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For all the praise heaped upon Burkina Faso for their unexpected run to the AFCON 2013 final, there is little doubting that Nigeria were the best team in the tournament. The Super Eagles only showed this intermittently in the final itself, most importantly with the appropriately-named Sunday Mba’s stunning winning goal and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama’s stunning 72nd-minute save from substitute Wilfried Sanou. However, their performances over the three knockout games were far and above what any other team could consistently produce over a mostly disappointing three weeks of football.
ITV’s Jim Beglin maintained his fixation with the “surface,” noting on about 94 occasions that the one at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg (‘Soccer City’ to its mates) was “lively.” This, he claimed, was due to a concert there the previous week by that well-known beat combo he appeared to call “Red Hot and the Chilli Peppers.” Rock on, Jim. Mba’s goal, therefore, was even better than it looked, as he had the wherewithal to deal with the “surface” by not letting the ball hit it when he flew past Burkinabe beard-of-the-year Mohamed Koffi and fired his left-foot shot past keeper Daouda Diakite.
The goal arrived in the 40th minute. But by half-time, it was being noted around the world that Mba loves scoring on a Sunday – having scored the winner in the quarter-final against Cote D’Ivoire seven days previously – and that he “won’t be playing in the Nigerian Premier League next season” – the Enugu Rangers midfielder being one of six home-based players in the Super Eagles squad. Nigeria were very well worth their lead, even though they had faded after a dominant start. Diakite fumbled the ball more often than Enyeama touched it in the first fifteen minutes. And one of those fumbles should have helped break the deadlock. But Ideye Brown, who had an ostentatiously bad match, fired the newly-loosened ball over the bar from six yards.
Burkinabe striker Aristide Bance looked more than ever like the ‘star’ of the “cheese-stringed spaghetti” ad which has aired throughout the tournament’s TV coverage. And he looked more like his ‘old self’ (i.e. useless) than the world-beater of the semi-final against Ghana, although he wasn’t over-helped by the service he was getting from his colleagues. While Nigeria’s Victor Moses was taking the game and the occasion largely in his stride, Burkina Faso’s Jonathan Pitroipa was not, even when he wasn’t being knocked off his stride (which I noted, apropos of nothing, were mostly in the penalty area).
Of course, for much of the lead up to the final, Pitroipa thought he wouldn’t be playing in it, because of his dismissal in the semi-final. So it was perhaps understandable that he ended up effectively not playing in it anyway. And when the TV cameras lingered on Alain Traore’s wistful expression as he watched from the bench, you couldn’t but feel that his was always likely to be the greater loss. Nigeria missed Emmanuel Emineke up-front almost as much, with his replacement Ikechukwu Uche having a minimal impact and Uche’s own substitute, Ahmed Musa, having nothing like the whirlwind impact he’d had on the semi-final. “It isn’t that sort of game,” noted Beglin, correctly.And Eurosport’s match preview missed both Emineke and Traore. The latter was still trailed as one of the final’s key players, even though he hadn’t been likely to play since he got injured in the final group game. And the former was the subject of an in-depth interview, before commentator Wayne Boyce had to sheepishly admit that Emineke too was out injured.
It wasn’t a bad match… for a final. But most of the clear-cut chances were created from individual errors, setpieces or, as with Ideye Brown’s above, both. As favourites, Nigeria were booed with the same gusto reserved for Ghana in the semi-final. But the Johannesburg crowd were soon booing every time an attacking move went wrong. They booed a lot. By half-time, Efan Ekoku was smiling in the ITV studio. Fabrice Muamba still looked and sounded happier when Nigeria scored, clapping and cheering while Ekoku tentatively raised his hands in the air but could only say “was that Ideye?”
He might really have let himself go had Nigeria manage to grab “that all-important second goal.” But while Burkina Faso showed little invention in their increasingly fraught search for an equaliser, the Super Eagles found increasingly imaginative ways to avoid even getting in a shot. Moses hesitated twice when in sight of the final defender and failed to get a meaningful shot away even when that defender was Bakary Kone. And when Moses eventually displayed some penalty-box composure to leave Musa with only the fumbling Diakite to beat, the substitute tripped himself up.
Within a minute of Musa crumpling in a self-inflicted heap, Enyeama tipped Sanou’s low right-foot drive across goal millimetres wide of the far post and out for a… well… goalkick, actually – the match wouldn’t have fully belonged in this tournament without at least one refereeing blooper. And for all the Burkinabes’ late huffing and puffing, Nigeria fashioned, and squandered, all the subsequent chances. Moses and Ideye (twice) didn’t so much miss the target as avoid it completely in two late goalmouth melees. Then Burkina Faso’s all-time top scorer Moumouni Dagano showed just why he…has only ever scored one AFCON finals’ goal, launching a stoppage-time free-kick firmly in the direction of Ouagadougou.Enyeama rushed feverishly out of goal to catch one last hopeful-yet-hopeless ball into the box. And with the referee on the edge of the area blowing the final whistle, Enyeama ill-advisedly tried to lift him up on his shoulders, which might have been the weirdest penalty award ever had the ref not shown understandable resistance to this unsolicited grab at his thighs from behind.
The Super Eagles celebrations were many and varied. There were the prayer rituals – a common feature in the most publicly-religious competition ever played. Four members of the backroom staff were hunched tightly together, as if they were playing the smallest-ever game of tiddly-winks. And as Nigeria’s never-knowingly shy coach Stephen Keshi celebrated becoming the second person to win AFCONs as both player and manager, by being carried shoulder-high by his emotional and expressive assistant Daniel Amokachi, a fellow-veteran – along with Ekoku himself – of Nigeria’s last AFCON victory, in 1994.
Ekoku playfully suggested that only Amokachi had broad enough shoulders to carry Keshi shoulder-high. “He was big then, he’s even bigger now,” he said, at last having the self-satisfied demeanour of the tournament’s best pundit, whose team had won.
Third-place play-off: Mali 3 Ghana 1
Brought up on genuinely meaningless ‘third-place play-off’ matches in World Cup finals, we tend to forget that some are not meaningless at all. When bronze medals are at stake, matters can get tasty – as witnessed by South Korea’s, ahem, ‘combative’ display against Japan in last year’s Olympic mens’ tournament. Less violent, but no less competitive, was Mali’s second consecutive third-place triumph over Ghana, whose ‘Black Stars’ nickname became less appropriate with every game in South Africa.
The nations met in group and third-placed matches last year and this. But the familiarity bred a genuinely watchable encounter. Other pressures drove this too, not least those on Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah, who might have played better himself, even now, than a few of his squad – hello, Asamoah Gyan.Mali’s marauding left-back Adama Tamboura was marauding again, with no danger of being as exposed defensively as he’d been by Nigeria. And he made Mahamadou Samassa’s 21st-minute opener with the first-ever cross to have “diving header written all over it,” – according to Eurosport’s Mark Bright. Samassa included some neat Dizzy Gillespie puffed-out cheeks in his celebration.
Seydou Keita, the most laid-back legend in general, let alone international football, history, doubled the Eagles’ advantage just after half-time (note to the Ghanaian FA: nickname your team the ‘Black Eagles’ next time – it can’t be a worse bet than picking Gyan again). But Keita failed to include any jazz greats in his celebration, unless Charlie Parker ran like… that. The game’s ‘pivotal moment’ arrived in the 57th minute. A kneeling Paul Koulibaly was penalised for a non-existent handball in the six-yard box – the match wouldn’t have fully belonged… tournament… refereeing blooper (see above).
But it hasn’t been a good time for Mubaraks (Boyce, incidentally, seemed surprised that Egypt had followed their three AFCON titles in-a-row with non-qualification last year and this. The ten o’clock news clearly starts at half past ten for Wayne). And Mubarak Wokaso’s sky-high penalty wouldn’t have looked out of place in the ghastly shoot-out display which brought Ghana to this place. The Ghanaian bench was collectively as agape as Isaac Vorsah had been at Nelspruit four days earlier, which was understandable, given that Wokaso would have clinched the golden boot, thanks to four well-taken penalties among his five tournament goals…if he’d scored.
There would have been a few open mouths at Mali keeper Soumbeyla Diakite as he flew off towards Bamako while Kwadwo Asamoah’s 30-yard drive flew past him into the net. Keepers have been amusingly wrong-footed by deflections throughout the tournament (well, they’ve made me laugh). But Asamoah’s shot wasn’t deflected. And it would have had to defy a few laws of physics to move in the air that much.Diakite had, literally, dropped hints earlier that instead of aiming for “the centre of the penalty area” (Bright), Ghana should have aimed their crosses for the centre of his gloves. His display was as wayward as his Burkinabe namesake’s the following day (are they related, the West African ‘Fumbling-Diakites’?). But stoppage-time was a disaster for Ghana. Solomon Asante was booked for kicking a defender in vain search for another penalty – though who knows who would have taken it. And Sigamary Diarra set off Mali’s joyous celebrations with his last-minute left-foot drive.
Like last year, the story of this tournament was better than the football in it, although neither were as ‘good’ as last year. What may prevent AFCON 2013 from going down in history as ‘dreadful’ was the quality of the later games. We were told that the competition would be diminished by the exit of the hosts. But – by co-incidence only, it must be stressed – virtually all the best games came after South Africa’s shoot-out defeat to the careful Malians brought their mixed but ultimately disappointing campaign to a quarter-final end (how very English).
Nigeria and Burkina Faso, in contrasting ways, were the right finalists. But that is faint praise. Too many ordinary teams failed to live up to some very ordinary potential. Ethiopia looked good at their best but horrible at their worst. DR Congo, Niger and the entire North African contingent, especially Tunisia, provided some nice individual memories but little more, although Morocco were not blessed with the greatest fortune and Algeria certainly deserved to be remembered for more than being the first team knocked out.
That accolade would have sat easier on Angola or, sadly, last year’s triumphant Zambians, who were shorn of the external inspiration which carried them to that triumph… and for the most part looked shorn of any inspiration at all. Togo’s defensive mindset failed to make best use of their talents. Emmanuel Adebayor can cut a frustrated, isolated figure when he’s surrounded by mates and scoring a goal-a-game. So he didn’t need the help here.
Cape Verde’s reticence may have hindered them too. They were as lauded as both finalists, but partly because of commentators’ obsession with their minnow status and tiny population, which overlooked the team’s selection from the Cape Verdean diaspora. Centre-back Nando Neves, though, deserves a special mention as the new dictionary definition of “rugged.” Cote D’Ivoire, as usual, had all the talent…and all the team spirit of the Huhne family. And Ghana, this year anyway, were even worse. Two high-profile refereeing clowns, Slim Jdidi and Daniel Bennett, skewed the view of a tournament that wasn’t that badly officiated. Nelspruit beach did likewise for the view of the playing conditions. And the largely fine telly coverage was similarly undermined by some headline silliness.
Mark Bright needs no further comment – and if he provides no further comment on televised football, I will not feel my life diminished. Danny Mills offered some ‘original’ perspectives. And Ekoku, Clarke Carlisle and, hey, even Andy Townsend (once he’d bothered to do a bit of research) enhanced, rather than spoiled, the occasions they were analysing. Eurosport deserve all the usual plaudits for covering every minute of the competition. But even they let themselves down with some lazily-edited highlights programmes. Key aspects of too many games were simply cut out, even when they were referenced later in the commentaries. So ITV4 won the TV battle, just. Quentin Fortune improved on last year. Fabrice Muamba improved over the three weeks. And Efan Ekoku was the top pundit, deadpan though he remained almost to the last.
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Congrats to Nigeria. I was disappointed that Emineke couldn’t play but that perhaps kept the scoreline respectable.
One ‘cup final’ too many for Burkina Faso after their extraordinary semi-final – particularly with Traore sidelined. They had great spirit, though, and will be my abiding memory of a largely forgettable tournament.