Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Africa Cup of Nations: Final thoughts

They may not be going to the World Cup, but Egypt have now won the African Cup of Nations three times in a row, cementing their position as the most successful team this tournament has ever seen as well as inspiring some observers to call them the best side Africa has ever known. That they did it against a young Ghana side- winners of the under-20 World Cup and a team likely to inherit Egypt’s mantle- seemed appropriate. There’s life in the old dog yet. The last roar of the old guard… Such thoughts sprang to mind on an evening in which Ghana had more noteworthy attempts but came away with nothing, outfoxed and undone by players who, by and large, had seen and done it all before.

Egyptian captain Ahmed Hassan is the most striking example of such a player. This was his fourth winners medal, his third as captain. His country has capped him a record-breaking 172 times and he has vowed to keep on keeping on. Whether he will stick to that promise, on the international stage, is yet to be seen. He could be forgiven for letting it end this way, as the only player to win the tournament three times as a captain, as a complete national hero, but he has said that he still feels as though he has “a few competitions left in him” and, having witnessed him triumph yet again, it would be a foolhardy man who bet against him coming back to claim his fifth winners medal at the age of 36.

Overall there can be few arguments against Egypt’s triumph. They may not have played particularly well on the night, against Ghana, but they were the most consistent team over the distance. They have a good goalkeeper (a rarity), a well-organised defence, play good passing football and have a striker, in Mohamed Gedo, who possesses the shamanic like ability to come from the substitutes bench to score key goals. He claimed five in this tournament, leaving him as its top scorer. As for the rest: the hotly tipped Cote D’Ivoire were too weak at the back, Didier Drogba is a great player but he can’t do it all on his own; Nigeria lacked a cutting edge and Cameroon relies too heavily on Samuel Eto’o. Egypt’s bitter rivals Algeria, well, they play workmanlike football that needs an injection of skill. The Ghana team has impressed, particularly, or perhaps because, they have been missing so many star players. In a situation such as theirs, any result becomes a good result, and a trip to the final becomes a miracle. Nevertheless, the ingredients are there, the expectation always high, and with the return of their dynamic stars they should hope to make a splash in South Africa this summer.

Perhaps the football was always going to be left in the shadows this time around. The attack on Togo’s team bus and the subsequent handling of it by CAF, particularly their absurd decision to fine and then ban the team from the next two competitions. It has been suggested that this decision is a welcome stand against a Togolese government who would not allow their football team to return to Angola, but it looks more like a needless and wastefully cruel piece of business. The Togolese players were distraught, and their desire to return to the tournament was probably lukewarm at best. This is not meant to be a criticism- it is entirely and absolutely understandable- it is simply meant to point out that the willingness on the part of some commentators to believe that the government took the decision seems a little na├»ve. Players who have seen such things are unlikely to want to return to the scene to try and do their job. And why should they?

So, when things go so tragically wrong off the field, perhaps it is unfair to expect dramatic splendour on it. There were certainly moments of outstanding quality, with Kader Keita’s dazzling goal for Cote D’Ivoire against Algeria springing to mind, but too often the talk was of poor Goalkeeping and the vast gulf of talent between the best and worst players on each particular side. But this is how it is in a tournament this size, in a continent so vast and variable. Observers may have been hard pressed to see this year’s entertainments as a step on from the last, but the song is still being sung and the continent still wants to listen.

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