I’m a fan of international football tournaments on the whole, regardless of quality (regular readers may have spotted this long ago). And the 2012 “edition” of the African Cup of Nations certainly put that philosophy to the test. Take out an extraordinary second round of group games and the uplifting climax and you were left with a series of not very good football matches, spoiled by wild shooting, woeful set-pieces, shocking referee’s assistants, poor sportsmanship and crowds which gave all the grounds the look of an Isthmian League matchday… and a cold Tuesday evening at that. Yet I was sorry to see it finish.
Eurosport’s commendable and comprehensive coverage of the event got me involved very quickly. But it was often a relief to get away from the stuttering football and constant injury stoppages, even the Johnstone Paint Trophy occasionally felt more like “proper” football. The indifferent displays of the top-ranked nations are well-documented. The struggles of strikers such as Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan and Senegal’s Newcastle front two – so much more effective and exciting against Aston Villa than Equatorial Guinea – spoke volumes; and the fact that a 34-year-old Hull City reject with next-to-no top-quality match fitness was the most impressive forward said the rest.
Gabon’s Daniel Cousin (for it was he) won a Rangers contract with his displays (though the Glasgow club’s little local difficulties have scuppered that). Cousin and the starkly-coiffured Pierre-Emerick Aubemyang were the strike pairing of the tournament.
They edged out tournament-winner Emmanuel Mayuka and the perennially-promoted Zambian army man Christopher Katonga – a warrant officer at the start of proceedings, promoted to Chief Warrant Officer after the group stages and “possibly a Field Marshal if Zambia win the trophy”, according to Eurosport’s John Roder. For all his diving and posing, Cote D’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba had his moments, as did Angola’s Manucho and the Peter Crouch tribute act by the name of Cheik Diabate alongside H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man in Mali’s forward line. Meanwhile, Libya’s Ahmed Saad Osman, introduced “good play by Osman” into football’s lexicon for the first time since about 1983.
But this tournament’s goal tally only exceeded 2010’s (76-71) because there were three extra games. The lack of net bulging certainly had little to do with the quality of custodian. Zambia’s madcap Kennedy Mweene was probably the best, while Boubacar Barry’s six clean sheets for Cote D’Ivoire will mystify cynics for evermore. Ghana’s Adam Kwarasey looked good, but only in comparison to predecessor Richard Kingson, who even in his absence appeared to be a role model for many of the tournament’s netminders. That said, it wasn’t difficult to warm to Sudan’s Akram Salim. A word too for co-host shotstoppers, Equatorial Guinea’s hard-working (if not Equatoguinean) Danilo and Gabon’s screen-filling Didier Ovono. Ovono may have let Mali’s quarter-final equaliser slip under his body but he managed to make even that seem a brave effort.
I could use two words for Angola’s Carlos Fernandes but there might be kids reading. He isn’t even that age-old euphemism for rubbish goalkeepers, “a good shot-stopper.” In this tournament, he was booked for time-wasting twice, which answered that age-old question: “what the hell must Angola’s second-choice keeper be like?” But he could and should have been booked for time-wasting just by walking onto the pitch. He was eccentric, but in a bad way. He barely commanded his own body space, let alone his six-yard box, and his attempts at feigning injury were an embarrassment to play-actors everywhere (though he wasn’t even the best in the tournament at that). I hope I haven’t left anything out.
There was little to commend Angola generally and the fact that they helped eliminate Burkina Faso was particularly harsh on players such as Jonathan Pitroipa, one of the livelier midfield play-makers, and his colleague Alain Traore (the “Traore of the tournament” – in a tournament full of them). Pitroipa didn’t have to do much to be in this category. Equatorial Guinea’s Juvenal was a fine passer. But players such as Mali’s Seydou Keita, Ghana’s Andre Ayew (bar his fabulous goal against Mali) and Guinea’s Pascal Feinduono lacked drive. Scruffs of the neck were largely safe. J
Jordan Ayew outshone his older brother, once he got the chance, until he was worn down by the petty fouling which dominated the middle-third in most games. And Niger’s Moussa Maazou, nominally a forward but playing deeper, was “one to watch” in the truest sense of the phrase, with his pace, clumsiness and ability to get away with outrageous handballs, which nearly did for Tunisia. He was Niger’s one discernible tactic. But that put them one ahead of some teams I could mention. And it speaks volumes for the lack of engine-room quality that Gervinho made the team of the tournament’s midfield. Yes…Gervinho.
The best that can be said about Burkina Faso defender Mamadou Tall is that he was appropriately named. (imagine if other names on shirts were as ‘honest.’ “Diver” on Drogba’s back, “Poser” for Carlos Fernandes, “Underachiever” for Senegal’s…entire team). But he didn’t even win that award by much from Zambia’s way-more impressive STOPhira Sunzu. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m getting old. But I was as impressed with good centre-back play in this tournament as any other aspect. Blimey, even Kolo Toure wasn’t bad. Ex-Wolves boss Mick McCarthy’s voice kept entering my head, booming “good defending” when players such as Equatorial Guinea’s Lawrence Doe and Gabon’s Bruno Manga piled through unsuspecting opposition forwards.
We even saw a left-back, Mali’s Adama Tamboura, who was “good going forward” and could defend – a rare breed in modern football. And Ghana’s Jonathan Mensah certainly got involved, be it scoring, injuring himself, injuring others or getting sent-off – if only a few more of his colleagues had got involved too. My one defensive disappointment was not seeing Equatorial Guinea’s “Colin” take the field, with Kily Alvarez the tournament’s star wing-back. Not for any football reasons, just that I’m fascinated by an Equatoguinean (and he was actually born there) who wants to be known as “Colin.”
Once the pundits got it out of their heads that being “a foul in the Premier League” was not yet a law of the game, they began to appreciate that the refereeing was of the highest standard seen at a major international tournament for some time. They were lenient at times, yes, even making allowances for the sanitised product which the EPL is becoming, but far more often than not, they were lenient in a good way. That lenience stretched to over-indulging minimally-injured players who insisted on going for a lie down if the wind gusted too much. But the players themselves took much of the responsibility, and should take most of the stick, for that.
By sharp contrast, the referee’s assistants were almost as uniformly awful as the foul throws they constantly failed to penalise (“poor decision there by the referee’s assistant” by Eurosport’s Stewart Robson will be one of the voices inside my head for years). Some of them must have missed the meeting covering the offside law, and not just the fiddly modern one, either. Unlike, for example, the World Cup, the team of officials did not come as a one-nation package. But that wasn’t why there seemed to be a lack of co-ordination between referees and their assistants. They could have shared the same flat and been out-of-kilter. The referees were as good as their assistants were no good at all.
There may have been a “head-to-head rule” shaped blot on the landscape of British Eurosport’s ACN programming. But it was the only blot. Even the wall-to-wall tennis coverage of the first week didn’t impinge on the comprehensive coverage. During last year’s World Under-20s Cup, a show jumping magazine show denied us eight minutes of a New Zealand games (which, in hindsight, wasn’t a minus). Ninety seconds of Guinea/Botswana failed to make the screen, thanks to some over-complicated skating, The rest we saw, except where the feed went completely. The only time the coverage betrayed its low-budget origins was in the editing of match highlights. In my decade watching Eurosport, this has always involved leaving out vast chunks of the action in one go.
In this competition, the highlights of Equatorial Guinea v Cote D’Ivoire (the only game not re-shown promptly and often) included minute-by-minute coverage of…er…the loss of the feed from Malabo for twelve first-half minutes. This might have provided more entertainment than Senegal managed in three games but it was a curious inclusion and denied us the opportunity to laugh at Didier Drogba’s penalty failure…again and again. Eurosport and ITV took the same feed – the BBC sent people out to the previous two ACNs, which allowed Steve Wilson to talk us through some lively off-the-ball action during Algeria’s screwball semi-final against Egypt in 2010. So most comparisons between the channels centred on commentaries and punditry.
Matt Smith was in his element introducing ITV 4’s highlights. Alison Bender chaired one show and, whilst not being bad, emphasised that the job isn’t as easy as it looks. But even Smith struggled to get something interesting out of the nice-but-dull Quintin Fortune. “Credit to…” was Fortune’s default position on any issue, which betrayed his undoubted good nature. But it was as incisive as he got. The very eloquent Efan Ekoku was a prayer answered. Eurosport’s roster of analysts was a wide, varied and motley crew. With Gary O’Reilly used just once, Matt Jackson was the star, combining solid analysis, intelligent use of his own experience in the game and O’Reilly-esque humour – particularly when recounting his experiences of marking Drogba.
Robson supplied the requisite quota of cynicism, much of it directed at Cote D’Ivoire’s Sol Bamba, which seemed harsh, or Emmanuel Eboue, which didn’t. John Duncan was brief but insightful – noticing Sudan’s 4-4-1 quarter-final formation long before Saif Musawi was sent-off. Bryan Hamilton had an enthusiasm which some games definitely needed, and a plethora of methods for saying Cote D’Ivoire were rubbish in their first two games without offending anyone. And Leroy Rosenior…no, let’s not spoil the mood. Eurosport won the TV tussle. And if I sounded unfair in my criticism of their ignorance of the “head-to-head” rule, it was only because I care. There was one bit of telly we could all have done without. While the debate rages over pre-match handshakes in the EPL, one pre-international match ritual needs legislating into history.
Not the national anthems themselves – dirges mostly, bar Libya’s new funky little number, though stirring when done right (Gabon) – but the fact that we have to hear the players, the most tuneful of whom were either from Botswana or not singing at all. The tournament provided many memorable images, though. Gabon’s Remy Ebanega set a world record for the largest strip of Elastoplast ever worn in a public place – his head swathed in the stuff in the memorable Morocco game. Gabon’s first lady, Sylvia Bongo, was a stark sight at the Panthers’ games (though she wasn’t at the memorable Moroccan one – her loss). But even she couldn’t distract from the military man sat in the second row, saluting like Benny Hill’s old Fred Scuttle character. And no-one who witnessed Zambia’s victory celebrations will forget everything they saw – not even the staunchest Cote D’Ivoire fan. It was truly uplifting stuff. As I noted before, the best team might not have won. But the right team surely did.
See you in South Africa, next year.
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