in their footsteps.

A strong roster for the World Cup includes players with high-level experience in the US, such as NBA players Carlik Jones and Wenyen Gabriel and reigning BAL MVP Nuni Omot.

Omot told ESPN: “Why I think we have the team we have now is that we don’t have guys that have egos. We all want what’s best for one another.

“We all want everyone to succeed and we do it because the support we have is second to none. There’s no support like the support we get where we’re from.

“Our purpose is different. We go into games with different mindsets because we all feel like we’re underdogs. We all feel like we haven’t got equal opportunity; we all feel like people have to really feel us to see why they have to start giving us opportunities.”

In years to come, 16-year-old rising star Khaman Maluach is likely to be the leader of the team, but he is too young to be eligible to play at this year’s FIBA World Cup, despite having been included in the extended pre-tournament roster in order to gain exhibition match experience.

Nevertheless, the team is well-poised to introduce themselves on the global stage and arguably the best African side in the tournament… on paper.

Egypt

Group D with Mexico, Montenegro and Lithuania

One of the most structurally efficient basketball countries in Africa, Egypt have been one of the first to reap the rewards from the continent’s new NBA and BAL boom over the past three years.

Two of the three clubs to win the BAL so far have been from Cairo – Zamalek in 2021 and Al Ahly this year.

Much of this is due to the depth in Egypt’s Premier League. The aforementioned Cairo giants, as well as nearby Gezira, and their Alexandria counterparts Al Ittihad and Sporting Alexandria, all contribute significantly to a highly competitive environment which fosters growth.

Center Omar Oraby told ESPN of the growth of basketball in Egypt: “Now, I think it’s the most players we’ve had in Division I basketball. I think we’ve got six… We have a lot of players in the NBA Academy, a lot of young talent coming up. That’s all going to help the country and help the continent grow the sport.

“I went to Rice first and then I went to USC, and back then, I think I was the only one playing Division I basketball… [American Division I players] had access to a lot of resources that we might not have had access to growing up – better facilities, better coaches.

“Of course, the sport over there [in he USA] is something else compared to Egypt. That was the main challenge going there at the beginning – you couldn’t keep up with the speed, with the athleticism, because they were better coached growing up.

“When you play basketball in the US, you play basketball for your college, so you don’t have the dilemma of balancing between education and sports. In Egypt, it’s not the same. When you play basketball – when you play any sport – you play it at a club that has nothing to do with your university or high school or whatever, so it’s very tough to do it on your own.

“That’s why a lot of people quit playing sports. Their parents say that the most important thing is getting a degree and having good education and they think of sports as having a hobby.

“Over in the US, it’s not the case. It’s like a profession. It’s much more professional and they know how to balance your time and figure out your schedules.”

Cape Verde

Group F with Slovenia, Georgia and Venezuela

Cape Verde made history by becoming the smallest country ever to qualify for the FIBA World Cup, with a population of just over 500,000 people.

The sport’s growth in the country has been inspired largely by the Blue Sharks’ third-place finish at AfroBasket 2007, and the success of players such as Walter Tavares and brothers Joel and Ivan Almeida.

Now, club basketball is booming in the country, and a strong World Cup showing could lay the foundations for even greater exponential growth.

“Basketball has been one of the biggest sports in the country [since its post-2007 AfroBasket growth]. As far as fans [go], we have very loyal fans that follow basketball and a lot of people watch the game,” Joel Almeida, who started playing basketball at school in Cape Verde before finishing his high school career in the US, told ESPN.

“During playoffs in the national championships, with packed gyms, people outside can’t get in. The atmosphere [is] amazing and the sport has taken leaps and bounds since 2007 not only as far as talent [goes], but also, [in the sense that] more people [are] starting to play basketball now.”

Cape Verde have enlisted the services of Cape Town Tigers part-owner Paul Bragiel as an assistant coach and senior advisor for the World Cup.

Côte d’Ivoire

Group G with Iran, Spain and Brazil

Ivorian basketball is undergoing a resurgence with significantly improved results, after they fell by the wayside after being in the AfroBasket top three in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Solo Diabaté, a guard who turned pro in France and recently returned to Africa to win BAL titles with Zamalek and Monastir, told ESPN: “When I was there, I was young with no hope for the future.

“But now I think most of the young [talented basketball players] have a chance to go to the USA [or] come to France to play – even somewhere in Africa now because the BAL has the players now to show up.

“The federation is working really well to improve the national league. Now, they can show games on TV and on Facebook. It would never happen before.

“Now, the players decide to come [to the national team]. Before, they were a little bit worried about bonuses, money, commission – for travelling, hotels, everything, but the fact that me and some [other] players who played pro were constantly going helped a lot of players come.”

Côte d’Ivoire will be without veteran Stéphane Konaté, who has been at loggerheads with the Fédération Ivoirienne de Basket-Ball. Diabaté admitted Konaté has been a pioneer for the sport in the country, and would be missed.

“He’s one of the guys that really motivated the young players. He gave the right example – the fact that he played for a long time in Côte d’Ivoire [meant he was] the example for the local players to have hope to join the national team as a local player. He had hope and he gave a good example. He was also our captain,” Diabaté said.

“I think it’s going to be the second time that I play [for the national team] without him, so I don’t really know how it’s going to be, so let’s see.”

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