AFCON 2017: Round One

by | Jan 18, 2017

The politics

At one stage, at least three-and-a-third of AFCON’s 16 finalists were seriously threatening boycotts…because of money and facilities and the lack thereof, mostly. Uganda, DR Congo, Cameroon (their seven refusenik players being the “third”) and Guinea-Bissau were headline news for the “wrong” reasons. And few nations had a trouble-free preparation.

Meanwhile, Gabon’s political opposition have organised an event boycott, not over-difficult if previous AFCON finals “crowds” are a guide. Its early success was masked by the small tournament venues. But reports of tickets sold for under £1 (cheap even at depressed economy prices) indicate such success.

The shameless plug

The Guardian newspaper’s Jonathan Wilson has a twitter feed very worth following, including informative, entertaining daily podcasts. And I’m not saying this because one caster of pods is fellow Kingstonian fan Taimour Lay. OK, I am. And these guys are stronger on the political stuff than me. I’m strictly football. Which reminds me…

The football

Group A: Gabon 1 Guinea-Bissau 1; Burkina Faso 1 Cameroon 1

Level on paper but Burkina Faso’s and Cameroon’s qualification opportunities to squander. Of all the ill-prepared teams, Gabon and Guinea-Bissau looked the most ill-prepared during a mainly-wretched opening game. If I hadn’t taken notes, I’d have forgotten it already. And it only happened on Saturday.

For seven minutes after half-time, Gabon played with energy and thought, plenty enough to deal with a Guinea-Bissau side who looked every inch the 41st seeds they were for AFCON qualification. Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce over-egged it by comparing Guinea-Bissau’s qualification to “Luxembourg or the Faroe Islands” reaching the Euros (even a 24-team one). But by half-time, you saw his point.

However, after Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang’s near-inevitable goal, Gabon stopped playing, unwisely in a group which could still be decided by results against Guinea-Bissau. They conceded late free-kicks 40 yards from goal as if they had told Guinea-Bissau “playmaker” Zezinho to “keep practising them until you get them right.”

Frederic Mendy headed Zezinho’s first decent delivery straight at Gabon’s uber-veteran keeper Didier Ovono. But on 89 minutes 59 seconds, centre-back Juary Soares made no mistake. Stewart Robson suggested on Eurosport co-commentary that “around the penalty spot will do” as Zezinho lined up one last setpiece. It did.

Until Benjamin Mukandjo pinged a wonderful free-kick past a young Garth Crooks (Kouakou Koffi) in Burkina Faso’s goal, the second game was little better, the “fun” coming from the absentee national anthems. This went unremarked until the Burkinabes had stood silently for ages, hands-on-hearts. Some players eventually began their own unintentionally a-capella version. And Cameroon sang lustily when their anthem wasn’t played.

Eurosport’s Tim Caple suggested that “several issues” could have caused this, adding ingeniously that it “could be the PA system.” He didn’t say what else it could have been. And as the Burkinabes hadn’t been in major pre-tournament dispute, protest could be ruled out. It was the PA system. Because of course it was

Mukandjo’s goal galvanised matters, with Koffi making a fabulous sliding tackle to keep the half-time score 1-0. Caple said it was “nearly a Schumacher,” which suggested his memories of the 1982 World Cup were hazy. Mind you, he’d already referenced Cameroon’s “sixty years” since their first AFCON match “in 1956.” So his memories of New Year’s Eve were hazier still.

Caple and co-commentator Adam Virgo curiously punted Cameroon striker Jacques Zoua as the star player, despite terrific displays elsewhere. But Zoua should have had an assist for Cameroon’s second goal. Clinton N’Jie (born in 1993, so presumably not named after the card shop) missed a semi-sitter after Crooks/Koffi saved Zoua’s swerving shot.

Pivotal moment one. The Burkinabes equalised with the next clear chance, Issofou Dayo finishing a game of six-yard box head tennis after Cameroon keeper Fabrice Ondoa swatted Abdou Traore’s shot away like a seven-year-old dealing with unexpected insects. However, both sides showed enough quality to be warm favourites to reach the quarter-finals.

Group B: Algeria 2 Zimbabwe 2; Tunisia 0 Senegal 2

Eurosport’s scheduling was destroyed for the first time on the second day, with Masters Snooker entirely predictably over-running. And that, and Man Yoo/Liverpool, denied Eurosport Player-less football fans a view of the best 45 AFCON minutes in many-a-year, not a description of an Algeria/Zimbabwe first half that was remotely predictable. Pace, verve, ambition, athletically clumsy defending…and Algeria were almost as good.

The match was one of those “everything-except-full-frontal-nudity” affairs that remind cynics how great international tournament football can be when the importance of “not losing your first game” is ignored. Khama Billiat and Algerian keeper Laurence Fishburne (Rais Mbholi to some) produced the moment of the tournament to date, Billiat’s casual 35-yard volley fingertipped onto the post by Mbholi. Then Riyad Mahrez scored the sort of goal he’s netted for Leicester countless times, cutting inside onto his left foot and sweeping the ball home in one semi-balletic movement.

Yet Zimbabwe led, deservedly, at half-time, Kudakwashe Mahachi firing past an Mbholi bellyflop and Nyasha Mushekwi scoring from the stonewall-penalty spot after foolish defending by Mokhtar Belkhiter. Caple likened Zimbabwe’s victory chances to those of “snow in the Sahara.” But “snow in the Sahara” last month was on his crib-sheet. So…er… And despite defending too deep after half-time and riding some luck when Elisha Muroiwa’s sliced clearance hit the bar, Zimbabwe probably should have won. Stewart Robson described Algeria’s strikers as “fairly stoic” and they sort of were, even if he surely meant “static.”

Pivotal moment two. Nine minutes left. Cuthbert Malajila, through on goal, fired against Mbholi’s outstretched leg. And fans not watching Man Yoo equalise against Liverpool almost simultaneously, said “that’ll prove costly.” Correctly. Seconds later, Mahrez drove his shot through a hole in Warriors keeper Tatenda Mukuruva. And if Islam Slimani hadn’t lost a pinpoint 87th-minute cross in the floodlights (so he gestured), the Fennecs may have won.

“Incident-fuelled,” said Caple. If this isn’t game of the tournament, there’s a classic coming.

Tunisia were inventive, which we know because Eurosport analyst Brian Hamilton told us every three second-half minutes. “They’ve played some lovely stuff around the 20-yard box,” he claimed, clearly commentating off a very wide-screen in Eurosport’s studio. Alas, this inventiveness incorporated spurning chances. And when Hamilton claimed “the score doesn’t reflect the game,” which he did every-other three second-half minutes, he wasn’t wrong.

Youssef Msakni was especially wasteful, heading a gilt-edged opportunity (one notch above “sitter”) wide from four yards and hitting Senegal keeper Abdoulaye Diallo’s shin-pads with what would have been an impressive regularity had he meant it.

Senegal were two-up at half-time after Sadio Mane’s penalty and Kara Mbodji’s header, which was bullet and towering in equal measure. And Tunisia were so desperate that they brought on Sunderland’s…SUNDERLAND’s Wahbi Khazri. Surprisingly, it worked, if you call missing chances more often “working.” Khazri was far the liveliest EPL presence. Mane dissolved into the background after scoring. And strike-partner Mame Biram Diouf offered a threat as thin as he looked in a Senegal shirt.

Senegal had one second half moment. Ismaila Sarr’s overhit cross deflected onto the crossbar. Meanwhile, Tunisia missed gilt-edges to the end, Yassine Khenissi heading another four-yarder off-target in added-time. They might need to beat Algeria to progress. Which could be…interesting.

Group C: Cote D’Ivoire 0 Togo 0; DR Congo 1 Morocco 0

It took 27-and-a-half minutes for Eurosport’s John Roder and Russell Osman to change their tune from “should be a cracker with all this attacking potential” to “we’ll need patience here,” as Cote D’Ivoire and Togo gave “not losing your first game” an oppressive importance.

Part of the “attacking potential” was Emmanuel Adebayor, who hasn’t kicked a club football in anger since leaving Crystal Palace (“before that,” cry Palace fans). He tried one spectacular 45-yard volley which got no closer than 45 yards from goal as it flew towards Equatorial Guinea. “Goalscorer’s instinct,” explained…ex-centre-half Osman.

Cote D’Ivoire’s Palace connection, Wilfrid Zaha, was better than that. But not often enough. Any replacement by Wilfrid Bony is harsh on current “form.” But the commentary-box suggestion that Zaha’s withdrawal “was perhaps a surprise” was perhaps pro-Premier League bias.

Osman called the first half “a bit stop-start.” Without the start, frankly. Cote D’Ivoire’s Jonathan Kodjia tripped on his own shadow when clean through, coming over all Aston Villa at the wrong moment. And Togo had the best first-half chance, Cote D’Ivoire keeper Sylvian Gbohouo swooping while Mathieu Dossevi took ages to transfer the ball to his right foot.

“Presumably Claude Le Roy will be reasonably happy,” noted John Roder, despite Togo’s manager ranting furiously whenever he was on-camera. Luckily for him, it was old-school Cote D’Ivoire. Flattering to flatter to deceive. Serge Aurier should have headed home Max Graedel’s late cross. But a winner would not have been justice on anyone.

When Morocco’s Mbark Boussoufa hit the crossbar with a fine curling shot on two minutes, no-one was expecting another stinker. But until Junior Kabananga’s semi-farcical 55th-minute winner, DR Congo/Morocco was just that. The late excitement was only generated by Joyce Lomalisa’s brainless sending-off and Morocco’s equally brainless (mis)use of what became a “one-and-a-half-man” advantage after DR Congo skipper Gabriel Zakuani became a limping observer.

Firmin Mubele’s near-post cross somehow rebounded to Kabananga to athletically volley home. Morocco keeper Munir Mohamedi clearly thought sitting on the ball the best option, judging by the contorted mess he got himself in. And the post might have been involved. But the available video evidence explains nothing.

Lomalisa’s dismissal equally defied explanation. On as a sub as Fabrice N’Sakala neared a second booking, he soon saw a harsh yellow for “time-wasting.” But he could have seen all the colours of the rainbow for his launch at Faycal Fajr’s lower-legs…it was impossible to be more specific. A 16-minute horror-movie cameo.

Stewart Robson thought Morocco could put “ten crosses into the box” after Zakuani’s 87th-minute injury. They did. But nine of them were sh*te. And striker Youssef El-Araby, for whom Roder had been calling since the goal, headed the tenth straight at DR Congo keeper Ley Matampi. And with substitute striker Dieumerci Mokambi being “a nuisance” at the other end (not necessarily news to Hull fans) the Leopards held on for a victory which throws the group wide-open…if still rubbish.

Group D: Ghana 1 Uganda 0; Mali 0 Egypt 0

Same results as Group C and scarcely better football. This group is even ghastlier a prospect given the beach-like quality of, particularly, the edges of the Port-Gentil pitch, which stages seven of the eight games. Tim Caple didn’t “want to go on about the pitch.” But you couldn’t but mention it as it crumbled under everyone’s feet.

It finished Ghana full-back Baba Rahman, whose studs refused to move at the requisite moment midway through the first half. “Looks like a hamstring,” said Osman, as Rahman clutched his knee. Rahman’s studs got stuck again six minutes before half-time. “Just seems a little bit sticky, that’s all,” Osman noted of the pitch at half-time, thankfully out of Rahman’s earshot.

For 45 minutes, Ghana looked worthy of your humble correspondent’s tip for the title and for 45 minutes, they didn’t. The Black Stars, kitted-out like Fulham, fully deserved their half-time lead, despite the daft nature of their goal. Yet when Uganda chased the game after half-time, they nearly caught it.

Ghana’s Jordan and Andre Ayew, Asamoah Gyan and Christian Atsu all wasted good positions. But on 32 minutes, Uganda’s Isaac Isinde lost concentration and possession before nudging Gyan into a theatrical penalty-box dive. The nature of Isinde’s cock-up will be the crowd’s secret as TV replays were on the go at the crucial time. Andre Ayew was as composed from the spot as he was panicky in open play. While Isinde missed Uganda’s best first-half chance, three minutes after team-mate Faruku Maya hit the outside of the post, as Uganda reacted better to Ghana’s goal than…well…Ghana.

Uganda intermittently impressed in the second half too, turning bits of it into basketball-style end-to-end action. They lacked true quality but probably won’t be the group’s easy opportunity for improving goal differences. However, there was a lethargy about Ghana which led Eurosport’s Jon Driscoll to suggest that they “won’t be worrying the bookies in terms of winning this tournament,” a fraught way to say they aren’t favourites. Bookies will worry if Ghana’s odds sky-rocket and they take the title.

Egypt’s passing game will not flourish on this pitch, although they didn’t pass the ball that well on the good bits. For all Mali’s second-half possession, the best second-half chance was Marwan Mohsen’s header, which Mali keeper Oumar Sissoko saved. But if Egypt boss Hector Cuper is prioritising World Cup qualification, it’s just as well.

Forty-four-year-old keeper Essam El-Hadary was a 25th-minute substitute and had sod-all to do for an hour. When he was called upon, he reminded us that he’s still a decent international third-choice keeper, saving at Moussa Marega’s feet in a scenario that usually produces penalties.

Mali centre-forward Lassana Koulibaly couldn’t seem to head a football. Not just that he lost aerial challenges or misdirected headers. He simply couldn’t get a touch to two worthy crosses. Can’t blame the pitch for that. While Egypt seemingly had an identity crisis…Caple constantly name-checking the “Egyptian Messi” (Mohamed Salah) and the “Egyptian Nesta” (Ahmed Hegazy). With an actual Trezeguet (Hassan) in their ranks, little wonder they looked confused.

The conclusion

Not much of a tournament yet, then. Although predicting a winner is no easier. And by the time you read this Gabon may be gone, which will at least give the boycott some impetus.

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