The 2010 African Cup of Nations fell away in quality and excitement after the opening round of group games. If this year’s tournament does the same, we will be in for a long three weeks. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we’ll be bringing you up to date with the progress of the four groups in this competition as each round of matches is completed and the first round of group matches is now over. Don’t forget that all matches in this competition are being shown live on British Eurosport, and that ITV4 is also covering this tournament.
It was my fervent belief as well as hope that national pride was a stronger motivational force than money for players in the ACN. Sadly, Equatorial Guinea’s 1-0 victory over Libya proved that $1m trumps pride every time. Whatever of the (low) quality of the opening match, it was a shock of some proportions. The Equatoguineans – or “National Lightning” to use their wildly ironic nickname – are ranked almost 90 places below Libya, which is a hell of a gap, whatever the (high) margin of error in Fifa’s rankings. But whatever the extent of the “new” Libya’s national pride, it was no match for the $1m from the back pocket of the president’s son, the Equatoguineans were on, or should that be “Equatogenarians”?
Jack Charlton’s Ireland may have had a touch of the diaspora about it – check Ray Houghton’s Glaswegian tones when commentating on Ireland’s internationals for details. But this lot have stretched Fifa’s rules on national qualifications into the shape of… well… Equatorial Guinea. “Naturalised” Equatoguineans permeate the squad – Jose Javier Balboa scored the winner, for pity’s sake. But it was possible to forget the money and the origins when the TV pictures shuddered to the beat of the celebrating crowd when Balboa broke Libya’s L-shaped offside trap in the 87th minute to win the game. Until then, it had been everything a traditionally-cagey tournament opener between two poor sides promised. Libya “scored” twice in the same first-half move but the goal(s) were disallowed for reasons more complex than the average EU directive.
The possession stats on the TV pictures are in minutes not percentages. But when the caption said “EQA 13 LIB 11” you could believe that neither side had the ball 76% of the time. The sheer symbolism of Libya’s presence overwhelmed what little talent they possessed. And Equatorial Guinea possessed little talent anyway. But after the goal, some football broke out. And it could have been 1-1. 2-1 or 2-0 in the last few minutes before “National Lightning” could celebrate. So ultimately, the occasion outshone the match, which was handy.
Any comparison between the quality of the two Group A openers seemed to crush any doubt that Zambia or Senegal will reach the quarter-finals. However badly Senegal defended – and at times it was very bad indeed – they will have enough firepower to win their next two games. Likewise Zambia, whose pace, control and athleticism dwarfed that of the first match… and that was just Emmanuel Mayuka’s goal celebrations – four perfectly-executed somersaults that would have challenged for Olympic gymnastics gold. Senegal’s Newcastle United front two weren’t paired until Papiss Demba Cisse’s late introduction, by which time the previously dominant Zambians were in “what we have we hold” mode. But Cisse’s cross allowed commentator Dan O’Hagan to air the “Demba Ba hits the bar” line you suspect he’d been rehearsing for months. Zambia’s ultra-defence had manager Herve Renard “doing his pieces” (copyright Ray Wilkins) on the touchline – fortunately he has plenty of hair to tear out should the need really arise. And his locks should be fine, until the quarter-finals, anyway.
Eurosport analyst Bryan Hamilton was given a stern euphemism test by Cote D’Ivoire’s narrow, scruffy win over Sudan. He had to find as many ways to say “Cote D’Ivoire were shite” without offending viewers or appearing critical. I lost count at 14. Most of his efforts were based around “improvement” and the need to do “lots” of it. Sudan were in “plucky” territory long before the end. And ITV4’s highlights suggested they could, have drawn, even though Cote D’Ivoire’s win never seemed in doubt at the time. Didier Drogba did perform, his display a reminder of the one-man show that George Weah’s Liberia occasionally put on in the 1990s. The difference, of course, was that the other Liberians genuinely were rot.
Among the struggling Ivorians were Yaya Toure (looking a stone lighter in Elephant orange than in Manchester City blue) and Gervinho. And when goalkeeper Boubacar Barry is your second-best player, there is a “need” for “lots” of “improvement.” We had to imagine that Cote D’Ivoire were imaginative from setpieces because none of them worked. And both sides were hampered by a flag-happy linesman, who appeared to be imagining infringements (the game was filmed from a high enough camera angle to show how wrong he was, and how often). Meanwhile, commentator John Loder called Gervinho’s haircut “Peter Gabriel 1972,” which would have puzzled Genesis fans, let alone the “Dad or Grandad” we were exhorted to ask. The Elephants, as inevitably noted, will want to forget this one.
More time was spent during Angola’s 2-1 win over Burkina Faso telling us that Manucho signed for Manchester United after the 2008 ACN than he actually spent on the pitch for Manchester United . ITV had ex-United player Quintin Fortune to tell viewers all about such careers – presenter Matt Smith just avoiding saying: “So Quintin, you were a Manchester United failure too…” And when Manucho fired in the winner, it was “the kind of impact which got him a Manchester United contract…” The focus on Manucho at United detracted from other memories of the Angolans, not least goalkeeper Carlos Alberto Fernandes (Carlos Fernandes to his mates, Carlos Alberto to Bryan Hamilton), a “big unit” with a propensity for stomach injuries. These have heavily featured in this tournament’s time-wasting and unsurprisingly reappeared here as Angola hung on late on.
Carlos isn’t actually very good – he “commands his area” in the same way Joey Barton commands respect. But fortunately for both goalkeepers, a game which was occasionally joyous in midfield turned to mush in both penalty areas. This was exemplified by Angola’s opening goal, which started with some wholly inadvisable keepy-uppy in his own six-yard box by Bakary Kone, and the fact that the game’s other goals were long-range shots. Alain Traore celebrated his free-kick equaliser before he’d finished his follow through – mind you, it was only the statuesque Carlos to beat. And the winner arrowed into the net despite former Manchester United striker Manucho taking up huge lumps of turf and slipping as he shot. “Wow!” Bryan Hamilton said, correctly.
Eurosport’s live feed only starts moments before kick-off, but those moments before co-host Gabon’s tournament-opener against Niger even stirred the viewer, let alone the Gabonese players, who ran the first quarter of the game on adrenalin alone. The national anthem was the usual dirge (there was a smoking disco beat when Sudan lined up for their match, but alas this wasn’t the Sudanese anthem – not even the new South Sudanese one, played by mistake). But the signing, the noise, the fellow on the symbols were beyond the call of duty And even when Gabon eventually relaxed, they were so much the better side that the party never stopped. Niger showed why they lost their three away qualifiers, without revealing how they won their three home ones. Reference was made to Niger’s “heat.” But, while no meteorologist, I’m sure “heat” happens quite a bit in West Africa.
But whatever the home advantage was must have been considerable, because they were rubbish here. Gabon aren’t world beaters, yet Niger made them look it for 70 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had Brazilian wonderkid Neymar’s looks and skill. Previous Gabon star Daniel Cousin was a class above the rest during his late cameo (a stone above too, proof that not all the heavyweights failed to qualify). And, jet-propelled by their crowd, Gabon could throw a spanner in Group C’s works. Niger look as close to the proverbial “whipping boys” as anyone – their 2-0 defeat here was the heaviest of the round. And both Tunisia and Morocco, who served up the best match, look handily-placed with whips.
It should have been a draw, and would have been but for Marouane Chamakh and substitute Youssouf Hadji. Chamakh revealed why Arsenal re-signed Thierry Henry, although failure to convert his clearest chance was more down to good goalkeeping than the “ring-rustiness” Eurosport’s Leroy Rosenior suggested. Hadji, meanwhile, was revealed as the younger brother of 1990s Moroccan star Mustafa Hadji, not his son – I’m not getting as old as I feared. Unfortunately for Morocco, Hadji showed all his elder brother’s sublime control to set up a potential equaliser. But his actual dad might have done better with the shot. Tunisia led by a freak goal, Khalid Korbi’s gently lobbed free-kick nearly parting striker Saber Khalifa’s eight hairs before finding the met. Rosenior insisted Khalifa was claiming the goal, even over pictures showing Khalifa telling Korbi it was his.
No such doubts, or sloppiness, about Tunisia’s second, substitute Youssef Msakni gliding past two defenders and finishing with as close to aplomb as we have yet seen – most of the shooting has been aircraft-threatening. The goal sealed Tunisia’s victory, (“the Carthage Eagles have wind beneath their wings,” noted O’Hagan, another line he’d rehearsed for weeks). But the usual commentators’ nonsense about how dangerous a 2-0 lead can be rang true here. Their goal was offside by a yard. And you sensed that given another five minutes, Morocco would have levelled, as they put in a storming finish… after Chamakh was subbed. The match between Gabon and Morocco, which is to be played on Friday, will be pivotal in this group.
Mali versus Guinea should be Group D’s pivot. For all that Ghana were as scruffy as Cote D’Ivoire in their 1-0 win over Botswana, you sense they have the organisation and power to deal with the pace and power served up by the Guineans. Eurosport insisted Mali were worthy 1-0 winners but it was difficult to see why, although the game was not as one-sided as ITV highlights implied. Even with the statuesque Bobo Balde giving Celtic fans disturbing flashbacks, Guinea looked vibrant, except during a curiously out-of-place third quarter where both sides seemed to take a mutually pre-arranged breather before starting again on 67 minutes.
Bakaye Traore’s winner had enough slices of luck about it to cover the quarter-finals at least. Mali’s tree-trunk centre-forward Chiek Diabate got the ball to Traore more by freak yachting accident than design (“my plan was to miss the ball and fall over,” noted Eurosport’s Matt Jackson, semi-disapprovingly). And despite doubts expressed on all channels, the deflection off a defender’s arse beat the keeper. Also unlucky was Ibrahima Diallo, booked for “simulation” after being unceremoniously upended by Mali’s Mahamadou N’diaye as he flew into the penalty area – the camera caught Diallo’s expression, momentarily fearful of the dismissal he was expecting. That said, Diallo sliced an outswinging corner so badly moments later that he would have been booked for time-wasting had Guinea led – it would have gone clean out of most League Two grounds.
Meanwhile Guinean substitute Ousmane Barry was inches away from cross-after-cross as Guinea chased the game late on. This was probably why he was sub in the first place, though not being called “Bangoura” placed him at a disadvantage in this team. So Mali will fancy their chance of the group’s second spot. This now only requires victory over Botswana, who were more accomplished and better organised than Niger, but scarcely more threatening. The view was that they lacked belief to pressurise Ghana after captain John Mensah completed his goalscorer/sent-off double with twenty-five minutes left. But Botswana believed; they were just wrong.
Their one proper attack should have produced a stunning equaliser, Penyo Mongala’s nonchalant back-heel and Misimanegape Ramohibidu’s far-post cross setting up Moemedi Moatlhaping’s header which was acrobatically cleared off the line by John Boye (cue “Waltons” theme music in my head for the rest of the day). However, if Ghana ever needed a second goal, even with ten men, you never doubted that they could get it. Group D is theirs to lose. Had the games in Equatorial Guinea – Groups A and B – been as involving as those in Gabon, it would have been a decent first round. But they weren’t. So it wasn’t. As Bryan Hamilton might say: “there’s room for improvement.”
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