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.

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