The African Cup Of Nations Springs To Life
Sometimes it is so, so nice to be so, so wrong. Spain’s 4-3 win over Yugoslavia in Euro 2000 was memorably described at the time has “having everything except full-frontal nudity.” Given Equatorial Guinea’s celebration of their astounding 2-1 win over Senegal in the ACN last night, I expect we had that as well. A tearful winning goalscorer David “Kily” Alvarez Aguirre (told you this lot were cosmopolitan) got halfway there before realising there was still a minute left after his 25-yard thunderbolt (“which would still be travelling if there wasn’t a net” – Piers Edwards, BBC website) “won” the game. And, at the time of writing, we await an explanation for mercurial centre-half Laurence Doe’s dismissal in the post-coital chaos. So maybe he did strip to the bare essentials.
Still, whatever the reason for his dismissal, it gave us another iconic image to add to the 94 already served up by stoppage time, as he sat, uncontrollably shaking in celebration, like a toddler who’d just discovered the joys of potty-training, at the entrance to the players’ tunnel when the final whistle eventually sounded. It brought to mind Luis Suarez’s celebration of Ghana’s late penalty miss at the 2010 World Cup, after he had been dismissed for the goal-line handball which denied the Black Stars a semi-final place. But the reaction of neutrals to these two similar images could surely not have contrasted more. And it wasn’t as if the evening hadn’t been impossibly dramatic already. From the moment Eurosport transmitted pictures showed a rain-swept Estadio de Bata, with the caption “start delayed due to heavy rain”, events had taken on a bizarre aspect.
If famously-grumpy cricket umpire Harold “Dickie” Bird had undertaken the pitch inspections when the torrents stopped, they’d have been looking again in October. And in the complete absence of pitch-drying technology, prospects for play, as cricket commentators say, were not good. Eighty degree temperatures and 80% humidity suggested good drying weather – my mother would have got the washing dry in a minute-and-a-half – though I don’t know whether such weather (sorry!) has that impact. And the games simply had to go on. The tournament, and doubtless TV schedules the world over, did not allow for postponements until “tomorrow”, as there is no gap between the rounds of games at the group stage. So it was that Libya and Zambia took to an unplayable field an hour-and-a-quarter after their scheduled kick-off.
The pitch was especially terrible in front of the main stand – resembling either the Somme or the Baseball Ground during the winters of the 1970s, depending on your sense of perspective. Whatever was built on that stand had cast shadows which protected two patches of what used to be grass from the heat but not the wet. And most of the photos from this game looked likely to be of spray-soaked tussles for possession in these areas. Libya’s Ahmed Zuway momentarily forgot the conditions when diving to try and win a first-half free-kick. He didn’t do it again…at least not there. But, more remarkably, the best game of the tournament emerged from the swamp. For the first hour, Zambia looked like scoring every time they attacked; while Libya DID score both times they attacked. In vaguely normal conditions, you suspect Zambia’s direct running style and quick, neat passing would have run lanes through Libya.
However, they were hampered both by the quagmire and by early Libyan goals in each half. Both were scored by Ahmed Osman, which made you wish that former England centre-back and Eurosport regular Russell Osman had been a co-commentator (and that’s not a thought I’ve had before). And they gave Libya enough confidence to be the more dangerous side late on. Zambia still impressed going forward, with Emmanuel Mayuka likely to have “Premier League clubs looking at him” before long. Mayuka volleyed home Zambia’s first equaliser, a brilliant over-the-shoulder effort which nonetheless resembled a school playground re-enactment of Marco Van Basten’s famous strike in Euro ’88 rather than the real thing.
It didn’t stop Mayuka’s multi-somersault celebration. In the conditions, handshakes all round might have been wiser. But he did at least cut down from four somersaults to three. And the Chipolopolo’s second equaliser won plenty of style points too, Isaac Chansa’s photogenic overhead kick from one side of the six-yard box landing on the diving head of captain Christopher Katongo on the other side. The teams rapidly and predictably tired late on, but both deserved something from the game, which would probably have gone down in some sort of history were it not for what followed. The Equatogenarians, who appear to be managed by Rio Ferdinand’s dad, certainly had plenty to fight for. They “only” needed a draw against Senegal to leave both they and Zambia needing a draw in their last game, against each other, to qualify. But the inverted commas around “only” were entirely appropriate as, before kick-off, they were as lowly-ranked in Africa as Senegal were in the world.
The pitch didn’t cut up as much as feared during the first game. And some well-placed tractor racing, plus another hour’s heat and humidity, improved conditions immeasurably. Eurosport’s Stewart Robson informed us that “unless you’re actually here, you can’t see how bad the pitch is.” However, this was quite a wild assumption to make from a UK television studio. And the conditions certainly didn’t affect Senegal’s “Newcastle United front two” of Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse, who emerged intact from coach Amara Traore’s cull of under-performers from the Zambian defeat – which included captain Mamadou Niang. Cisse was as lively as he must have looked to Newcastle for them to pay “undisclosed” millions for him. But he was unlucky. Ba was continuing the sort of nightmare tournament which often afflicts players identified as potential tournament stars, as he had justifiably been. On this form, Toon might still want Andy Carroll back.
Senegal should have led by half-time. But the Equatogenarians had threatened on the break and Thierry Fidjeu broke the ill-advised Senegalese offside trap at least twice without persuading the referee’s assistant that he had done so. And I had just finished writing “EG slightly the better side” when they went ahead. Juvenal Edjogo’s ball to the wing found the unlikely Kily steaming up from full-back to put in the sort of cross which gave David Beckham his close friendship with Tom Cruise. It was “asking to be headed in,” as the cliché goes, and Iyanga Travieso (a.k.a. Randy, for reasons which are probably not our business) said “yes.” Roared on by thousands in the ground, and thousands more in Newcastle anxious to see their new Senegalese strike pairing back in Toon, Equatorial Guinea had 25 minutes to hang on, as Senegal added some long-awaited urgency to their build-up play.
It wasn’t backs-to-the-wall stuff either, as they continued to break with intelligence which defied their strongest critics (hello!). But it looked as if the pivotal moment had arrived with two minutes left on the clock. The hosts had just started to indulge in desperate, “kick-it-anywhere” defending when Narcisse Ekanga decided to indulge in a bout of play-acting which he could have been named after. Having initially failed to persuade the referee to give a free-kick for a clear non-foul, Narcissus believed a grimace, a clutch of his calf and a couple of pirouettes on the mudheap would change the decision. It didn’t. No Oscar nomination in the post for our Narcissus. Indeed, if he had previously won an Oscar, the academy would have asked for it back after that slice of ham. And as the quickly-recovered Ekanga resumed his defensive, non-thespian duties, Moussa Sow scrambled home an equaliser as ugly as it was vital.
Yet, just as in Equatorial Guinea’s game against Libya, the late goal was cue for a bout of “you attack, we attack.” Deme Ndiaye’s snapshot from the edge of the box missed the post by the width of a post. And, in a near action-replay of that late goal against Libya, Javier Balboa curled a 93rd-minute shot towards the corner of the net, until it seemed to turn like a Graeme Swann off-break and rolled wide of the post by less than the width of a post. What a climax, what a game, what a night. Senegal were still, just, in the competition, yet didn’t deserve to be. And if Equatorial Guinea and Zambia manufactured a draw in the last qualifier to see them both through, hey, we’d have a whip round to pay the fine.
Yet for all that we had seen, we hadn’t seen anything yet. Alan Hansen would have been screaming at Senegal’s defenders at such a high octave that only dogs with hearing aids would hear him. They backed off so far they were nearly treading on the ball boys behind the goal. The centre-backs appeared to beckon Kily to shoot and to wave through that shot like traffic-control policemen on uppers. But only Hansen would have cared, and even he might not have cared for long.
If there were any neutrals with tickets for both games who braved the rainstorm, they were the luckiest football fans on the planet – even on a night when Barcelona and Real Madrid were serving up a classic clasico. Not even the interminably dull Quinton Fortune on ITV 4’s highlights package could suck the life out of a football evening like this. Those who suggested that “Equatorial Guinea could be the first to leave the tournament” were put firmly in their place. And, yes, that was me. Sometimes it is so, so nice to be so, so wrong.
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