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.