The one advantage of Group A’s first round being a goalless bore was that no-one could ensure qualification until the final round; though after that first round, some might have settled for no-one ensuring qualification at all. But tournaments “need” the hosts to reach the knock-out stages otherwise they become unwatched, unwatchable bores – apparently. So Group A’s denouement gave us all we could wish for; drama, wonky commentary box mathematics and the hosts going through. Oh… and the quality of the football, even if most of it was played in Durban by Morocco against a South African side which quickly reverted to the nervous shambles of its opening match. The real possibility of qualification had also dawned on Cape Verde, which gave them enough jitters to make even this insipid Angola team look competent in Port Elizabeth.
This collective nervousness nearly proved fatal. South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune loused up almost everything in the opening stages. And after a couple of scary kick-outs and one good save, Khune let Issam El Adoua head home a corner from feet rather than yards – the keeper’s punch closer to braining the scorer than clearing the ball. There was a comic element to Angola’s opening goal, too, the heavily-bandaged full-back Amaro’s cross turned into the net by Cape Verdean centre-back Neves’s arse…Angola on the scoresheet at last and an opponent has to do it for them. At half-time, Morocco and South Africa were going through, the hosts level on points with Angola but second in the group “on the head-to-head rule” (trans: they beat them). Mark Bright declared that “a Cape Verde goal changes everything,” but not by itself it didn’t. Eurosport commentators stumbled helplessly in calculating qualifiers from one group in 2012 and were ultra-prepared to avoid a repeat. This was just as well.
“Cape Verd” (Bright) had two efforts cleared off the line by Angolan post sentry Dias from a yard each in a comical immediate post-interval stramash. However, there were barely fifteen minutes left when the fun began with May Mahlangu’s exquisite equaliser for Bafana Bafana. From out of nowhere came Moroccan tears as the stubbornly unimpressive Angolans leapt above them into second place. Not that the bored-looking Angolan dignitaries in suspiciously new and definitely outsized red-and-black scarves seemed to know. Or perhaps they sensed what was coming next. Dias was on goalline clearance duties again, this time denying the enormous Julio Tavares. But Fernando Varela risked unwanted facial surgery by sneaking in round the side to force the ball over the line.
Barely was there time to explain that Cape Verde were now second ahead of Morocco on, get this, fewest number of bookings (nothing beats being at the mercy of officious officialdom) than they were third again. Eurosport’s use of the split-screen to show action from both venues simultaneously nearly bit them on the bum when Morocco’s second goal passed almost un-noticed. Atlas Lions sub Mehdi Namli, already a lively presence having been booked and injured in his first few minutes, swept the ball in from about 15 yards. His shot nutmegged a defender and rolled under Khune – the keeper due a mistake in his curate’s egg of a performance having made a fine save moments earlier. And, for the first time, South Africa were a Cape Verde goal away from elimination.
That they were still second by the almost quaint virtue of… having more points than the Blue Sharks wasn’t immediately obvious to the Durban crowd, who were more horrified than uncertain. Coach Gordon Igesund rants eye-bogglingly whatever the weather, so he was no guide to on-lookers. And Mark Bright would have been no help, as per, claiming South Africa would “go through with three points,” which might have been possible, except that they already had four. Morocco keeper, the perhaps appropriately-named Nadir Lamyaghri, was confident enough to indulge in the sort of time-wasting at which goalkeepers are particularly well-versed, beckoning a distant team-mate to trudge over and tie his bootlaces when he could have done so himself even with his gloves on. But no sooner were his boots in order than South Africa’s Siyabonga Sangweni made his charge for the tournament’s golden boot.
The full-back, who opened the scoring against Angola with an unlikely left-foot volley, had been pushed forward as an emergency striker. But where such moves are usually designed to cause aerial mayhem, Sangweni cut inside a defender just outside the box and curled the ball inch-perfectly around Lamyaghri’s shoelace-assisted dive. Mark Bright could only laugh. And he was right. “Good news for Cape Verde,” noted Eurosport 2’s Tim Caple. But it wasn’t. Morocco and Cape Verde were back level on three points but Morocco had now scored more goals, rendering the bookings count obsolete. Cape Verde had to score again. So, on exactly 90 minutes, they did – naturally, on a night like this. Substitute Helden lashed the ball home after a tournament trademark goalkeeping foul-up by Lama and manager Lucio Antunes sped off down the touchline at a speed which threatened take-off and work for his air-traffic controller colleagues.
Meanwhile back at Durban, Morocco coach Rachid Touassi had been “on his knees, thanking…er…” (Bright – momentarily unsure whether to say God, Allah or “his lucky stars.”). But now he had his head in his hands, thanking no-one at all. Lamyaghri indulged in more time-wasting out of sheer force of habit, as Morocco needed another goal, from themselves or Angola. Neither came and Morocco were unbeaten and…out. Cape Verde were through, with Antunes now lapping the pitch carrying his national flag in a joyous outpouring which Jose Mourinho might have thought a bit ostentatious. South Africa were through, too, thereby saving the tournament from disaster. And everyone else was off for a lie down.
After that, Group B was relative calm. Within 22 minutes. Ghana had sealed group victory and victory over plucky but hapless Niger. This left the DR Congo/Mali match at Port Elizabeth as a straight shoot-out for second spot, with Mali only needing a draw and there being no prospect of a quarter-final spot being decided by cautions, drawing of lots or the first manager to recite the Greek alphabet backwards. French was the appropriate language for Mali boss Patrice Carteron, as he’d have had to pardon his after his team’s opening minute. DRC’s Lomana LuaLua hit the post almost quicker than most English commentators could say his full name, which is, of course, “ex-Colchester and Newcastle United star Tresor Lomana LuaLua.”
Ten seconds later, ex-Liverpool man Momo Sissoko threw his arms in the air after tackling Yves Diba, which usually removes any doubt in the referee’s mind about giving a penalty. Dieumerci Mbokani slammed the spot-kick high into the net. And any neutral sympathy towards DRC dissolved when keeper Robert Kidiaba did his now-trademark goal celebration (“a human pogo-stick” according to the BBC’s website). Mali quickly showed that they were the better team by miles and, thanks in part to four central-defensive mistakes in five-and-a-bit seconds, they equalised on 13 minutes. But they got lucky 13 minutes later when Fousseni Diawara did the arms-in-the-air thing after colliding with LuaLua in the box. And as if to emphasise the point, an identical – not similar, identical – challenge by Sissoko in the centre circle six minutes later was penalised.
Mbokani might have scored the penalty. But the sense was that Mali could always get a goal if required against that central defence. As DRC chased matters more vigorously, Mali regularly picked them off on the break. Kidiaba the human pogo-stick spooned one Mahamadou Samassa effort wide, although it swung in front of him very late. Even the useless Cheick Diabate nearly scored. While Eurosport’s Dan O’Hagan had Seydou Keita heading his own corners (“Its Keita’s ball and Keitaaaa with the header, just wide”). The ex-Barca man had a very good game, but not that good. Mali could have required that second goal, as DRC had their moments. “West Bromwich Albion’s Youssuf Mulumbu” curled a fine effort “a whisker wide” (O’Hagan) from the edge of the box, although replays showed over-dressed Mali custodian Mamadou Samassa actually the save of the tournament, nipping the shot round the post at full-stretch. But “Seydou Keita and Co” (O’Hagan again) merited second place. And Ghana merited clear group victory, though matters might have been different in Port Elizabeth had Niger not had a goal ruled out for pushing. Replays showed Ghana keeper Fatau Dauda – who ought to have been serving a suspension for an opening-game dismissal, remember – crashing into his own defender, with Niger’s Moussa Maazou an innocent by-stander…for once. But first sight showed that, too. And Niger were rightly dischuffed.
Matters probably wouldn’t have been different, however. Niger’s hopes of retrieving a two-goal deficit were dismissed like dust of a cuff at half-time, despite Ghana’s 100% record in this tournament of throwing them away. And two-nil became three-nil soon enough, leaving plenty of time for ITV’s schedulers to contemplate their match selection, especially as studio co-analyst Fabrice Muamba was clearly, and understandably, watching his native DRC instead. ITV’s employment of Andy Townsend should be another source of consideration. Townsend made Mark Bright seem thoroughly well-informed. And it often sounded as if he had never seen any African international football before. “Ooh, that tackle’s a bit naughty,” he cringed after one robust but hardly untypical challenge. His revelation that “I’m loving the orchestrating the celebs” would have been wrong on a number of levels even if it was coherent English. And he hadn’t even heard about Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan’s promise to his dying mother never to take another penalty. Drury wasn’t relinquishing his “biggest **** in the commentary box” title without a fight, though. “Goodnight, John Boye,” he shouted, as the Ghanaian defender made it 3-0, clearly believing there was rich humour in references to 1970s American TV mush The Waltons. But Townsend even trumped Drury here. Because he laughed.
Ghana, it is ordained, will be delighted with their quarter-final against Cape Verde. “One of the minnows… not to be under-estimated,” noted ITV’s Efan Ekoku, urging people not to make the mistake that… er… he’d just made. Ray Winstone will be asking viewers to “have a bang on” some short odds for a Black Stars victory, no doubt. But pundits no longer have the ‘excuse’ of poor pre-tournament research for their continuing belittling of the Blue Sharks, who have now shown how capable Cape Verde are in most areas, particularly defensively…to those pundits bothered to look. Only home advantage gives South Africa hope against Mali, who have been so undisturbed by their homeland’s political and military situation that no-one on British TV has…yet…cited it as either a debilitating influence or an inspiration. Home advantage, though, could be considerable if Bafana Bafana overcome the nerves which supposedly transform them from Barcelona to Stoke City from match-to-match.
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