Friday, 29 January 2010

Africa Cup of Nations: the Semi Finals

EGYPT 4-0 ALGERIA


It wouldn’t be hard to understand why a peace-loving character would have given the west-Angolan city of Benguela a wide berth on Thursday. The boys were back in town. A rivalry unmatched in world football was being re-ignited and the promise of violence and controversy filled the air. That’s right: Egypt and Algeria were going head to head. There were four teams left in the Africa Cup of Nations and two of them wanted to use each other’s bodies for kicking practice.

In the end, the game didn’t disappoint on the controversy front. Algeria, the taller and more physical of the teams, set out to play on the break, hitting long balls and trying to win free kicks in dangerous positions. Egypt, on the other hand, showed the inventive and tidy organisation of their proud forebears, playing neat passing football and trying to draw their opponents into rash challenges. All this sparring was shot through with a strong dose of aggression. Egypt, after all, lost out on a trip to the World Cup after they were beaten by Algeria in a playoff match last November; providing yet another reason for animosity between the two sides.

In the end, the early performance of referee Bonaventure Koffi Codjia and his inability not to be swayed by Egyptian pressure led to the killing off of the game as a contest. With the tie still goalless, Algeria had a free kick in a dangerous position. The ball was sent in and towering Algerian centre-back Rafik Halliche jumped for the ball with Egypt’s goalkeeper Essam El Hadary. El Hadary, always happy to spend some time lying on the ground in his tracksuit, fell to the floor. Halliche, who had done nothing wrong, was booked for his challenge.

This decision came back to haunt the referee almost immediately. A few minutes later, Halliche scuffed the ball wildly into the path of Egyptian striker Emad Motaeb, who surged into the penalty error only to be scythed down by the hapless (no longer towering) Algerian. Halliche seemed to have got away with it until the Egyptian players railroaded the referee and he was forced to give the defender a second yellow card. This time, the decision was justified, but the sending off it led to was not. Insult was added to injury when Egypt’s Abd Rabou, taking the resulting penalty, stopped his run-up half way through, only to continue it and score. The rules had been broken, but this seemed not to occur to the referee, who was then subjected to a frightening piece of physical intimidation by Algerian goalkeeper Chaouchi, who only received a yellow card for his transgression which, considering he had grabbed the head of the confused referee, was probably less than he deserved. That his attack was the result of a series of bad decisions against his team was scant excuse but the impartial viewer couldn’t help feeling that Algeria had been wronged and the game had been ruined. A maritime transport investigator from Benin, referee Codjia was left all at sea by the intensity of the fixture.

From the penalty on, it was hard to see Algeria finding a way back, although with their height there was always the chance they’d score from a free kick or corner. Egypt played well, but it wasn’t until late on that they got their second goal, through Zidan (just one “e” away from being Zidane), and from then on it was a desperate stumble to the finish for Algeria. Nadir Belhadj was sent off for an awful double footed challenge and Chaouchi was given the red card his earlier fit of rage merited after he aimed a swinging kick at Gedo. Off he wandered, shirt off, fury and sorrow playing in equal parts across his face, as the Egyptian supporters howled in delight. It ended 4-0, but it felt marred by poor decisions from players and referee alike.


GHANA 1-0 NIGERIA

If Algeria and Egypt played a game fraught with drama and emotion, the same could not be said about these two West African rivals. Ghana, without Captain Stephen Appiah, Chelsea star Michael Essien and (yet another driving midfielder) Inter Milan’s Sulley Muntari; are a young team missing their big performers. Nigeria is a team whose historical stature belies their current state. These seemingly negative things could have made for an intriguing match-up but as it was, Ghana took the lead through a headed Asamoah Gyan goal from a corner in the 21st minute and rode their luck to victory.

Nigeria was the better team but their passing lacked a cutting edge and their finishing was well below par. Striker Obafemi Martins managed to wriggle in between Ghana’s well-organised defence on a couple of occasions but each time his attempted chips were cut out by Richard Kingson, who enjoyed a solid game in goal. Premier league star John Obi Mikel showed only touches of quality in the Nigeria midfield and striker Chinedu Obasi was dominated by his Hoffenheim team-mate Isaac Vorsah, who was a rock at the heart of Ghana’s defence. African teams are often criticised for tactical naivety but Ghana played it just right, sitting deep and giving Nigeria little opportunity to utilise the pace of their front men.

Nevertheless, the Ghanaians did very little going forward and in the end it was hard not to feel as though Nigeria shouldn’t have got something from the game, particularly when substitute Yakubu diverted a drilled cross wide. Still, it was tough to feel too sorry for Nigeria when their management chose to withdraw Lokomotiv Moscow striker Osaze Odemwingie from the field twenty minutes from time. Odemwingie, who has had a good tournament, was a genuine, if rather wayward, threat for the Super Eagles. But so it goes. Nigeria are out and Ghana trundle into the final where they will have to raise their game if they hope to defeat defending champions Egypt, who have their sights set on a third consecutive Africa Cup of Nations title.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Truth and stereotyping: Goalkeepers in Africa

The stereotype of an African goalkeeper can be summed up in one word: bad. African goalkeepers are thought of as being unreliable, mentally unstable and prone to absurd mistakes. Unfortunately, this year’s CAF tournament has shown that there is currently more than a little truth in this. There has been some magnificently eccentric goalkeeping. If the Marx brothers were alive, they might well have skipped off to Angola and edited a little of the goalkeeping footage together for a slapstick feature.

Here is a sample: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D18cZEk-OMw&feature=related.

The quality of goalkeeping has attracted the internet savvy.

Here is a video compilation of this tournament’s worst goalkeeping moments, thus far: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCMt6hCZn2c

That first video features Mozambique’s João Rafael Kapango, who almost broke his neck doing a somersault over the ball. Still, the enemy was repelled and the goal was not breached. That kind of mistake has been more or less banished from the top level of the game. As former Nigeria goalkeeper Idah Peterside succinctly put it: 'We did that 20 years ago, but now the game is more technical.' Those were halcyon days for the football fan, unless it was your goalkeeper behaving like Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy.

Away from the issue of stereotyping, there is a genuine concern regarding African goalkeepers. There is no particular culture of goalkeeping in Africa. The continent has produced some good players in the position (Cameroon's Carlos Kameni and Egypt’s Essam el Hadary are two current examples) but the true stars have been attacking players. The success of players like Michael Essien and Didier Drogba means that scouts from European teams go to Africa looking for players in that mould: powerful, quick players who play in midfield or up front.

Training is a problem. In Cameroon, there is a tradition of producing good goalies, but elsewhere (and even there) pitches are covered in bottles and stones and the playing surface is too hard to dive around on. So players become goalkeepers far later in Africa. In Europe, a boy goes in goal and stays there when he is around eight, or even younger. In Africa, as in Brazil, players want to play outfield and don't go in goal until they are around twelve.

The rest of the world already knows there is more to African teams than just strength and pace, that these players might be doing more than 'running like black men to live like white men,' as Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o once put it, but until goalkeepers on the continent raise their standards, there will always be clay with which the outsiders can mould their stereotypes.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Africa Cup of Nations, Part Two

So much for the rise of the small team… As we head into the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations 2010, it is the big names – with the exception of Zambia, who have qualified for the last eight for the first time in fourteen years – that have survived. 'Survival of the fittest', Charles Darwin said. Had he been watching this tournament, he might have written of the survival of the luckiest instead. If this were South America, conspiracy theories would abound. Were the players of the smaller teams drugged? Have political figures exerted a little too much influence? Have the Angolans set up a complex oil-for-goals system of bribery? Don’t be absurd. This is Africa. Nothing like that has been mentioned by anyone.

So, how did it all play out? Here’s a group-by-group look at the action so far:

Group 1: Algeria, Angola Malawi and Mali

Algeria have qualified behind hosts Angola, thanks to the victory over Mali. The Mali team has proved to be quite the surprise package. The match against Malawi showed them in fine form, with a tremendous strike from Seydou Keita, as well as some truly awful goalkeeping from Malawi’s Swadick Sanudi, giving them a good chance of going through to the next round. Malawi had previously complained about not being given access to a training ground before their defeat to Angola, so this was yet another bitter pill for them to swallow.

CAF’s insistence that teams level on points be ranked on their head-to-head results led to a farcical situation in which Angola and Algeria played out a stultifying goalless draw in front of a crowd whose main source of entertainment was celebrating the safe passage of whichever team they supported. Algeria qualified despite having a worse goal difference than Mali. Rabah Saadane, the Algerian coach, was more than happy to take advantage of the rules, laughing at Malian protestations and saying that it was up to CAF to change things, not him.

Group 2:Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo

Côte d’Ivoire had secured qualification early by beating Ghana and drawing to Burkina Faso, so it was down to Ghana and Burkina to play for the right to join the Elephants. Predictably enough, it was the Black Stars who – despite losing their talismanic Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien to a serious injury – went on to triumph 1-0 over Burkina's Stallions The appropriately named Amadou Tall was sent off for Burkina, as they struggled to convert the chances their at times bright football made for them.

Group 3: Benin,Egypt, Mozambique and Nigeria

Benin’s President Yayi Boni had told his players that they had to qualify for the last eight of the tournament, a strategy that backfired as his loyal footballers succumbed to Nigeria and Egypt. First in the President’s office will no doubt be goalkeeper Yoann Djidonou, who excelled in making the kind of crazed, unfathomable blunders that have long given African goalkeepers a bad name in Europe. Indeed, Djidonou seemed to encapsulate this phenomenon by making good saves that would then be completely forgotten in the minds of the crowd as they watched, in horror, as he allowed the ball to roll through his legs or somersaulted over the ball when he had already appeared to catch it. The upshot of all of this is that Benin is no more. Egypt, which has won all its games, is looking good but the resurgence of Nigeria is turning heads. In the Soviet-born Peter Odemwingie, Nigeria has a striker who, at the relatively old age of 27, is finally beginning to score goals and make his presence felt on the international scene. They will also be buoyed by the return of the lightning-fast Obafemi Martins, once of Newcastle United.

Group 4: Cameroon, Gabon, Tunisia and Zambia

Zambia and Cameroon have squeezed their way into the next stage with a combination of luck, good play and doggedness. Zambia’s coach, Herve Renard (he of the long blond hair and French nationality) locked himself into a seemingly endless embrace with a besuited assistant as his team beat Gabon to reach the last eight of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 14 years. At one point it looked as though Renard wanted to escape the hug, but then he thought better of it and held on for dear life. This may be as good as it gets for his team. For Cameroon, late goals have been a constant source of friendship. After scoring a typical poacher’s goal against Tunisia, striker Samuel Eto’o showed the cameras his captain’s armband: on it was written, 'Dieu est grand'. Indeed, you could see why, with all his luck and talent, Eto’o would believe in a single divine architect.

UNWISE PREDICTIONS FOR THE QUARTERFINALS:

Angola v Ghana 24/01/2010 17:00 LUANDA

The fervent support, coupled with Ghana’s terrible injury problems, will see the host side sneak into the semi-finals.

Côte d'Ivoire v Algeria 24/01/2010 20:30 CABINDA

Lucky to get this far, Algeria will get no further. Didier Drogba and his Elephants will begin to get into gear.

Egypt v Cameroon 25/01/2010 17:00 BENGUELA

North Africa will be represented by Egypt in the semi-finals. This particular fixture is a replay of 2008’s CAF final and, although the Cameroon players have said they want revenge for that defeat, it looks as though they might merely have to mark another one down on their list of grudges.

Zambia v Nigeria 25/01/2010 20:30 LUBANGO

Nigeria are back and possess enough firepower to send the Zambians, who have been playing with real determination and skill, back to Lusaka.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The African Cup of Nations, Part One

The African Cup of Nations or, to give it its correct name, the Orange Africa Cup of Nations (the future’s bright, the future’s African football), began a week ago following the tragic killing of three members of the Togo team’s party supposedly by separatist rebels in the province of Cabinda. With eighty per cent of the Confederation of African Football’s revenue coming from the tournament, there was never any likelihood of it being called off, but the Togo team are no longer in the competition and many of their players, including star striker Emmanuel Adebayor, are taking time off as they try to come to terms with what happened.

Amid much talk about the healing nature of organised sport, which often seemed to boil down to the idea that running around outside is good for you and watching people run around outside is also good for you, the football side of the tournament kicked off on Sunday 10 January. Hosts Angola, confident that a richness in natural resources would translate to a richness of talent on the football field, cruised to a 4-0 lead over little fancied Mali, which is beloved by Western luminaries for its music but not its sport. As triumphant Angolan fans left the November 11 stadium well before the final whistle, Mali suddenly lurched into gear and went on to score four goals in the last eleven minutes to finish the game in a draw. Angola’s Portuguese coach Manuel Jose blamed the turnaround on 'fitness', but you have to wonder how fit a team has to be to sit in their own half for ten minutes and not concede four goals. The answer is 'not very'.

Regardless of Angolan disappointment, the tournament could not have got off to a better start on the field. Nothing can or will erase the memory of the violence in Cabinda, but the drama of the opening game at least provided some distraction. The Angolan team has gone on to beat Malawi 2-0 since then, and now leads the group by a point with one game left to play. The other shock in Group 1 came when Malawi crushed Algeria 3-0. Malawian fans reacted with wild delight at home. Shops reduced their prices, and taxis and buses offered free rides to all; but the game was only seen by about 500 people in the stadium, which led to bizarre scenes involving crazy Malawian celebrations being enacted in front of no-one.

The result also provoked delight among Egyptian fans, whose joy at the crushing of their arch rivals has had them singing pro-Malawi songs ever since. A t-shirt campaign featuring the Sphinx in a Malawi shirt will doubtless follow. The North African rivals fought a bitter World Cup qualifyier, which ended in triumph for Algeria and humiliation for Egypt. Now it looks as though defending champions Egypt, who have won both their games and sit at the top of Group 3, are enjoying a sort of revenge. But perhaps Egypt would rather be going to South Africa to take on England and the USA, both of whom are in Algeria’s group.

Life has also been difficult for the tournament’s big guns, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. With the removal of Togo, they now find themselves in a three-team group (Group 2) with Burkina Faso, a country with no particular football heritage to speak of. Given that two teams can qualify from the group for the next round, a smooth passage for both A-listers seemed assured. Yet something – perhaps a rousing message of support from the ever loveable President Blaise Compaoré – fired up the Burkinabé players and they performed admirably to hold Côte d’Ivoire to a goalless draw in the group’s opening game. Didier Drogba and company bounced back from this to defeat the Ghanaians 3-1, which means that the game between Burkina and Ghana on 19 January will decide who gets to join Côte d’Ivoire at the quarter finals.

Cameroon
and Nigeria are two other heavy hitters making heavy weather of it. Once tipped as the African team most likely to be first to win the World Cup, Nigeria is now struggling to maintain parity with the likes of Benin. Following a 3-1 humbling at the hands of team du jour Egypt, Nigeria beat Benin by just 1-0 to go second in Group 3. Cameroon – or the Indomitable Lions, as they prefer to be known – has long relied on the brilliance of its striker Samuel Eto’o, who currently plies his trade with Inter Milan in Italy. The Lions were runners-up last time around, but it was Cameroon which turned the planet on to the idea of African football in the early 1990s, when their team reached the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup, almost knocking out England, and the then 38-year-old Roger Milla first showed the viewing public a player who could score great goals and also celebrate them with a great dance.

Nowadays, exotic goal celebrations are ten-a-penny and Milla is a 57-year-old Ambassador for African causes. Times have changed and Gabon beat a Cameroon team shorn of invention by 1-0 in the opening game of Group 4.

The story of the first week of the CAF tournament is that of old powers on the wane and young upstarts on the rise. But it is also the story of a bunch of shocked players trying to get used to playing a game of sport following a fatal attack on their colleagues. Whatever it is, there is more to come.