Mark Murphy concludes his marathon round-up of the African Cup of Nations with a round-up of the latter stages of a competition that was, sadly, upstaged by events that took place before a ball had even been kicked.
The climax to Group C summed up this Cup of Nations, a curate’s egg of a tournament which ran out of good football from the second week onwards. A tournament during which the look of delight on the face of one CAF official when Algeria beat Cote D’Ivoire turned to horror when he remembered that Algeria played Egypt next. A tournament during which the players from the English Premier League, the “best” league in the world, were almost uniformally rubbish. And a tournament which ended with the unfeasibly fierce-looking Egyptian coach Hassan Shehata managing a smile at the end which made him look even more fierce. I’ll be having the nightmares for a while.
With Egypt already through from Group C, Nigeria v. Mozambique was the game with something riding on it. But one turgid forty-five minutes and one out-of-context fine goal from Peter Odemwingie later, Egypt v. Benin took on all sorts of new qualities. And although it was a shadow Egyptian side, Benin were already all but out and there was nothing riding on the game at all, it was a joy to watch. Egypt have been the sort of quality side Alan Hansen describes in unattached nouns: pace, movement, strength, passing. They showed it all against Benin, who made their contribution too. Sadly, though, the tournament overall was 60% Nigeria v. Mozambique, 37% Egypt v. Benin and 3% Egypt’s “game” against Algeria.
The likening of football to war or life and death has never appealed to me. The famous Vince Lombardi quote, repeated by and attributed to the great Bill Shankly, was not one of either man’s best, and Egypt’s Mohamed Zidan leapfrogged the stupid line with his pre-match comments which included all three buzzwords and reference to Algeria “dying” in the two sides World Cup play-off in November. No, they didn’t “die.” But two people did. In Cabinda province. While travelling to the tournament. Clearly someone in the Egypt camp had a word with Zidan, as “war” etc… had become “just another game, we beat them and we move on” after Egypt’s victory. But, as Jonathan Wilson wrote in the Indie, “he was fooling no-one.” The game itself was darkly comic, eventually.
We’d had fair warning of one potential star. Algerian keeper Faouzi Chaouchi had already made a name for himself towards the end of the Cote D’Ivoire match when his feigning of injury even fooled his own bench. Chaouchi’s face was a picture when he saw sub keeper Mohamed Zemmamouche ready to come on. Thereafter, it was always going to be difficult for him to concentrate on the game and his injury. Hence the basic errors, such as continuing to take the goalkicks. Fortunately, Cote D’Ivoire were so shell-shocked by Kadar Keita’s 89th minute wonder goal not being the wining goal that they rarely tested him. When they did, Chaouchi got “injured” again and did his act again. You sensed that more than one Ivorian was keen to run-up at him shouting: “now, this, THIS is a whack on the head”, and you sensed that one of them had when Chaouchi confronted referee Koffi Codjia in the semi-final.
Chaouchi ran half the length of the pitch to take Codjia by the hand and give him a twirl, before nodding in his general direction from intimate range. How he only got booked was a mystery. Maybe Codjia didn’t see the incident. After all, he didn’t include it in his match report. Nadir Belhadj once again lived down to his first name midway through the second half when he used Ahmed El Mohammady’s leg as a long jump pit, not perhaps the best way to engineer a transfer window move, and Chaouchi finally gave Zemmamouche his tournament debut when he mistook Mohamed Gedo’s knee for the matchball – another sending-off offence for which he… got booked. Both referee and goalkeeper are facing suspensions which may impact upon their availability for the World Cup. The tournament will not be any the less for their absence.
Every tournament, even one as mediocre as this, has one match to file in the “classic” column. And Cote D’Ivoire v. Algeria was this tournament’s. Keita’s goal flew into the net so fast it nearly went back in time. And Algeria, just like I predicted last week (er…) finally showed the world that they could actually play a bit, although of course they put all that back in the box for the Egypt game. Let’s hope someone from the England camp was looking. It was hard to feel sorry for Cote D’Ivoire, even when they fell foul of the first atrocious offside decision to prove pivotal. They weren’t wrong to presume that Keita’s goal would be the winner. But if you can’t defend crosses against a Rangers full-back or a Blackpool loanee (no disrespect) it’s hard to sympathise. Still, it would have been fascinating to see how Chaouchi would have survived a penalty shoot-out.
Nigeria’s quarter-final against Zambia had pundits reaching for their thesauruses as they fought the urge to call the game “dull” or “rubbish.” Eurosport settled for “intriguing,” which was a sort of truth. Certainly Zambia reaching the semi-finals had an appeal, especially at Nigeria’s expense. Any team possessing a sixteen year-old full-back with 22 caps and Armenian league honours to his name attracts intrigue. I haven’t fully researched the subject, but I’m comfortable with the suggestion that Zambia were among the first. Emmanuel Mbola may not have been as good as Brian Hamilton was claiming every three minutes. But he WAS good. If anyone in the tournament defended like a child it was Cameroon’s Nicolas N’Koulou or, ironically, the ageing Rigobert Song, from whom N’Koulou appeared to have learnt everything he knew. Mbola could tackle, pass and cross. In fact, “remember the name, Emmanuel Mbola” as someone once said about someone else. As for Nigeria, every time “Bolton reserve” centre-back Danny Shittu’s emerged at setpieces, the shout would go up: “There’s Shittu.” Yes, they were.
The tournament didn’t tail off after Angola’s exit in the way many feared it might – myself included. And if Manucho had shown a bit more dexterity with his proverbial banjo in the vicinity of the proverbial cow’s arse, Angola would even have reached the semis…against Nigeria. By the time the hosts were out, however, there’d be one or two too many stories about their opponents’ preparations being disrupted. Malawi had complained about training facilities being mysteriously double-booked. And Ghana felt that the security people at their hotel were more spies than protectors A Ghanaian journalist also reportedly received a police-baton shaped story, although the Angolan police denied everything, the Portuguese language having plenty of phrases for “he fell down the stairs.”
Whatever the truth of individual incidents, they were all undermined by Manucho’s inability to hit the target with anything approaching the Angolan police’s accuracy…or even Asamoah Gyan’s. The perceived wisdom is that Gyan was a revelation in this tournament, although his status as “most improved player” was at least as much to do with how bad he was in 2008. You sensed that if there were any League One strikers going spare they’d have nudged Gyan towards the subs bench much as Junior Agogo did two years ago. As it was, Gyan took full advantage of the creative talents of team-mate and near namesake Kwadwo Asamoah, in the same way Kerry Dixon used to use Pat Nevin to up his transfer value and get those “Dixon for Arsenal” rumours going. Gyan’s goal celebrations were those of a late replacement in an especially bad Stylistics tribute act. The celebrations looked under-used, which was little surprise. And the phrase “in-form Rennes striker” merited more inverted commas than a regular spellcheck programme could handle. Gyan scored as many goals and underwhelmed as much as Freddie Kanoute and Samuel Eto’o, which put him two goals and a notch above a number of the tournament’s misfit strikers.
Algeria’s Abelkader Ghezzal more closely resembled Christian Vieri in his fat Fiorentina phase with every mishit shot – one in extra-time against Cote D’Ivoire was a far better piece of defending than any Ivorian had mustered all evening. Yakubu Ayegbeini was a candidate for Dutch Elm disease right to his last woeful appearance as a sub against Ghana. And whilst comparing a Cameroon international striker with a 41-year-old Barnet striker might seem defamatory, in Mohamadu Idrissou’s case, Paul Furlong should sue.
Defeated coaches, usually have their nation’s version of a P45 in hand before their last press conference. But this time, only Mozambique’s Mart Nooij got shafted. Mali’s Stephen Keshi departed amid accusations of unprofessional behaviour – Mali’s display suggested there was some truth to them. And Keshi declared himself “open to offers” over a week before he got the boot. He has, shock, yet to receive one. Meanwhile, Herve Renard had Zambia’s president, Rupiah Banda, begging him to stay; only two weeks after the head-of-state had demanded tournament victory from the wonderfully-named Chipolopolo. Clearly Banda had seen the team’s triumphal homecoming and spotted a bandwagon with room for a fickle politician.
The late arrival of the BBC, watching licence-payers’ pennies, exposed the limits of Eurosport’s studio-based coverage. Steve Wilson was possibly too much at pains to emphasise that he and Mark Bright were actually in Angola. But their presence certainly helped when Chaouchi’s hot pursuit of Codjia by-passed the host broadcaster’s producer. It was some moments before, I think, Russell Osman let out a “what’s going on there?” as we finally got a close-up of the head-butting incident. Much more fun was Wilson’s incredulous “you can’t see this, but…” which let viewers’ imaginations run wild as to what was happening. At a guess, I’d say few viewers’ imaginations ran as wild as the reality. Wilson was also on hand to describe the dust-up among journalists towards the end of the game, which you half-expected was started by an Algerian hack hacked-off at Mark Bright for saying that Ghezzal “must score from there” just once too often. Alas, the fracas was down to what Jonathan Wilson described in the Indie as an Egyptian journalist “adjusting his cuffs ostentatiously after every goal.” But it was nice to dream.
Studio-bound or not, though, Eurosport covered every minute of every game. And with “star” commentator Tim Capel packed off to the Futsal, their coverage did the job. Osman may have had an obsession with “big diagonals” and Bryan Hamilton with “big units.” But both Osman and Stewart Robson provided insights which you’d have been surprised by if, like me, you were old enough to have seen them play (Osman was “the skilful one” only when he was alongside Terry Butcher). So, to use a phrase that doesn’t get much exposure, well done, Eurosport.
For all its disappointments as a tournament, at least the best and most expansive team won. Egypt eerily resembled a red-shirted version of Claudio Gentile-era Italy with voluminous white shorts allied to unfeasibly tight-fitting shirts. And they won every game bar the final as convincingly as they pleased. All the more frustrating then that Algeria and, ulp, Nigeria will be in South Africa instead. The fate of the Togo delegation, though, overshadowed everything to the end. Especially after CAF’s crass insensitivity in banning Togo from the next two Cups of Nations for their late withdrawal from this one. CAF are trying to portray their decision as a blow against political interference in football, a hugely damaging issue throughout the continent. But the rule invoked was the one concerning withdrawing from the competition later than 20 days before the start. Yet calls for the decision to be rescinded and the “punishment” kept to a fine have exposed a truth which won’t go away. Togo’s FA are as skint as most of African football, which is why the team was on a bus to Cabinda, and not a plane, in the first place. That is why the tragedy happened at all.
Whatever history Egypt made, that will be the 2010 African Cup of Nations’ legacy.