The Interview: Mimi Fawaz on the Africa Cup of Nations and Her Career
It’s time for the Africa Cup of Nations! I recently interviewed Mimi Fawaz about the tournament and her career. Hope you enjoy this. Paid subscribers can always read the entirety of my written Q&As like this one.
One of my favorite tournaments, the Africa Cup of Nations, starts Sunday in Cameroon and will be shown on BeIN Sports here in the United States. I'm thrilled to welcome the journalist who co-hosted the draw for this year's AFCON. Mimi Fawaz is a broadcaster for the BBC with a Nigerian background who has a long history covering African soccer. Mimi, it's great to see you. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Thank you, Grant, for having me, it’s a pleasure. I've been a fan of your work for a long time, so I'm really looking forward to be joining you on your podcast today.
Thank you. I'm a fan of your work as well. As with other tournaments, COVID has kept us waiting a year longer than originally planned for this AFCON to start, but it's finally here. Some of the world's best players will be involved. What is the significance of this tournament to its fans in terms of both its history and its present?
Yeah, the Africa Cup of Nations is a beloved tournament on the continent for many fans. Big stars, as I'm sure you've known throughout the years, have played at the Africa Cup of Nations, including the newer stars, the newer generation of stars that we see as well playing nowadays. The Mohamed Salahs, the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyangs, the Riyad Mahrezes, et cetera. So for a lot of fans, they look forward to seeing their nations represented on such a big platform and there's also some big African stars playing, having the dribbling skills that they can see on display.
And as well, it brings out a new generation of footballers, new talents that could possibly emerge from that as well. But I've covered a few Africa Cup of Nations so far, and the fans are just fantastic that you come across. You can see how much it means for them watching their countries perform. And they bring so much color to the Africa Cup of Nations.
I've covered one Africa Cup of Nations on-site in Angola in 2010. And it was one of the coolest events I've ever covered in my career, really. And just to see the teams playing, the support. I did tell Didier Drogba, because I went there to interview him, that I came a long way to interview you, pal. And he was like, of course. He sat down and gave me this wonderful interview, and I had such a great experience, hope to cover more in the future.
So this is totally a pro-AFCON zone here on this podcast. So honestly, I really don't have time for complaints that we hear about it taking place during the European club season. I feel like that's a very Eurocentric view. FIFA has always approved this time window for the tournament, but is it possible to explain why CAF decided to make a change for this tournament? Because it did take place for the first time in June and July the last time in 2019. Now it's going back to January/February.
Yeah. So in 2019, it was held in Egypt, who stepped in. They weren't meant to host it that time. It was meant to be Cameroon, but they stepped in at the last minute, I guess, to host the Africa Cup of Nations six months before. The executive committee had decided, they just made their official statement was, that they just decided for it to move in the summer as you've mentioned, in expanding it from a 16-team to 24-team tournament.
Of course, when you look at it, it favored the European clubs because it was during the break. So you didn't have the whole rhetoric that you have now from the European clubs about why was it being held in the summer. So you could see it benefited the European clubs in some way.
Now it's been moved at the moment for January/February, because in Africa a lot of fans have been arguing about this online, who probably don't know so much about the weather conditions across different seasons in Africa. But in Africa, the summer in Sub-Saharan Africa is rainy season in a lot of African countries. So it wouldn't suit necessarily Cameroon for that being held in the summer. The weather conditions are better for it to be held in January/February, as we are seeing at the moment. And that's why, I mean, I guess they've gone ahead to move it back to January/February as CAF did say it involves the weather conditions.
“Believe in yourself. I know it sounds easy to say, but really this industry is tough, and it has lots of ups and downs and lots of hurdles. And I can also say that we women, whether we're sports journalists or not in the industry, can sometimes doubt ourselves more so than necessarily I've seen some of my male colleagues, and doubt our abilities. And I feel I was one of those people for the longest time ever, Grant. And I would honestly say that it was just maybe in the past two years that I started believing in my abilities and saying, you know what? I deserve to be here, just like the rest of my colleagues. And I bring something different, I bring a different voice, a different angle. So that's why I always say believe in yourself.” — Mimi Fawaz
No, it's good for us to know, I think, just to sort of explain some things. You did mention some of the names of stars who'll be playing in this tournament. I want to mention them here because it's got me excited just to read them. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Achraf Hakimi, Victor Osimhen, Kalidou Koulibaly, Édouard Mendy, Wilfried Zaha, Karl Toko Ekambi, Naby Keita, and there's a lot more than that too. And when you hear that, like that gets me fired up to watch these games. What are some of the things you're most excited about seeing in this year's tournament?
I mean, that's a long, long and wonderful list that you've mentioned there. And I tweeted about that. I said the Africa Cup of Nations is a huge tournament for us, and it can no longer be ignored. It deserves the same sort of attention as other competitions are getting. We just need to look throughout Europe, even in the Premier League, African players are making such a big impact. So we deserve that attention, and to be on such big platforms and people paying attention.
So it's being held in Cameroon this time around. I was in Cameroon back in 2016, I covered the women's Africa Cup of Nations, and I traveled around the country a little bit. And what I can definitely say is the fans are incredible. It's got such a rich, vibrant football culture in Cameroon. They love their football, and they've of course brought some megastars at out over the years from Cameroon, Samuel Eto'o being one of them, Roger Milla, et cetera.
So you can expect a really great ambience, which is what I had when I was there in 2016 with the fans. You can expect a lot of that and just really a good time, and just the welcoming from the Cameroonian people as well whilst you're over there, people can taste some of the delights, the local meals that they have, Ndole, which is a traditional Cameroonian meal that I tried for the first time in 2016. And I absolutely loved it.
So apart from the fans and the ambience and the welcome from the Cameroonian people, you can also see, as you've mentioned, for example, you said you interviewed Didier Drogba at one of the Africa Cup of Nations. So you'll see the very best that African football has to offer some of the big stars, not just in Africa, but globally as well, that you can interact with. Get some interviews as well as journalists that sometimes we wouldn't get at the clubs, but you get them at the Africa Cup of Nations. So you get to see that you get to see some new talents that come out as well from the competition. So lots of things you can expect.
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My first World Cup that I watched in detail was 1990. And so I have a soft spot for Cameroon, which had a great tournament then, and just have continued following them over the years. So yeah, definitely excited to see the atmosphere around all of this. The defending champion is Algeria, but there are several teams that are capable of winning this tournament. I'm going to put some pressure on you here. If you had to pick one team to win it all this time, who would it be and why?
You know what, I got a couple predictions correct in the past, but the last few times I've been rubbish my predictions [laughs]. So I'm not too sure if I want to fully predict one particular country, but of course you mentioned Algeria. They're the defending champions. They've gone 33 games unbeaten run at the moment. That's not considering the FIFA Arab Cup, because they don't calculate that into it. But what a great record that is for Algeria. So they're definitely one of the favorites on the list.
Senegal as well. They're finalists, as you know, against Algeria in 2019, and they're still looking for their first Africa Cup of Nations title. So never write off Senegal coming into the competition. I mean they were one of the first African teams to qualify through to the World Cup playoffs for Africa in March. So they've got a pretty strong team.
Of course, you've got your known names like Sadio Mané, Kalidou Koulibaly, the Napoli defender that you mentioned as well, or even Édouard Mendy, the goalkeeper. So I think they're not a team to write off at all.
And of course you also got to say Cameroon. They're playing at home in their country and they're going to have their fans of course supporting them. And they're great. Those fans, you really feel them up in the stadium when you're there. I was there for the final in 2016 when Cameroon played against Nigeria, and what a great atmosphere that is. So never rule that out as well. The home fans.
And of course, I don't think the Nigerian fans will be happy with me if I don't mention Nigeria somehow [laughs] to try and stay positive. And I would love to see, of course Nigeria do really well. I think on paper, we've got fantastic individual players. It’s just hoping that it can all come together as a team. So I'm not going to write Nigeria off.
I was going to ask you if you were going to mention Nigeria, I'm glad you did there at the end. It's a fascinating team, because like, obviously as you mentioned, like there's so much talent there. There's also been a bit of upheaval recently. They replaced their coach. They were one of the last teams to announce a squad list for the tournament. What's your sense of what's going on with this Nigerian team and how it might impact them during this tournament?
Well, there've been a couple more teams actually that've been announcing their squads even later, Zimbabwe and Mali. But yes, I guess because Nigeria was one of the big ones people are waiting for, for a long time. They're like, when are we going to announce our squad? Everybody's announcing their squad. Well, I mean, with Nigeria you've got over 200 million football fans. So they're also involved in all of this. So a lot of football fans, when I posted the squad list that was announced on Christmas day, a lot of fans were reacting to that, mixed reactions of course. People were like, why do we just have five midfielders and like 10 attacks? What's this like, not the balance, et cetera. But we have to wait and see. Like I said, individually, Nigeria have fantastic players.
And I think the most important thing is that Nigerian football fans want to see how different is Augustine Eguavoen, as you mentioned, who's been announced as the interim coach to take Nigeria through to the African Cup of Nations. What's he going to do that's different from Gernot Rohr because Nigerian football fans were just really not happy with Nigeria's playing style and tactics and lackluster performances. Especially if you look at losing at home to the Central African Republic. I mean, the headlines were very damning, losing at home or drawing against a Cape Verde or even giving away that lead to Sierra Leone, a 4-0 lead.
So after that, especially after losing at home to the Central African Republic, I think Gernot Rohr's days were numbered in terms of the Nigerian Football Federation president, Amaju Pinnick. He just wasn't happy with the performances as well as many of the football fans. So we have to give Augustine Eguavoan who's led Nigeria before to a third-place finish 15 years ago in Egypt as a former captain as well. So let's just see what he's able to do that's different from Gernot Rohr.
It is some good news that Victor Osimhen's available for this tournament. Terrific forward for Napoli who had a pretty severe facial injury not long ago. And there was concern about whether he would be available for the tournament. He is available. So that should be a positive there. I wanted to ask you about Cameroon. You mentioned Samuel Eto'o briefly earlier, former superstar for their country, obviously. He was recently elected federation president in Cameroon. And I was wondering if you could just tell us a little about why Eto'o wanted the job? It's not like he needed to do it, and what he's hoping to do.
Samuel Eto'o loves his country and his country loves him, especially when you see how he was celebrated. I don't know if you saw the video when he had just been officially announced as winning the votes to become the next FA president. You just saw the emotion and passion and the love he has there. And when he goes around the country, he is the people's choice. So Samuel Eto'o even tweeted after that, that was one of the greatest achievements, if not the greatest achievement in his life.
And you know, he's a former player. He knows what it's like. He's seen it, not just on the pitch, but behind the scenes, and one of the things he's talked about is stamping out corruption. He's spoken a lot about that and he's talking about bringing it to the center, bringing it back to football for the players, better pay for them. He also spoke about building like 10 new stadiums, as well as women's football. I know he's got great relationships in terms of the women's team and some of the players. So I think he could bring a lot of that. Bringing a lot of hope. You can see he wants to bring changes in the areas that I've mentioned to you.
You mentioned women's football, and I know that you have covered a lot of women's soccer over the years as well. What is the state of African women's soccer and its growth right now from your perspective?
I mean, as I'm sure you as well know from seeing women's football in Africa, it doesn't get the same amount of attention as the men's game. Now there have been efforts over the past few years by the Confederation of African Football to change that a little bit. And we saw recently the first ever edition of the Women's African Champions League, which was very much welcomed by many of the female players as well.
So that's going in the right direction because that's regular game time as well for the women's game. Desiree Ellis, the South African women's national team coach of Banyana Banyana, she spoke about, she told me at the women's World Cup in France, how it's not just coming for qualifiers, it's having regular games being played. And this is a good way to hopefully go in that direction and go from eight teams to possibly expanding to have more women's teams taking part.
And what was so beautiful to see in that competition, for example, Hasaacas Ladies had Evelyn Badu, one of their star players in the squad—and they were one of the finalists for that—she off the back of that has now gone to Norway. So you can see talents coming through from that.
And yeah, so CAF really did really great social media profiles to bring a lot of attention in that sense to the women's game. And we saw teams like Vihiga Queens of Kenya who had qualified, and they rely a lot within the community on young female players and bringing them through the ranks.
Or Malabo Kings of Equatorial Guinea. They're a team that was just created a few years ago, I think it was about three or so years ago. So it's just wonderful stories that you can see from that. And hopefully building more on that in the women's game, getting more attention. And I mentioned that as well, just before kickoff, prize money as well. Decent pay for these women players. We need to have all of that, and giving them the due attention needed.
It’s exciting to see happening with women's football at the club level in Africa and also at the national team level. And it goes even to the top of the pyramid. I would love to see a club Women's World Cup organized by FIFA get going. And if you have continental championships, you can start thinking about doing that.
And then also there's going to be 32 teams in the next women's World Cup. So that's going to increase the number of African teams too, and hopefully be an incentive to continue building national teams there.
Going back to this AFCON tournament. Are you going to have any role in covering it for the BBC? How's that going to work? Are you hoping to get on-site even?
Yes. So the BBC along with Sky have bought the rights for some of the Africa Cup of Nations matches and definitely as well will be watching the semis and the final. The last tournament in 2019 in Egypt, I guess you could say I was the face of BBC World in terms of covering the Africa Cup of Nations from the semis to the final. So we're going to have a big team on the ground across TV, radio, and digital, just to get as much reach as possible and give it the attention that it needs. And when you cover the Africa Cup of Nations, of course you cover the results, but there are always wonderful stories around it, like the fans and the journeys of how people got there. That also will make it interesting because at the end of the day, it is as well for the fans.
Now, I always like to ask my guests about their story with the sport of soccer, football. How did you first get connected to the sport?
Well, I won't say I was a great player necessarily. I used to play indoor football when I came to UK from Nigeria. It was too cold for me to play outside [laughs]. So I said, I'm going to stick to indoor. But I almost regret that somebody didn't push me to follow through, to play a bit more seriously outdoors football. But no, I just enjoyed it. I always watched football, even when I was back in Nigeria as a local growing up, one of my favorite African players was Rashidi Yekini. To me, he was just this, you know, when you're a little girl, you just watch this big giant who would just bang in all those goals.
So I looked up to Rashidi Yekini, and one of the big regrets in my career as a journalist is I never got to interview him before he died. And I had tried a few years back when I was in Nigeria before his death, but it never happened. So yeah, I always followed the game. My uncle back in Nigeria, may his soul rest in peace, played semi-professionally. So maybe somehow, I guess, that connection just got me interested in football and African football.
I loved that '94 Nigeria team at the World Cup here in the United States with Rashidi Yekini. And just still remember the chance they had that they should have beaten Italy! And didn't in the end, but just a fantastic team. In terms of your story in the media business, how did that transpire?
I used to work for, I don't know if you know, ITV News, ITN here in the UK. Before I even got there, I was studying at university, and I always loved news and I kind of blame my mom for that because growing up in Nigeria, Nigerians absorbed news so much. So there was always news in the background. So I kind of got interested in TV I guess that way. And I thought I'm just going to give it a go, let me see how I get on. I didn't think I was going to get very far. Because at the time there weren't any role models to look up to, to be honest, and opportunities for us are not like it is nowadays, let's be honest, in the mainstream.
So I just never knew how far I was going to go with it, but I just enjoyed it. So I applied for CNN to do an internship at CNN whilst I was studying. Never in a million years did I think I was going to get it. I'm like, I'm never going to get it. You know, just give it a go. And I got it. I got shortlisted to do an oral interview and then a written, and I passed. And then I was one of five people or so, five or six people out of over 200 applicants who got it, who got in. So it was great. It was a great experience in London. And then as well, I worked at ITV News. And then from there helped preparations behind the scenes for the journalists with the Champions League. I was a young journalist coming along.
And then somebody I met there said, why don't you go to this Pan-African channel that's new and developing? And you could cover more in Africa because that was my interest. And I wasn't really covering much of that working for ITV News. And I just wanted to cover positive stories about my continent through sport. I used to play sport myself and won medals and trophies play volleyball. In my younger days, I was better [laughs].
So I went to the Pan-African channel and they threw me in the deep end to be a producer producing their football program. And then from there, we made a very conscious effort. We're like, we're going cover differently than everybody else. We're going to give African players a platform. It wasn't like how it is nowadays, to be honest with you. When I did it, we were wrapping on like African players that contributed a lot, like really positive. And over the years, people started paying attention and giving the same narrative that we were doing. So that's how I kind of came into the field, like making a conscious effort to give positive stories through sport of our continent.
Now we have a lot of aspiring journalists who listen to our show. What sort of advice would you have for anyone who’s young and wants to do what you do?
You know, believe in yourself. I know it sounds easy to say, but really this industry is tough, and it has lots of ups and downs and lots of hurdles. And I can also say that we women, whether we're sports journalists or not in the industry, can sometimes doubt ourselves more so than necessarily I've seen some of my male colleagues, and doubt our abilities.
And I feel I was one of those people for the longest time ever, Grant. And I would honestly say that it was just maybe in the past two years that I started believing in my abilities and saying, you know what? I deserve to be here, just like the rest of my colleagues. And I bring something different, I bring a different voice, a different angle. So that's why I always say believe in yourself.
Because when I started this journey of African football, there weren't that many women doing it. And that was many years ago. And it wasn't so hip and cool as it is now, but I stuck to my lane and I was like, I'm not going to do what everybody else is doing. I'm going to bring something different and authentic. So be your authentic self as well.
And believe that your story or whatever you think, it might be different than somebody else, it's fine. It's a different angle. It's a different perspective. We don't all need to be saying the same thing. You can bring a different side to the story. So that's the advice that I would give to people. And I would also say have a great support network, because as I said, it's a tough industry. And if you don't have that, there'll be days where you feel like you want to quit.
Honestly, I've had those days myself, but I had a great support network that made me believe no, don't quit. And it's a job that's very public. You're in the public eye. You sometimes will get criticism, and it can be tough to swallow. And I've had to, as I got sometimes a criticism, it helped to shape me to be who I am. I've had people tell me, go back to the kitchen. What do women know about sport in like blogs or stuff, or people would twist things that you say when you don't mean it that way.
So you've really got to have that great support network. Believe in yourself. You don't even need to get noticed nowadays by starting on major platforms. I didn't. You could even start on your Instagram. I've seen people, look at Arsenal Fan TV and how they've come and the great work that they're doing. So stuff like that.
Thank you for sharing all of that. That's just really interesting, useful stuff, I think, for people who want to get into the business. It's interesting that you say you only got more confidence in yourself in the last couple of years, because you've been doing this for a while and doing it extremely well. You've interviewed a lot of famous figures, including in the soccer/football world over the years. Who have been some of your favorites and why?
I've interviewed quite a few. I found it interesting interviewing, for example, like people like Didier Drogba, a person you've interviewed yourself. So just about how he used his power, how well he was known and how well he was doing while playing at Chelsea in his country and the conflict that they had and using that voice. And you just really saw how powerful sport is, and I've interviewed him in the past about that. So he's definitely one of the people that I've enjoyed interviewing.
And another one that I've also enjoyed interviewing is Wilfried Zaha. Now the only reason why I say that is, I guess maybe sometimes I don't try to be anybody else. I try to just be me in my job, in what I do. And Wilfried Zaha is somebody I've interviewed in the past, but one interview in particular I did with him, it went viral. It went everywhere across the UK and globally was a couple seasons ago.
I asked him about his failed transfer bid from Crystal Palace to Everton. Now I was just being myself, my cameraman/producer, we just sat with him before the interview and informally we spoke about African football, and the ups and downs of African football. So he got comfortable, and it's somebody that I know and had spoken to before, and he was comfortable enough off the back of that when we had an informal chat. So when the camera started rolling, to just be honest that he hadn't scored as many goals the previous season, because his head was all over the place because he wanted to move and it destabilized him.
So it was amazing hearing a footballer being so honest and open in an interview. And it was literally just a chat like I was having with a friend. So next thing I know it became viral. So it was stuff like that. And like people of course, like Kanu Nwankwo from my country and the work that he's done with the Heart Foundation helping young children and adults suffering with heart conditions. Salomon Kalou as well, the work that he's doing with hospitals as well as dialysis and kidney problems in his country. I love seeing footballers doing something out of what you expect them, which is playing football, giving back to their countries.
That makes total sense. I was going to ask you about some of your approaches to doing an interview because you do them so often you do them with really famous people, athletes. What are some of those approaches?
So contacts and relationships are incredibly... I'm sure you know this as well, Grant. Relationships are incredibly important in our industry. So I have built my contacts and relationships with players over the years, for many, many years. And people learn to trust you. So I'm not out to trick them for a line or for a headline. And they feel very comfortable. So a lot of them say to me that they trust me. So that helps sometimes in them being able to open up to you like Zaha did about issues.
And even though I know a player, I will prepare myself for interviews. Research is very important. I just don't go and think I know everything. I'll have my own questions, but it's always good to tap into the brains of other people. So I'll also ask my colleagues. What do you think? What questions do you think I should ask? Or people that might know a topic even better than me sometimes. What do you think I should ask? So collectively you bring all of that into an interview.
So one last question for you. Do you ever get to the United States, Mimi? Have you ever been here for work? Do you ever come just to vacation?
Yeah. I've got family in the United States. I've been to the U.S. a few times in the past. I would love to go back. It's been a while. I think maybe the last time I went to the U.S. was five years ago. I think you're based in New York. I've been to New York before. I love New York. I absolutely love New York. The food, the shopping. So yeah, I would love to go back someday, I don't know when Grant, but it's definitely on my list.
Well, let's make it sooner rather than later. Mimi Fawaz is a broadcaster for the BBC. She will be covering the Africa Cup of Nations, which starts Sunday. Mimi, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Thanks for having me.