Blimey. They could have warned us Mark Bright was a British Eurosport analyst for the “AFCON 2013”. With the first group games being largely turgid, Bright had a lot of gaps in the action to fill. He chose to do so with “y’know,” – an ironic nervous tic when discussing tournament nerves. He rattled them off at ten-to-the-dozen at first, eventually settling down to produce 178 during the 90 minutes plus stoppage time, although this was only 12 higher than Danny Mills, who also began with sentences which mostly were y’knows, before settling down to about two-per-minute. And if you think the football must have been bad for me to be able to count them, you’re right.
The Angola/Morocco game wasn’t actually too bad, even if Mills claiming the second half as “entertaining” was pushing it. But South Africa/Cape Verde was too bad. Bright’s insistence that Cape Verde were ultra-minnows was tedious and poorly-researched. He told us their population was half-a-million about, well, half-a-million times, which ignored the fact that the team was largely from the Cape Verdean diaspora. It also overlooked their 2012 campaign, when they only missed out to Mali, who finished third in the finals, on the head-to-head rule. Oh…and Cape Verde are ranked 18 places higher than…South Africa.
ITV4 got it about right. Quentin Fortune – a more confident studio presence that his stilted debut last year – predicted a Bafana Bafana win but didn’t hide the home nation bias inherent in that prediction; while Efan Ekoku got the result right but suggested a score draw, which was horribly wrong. South Africa’s insistence on the big boot was attributed to nerves…and boy were they frightened. Cape Verde were neat and tidy, though the improbably-named Platini squandered a chance his UEFA-presidential namesake would have taken…even the current bloated bureaucrat. “Ugly,” noted Matt Smith at half-time, correctly. And a video montage of all the waist-high and reckless tackling could have filled the interval, especially as there was next-to-no goalmouth action available.
The introduction of oak tree Julio Tavares gave Cape Verde a penalty box “presence.” But he jumped for one cross with oak-tree flexibility. So it was no surprise that the comparatively diminutive John Solako-lookalike Helden had the best headed chance. (Bright failed to spot Helden’s resemblance to his former Crystal Palace colleague – although he might have still been sulking after current Eagle Kagisho Dikgacoi was subbed at half-time – the on-air silence was deafening when Bright was told). And once Helden, Platini and Ryan Mendes – the latter wearing a Rafael da Silva wig – were substituted, the match could reliably be filed under “stinker.” The hosts’ Bongani Khumalo had his eyes tightly shut when belting out his national anthem and they may have been just as shut when he missed a presentable chance late on. But a goal, of any sort, would simply not have belonged in this match. As Bright would have said: “Y’know.”
“This game needs a goal? This tournament needs a goal,” cried Eurosport’s John Loder during what was nearly the tournament’s fifth half of scoreless football. The goal drought was so long that Thames Water were contemplating a hosepipe ban. And, then, torrential goalscoring, as four came along in about half-an-hour. Ghana’s encounter with DR Congo threatened to end said drought even before Emmanuel Ageymang Badu finished off a move so slick it could have brought the price of petrol down; not so much out of context with prior proceedings as from a different wage structure entirely. Bright ended up sounding unwise when he said Ghana could “relax and pass it around” after Kwadwo Asamoah headed them two-up – the Kwadwo Asamoah who plays wing-back for Juventus, we were informed almost as often as he’s played for them. But he sounded right at the time, as DRC had wilted after a lively start.
Their comeback added drama to what proved the match of the round. And DRC goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba’s equaliser celebration added farce as he bumped along on his arse in a pretence at riding a horse (Kidiaba = giddyup?), while his, ahem, pony-tail-esque hairdo flapped behind him – expression of joy and cure for haemorrhoids, all-in-one. ITV maintained their impressive record of succinct half-time analyses when Patrice Muamba called the Mali/Niger first half “boring.” And until the last quarter, Mali star Seydou Keita’s increasingly droopy expression provided as succinct a visual analysis.
Typical fun was had at the expense of Nigerien keeper Daouda Kassaly and his tendency to run past crosses, although similar problems with Premier League goalkeepers (hello, David De Gea) are usually taken more seriously. But some of Daouda’s efforts were laughable. Jim Beglin suggested he was “unsure whether to stick or twist” as cross-upon-cross sailed past. But if “twist” is an unusual description for a goalkeeper haring out of his six-yard box, Daouda was certainly not “unsure.” So, Mali’s winner was predictable, Daouda spilling Fousseiny Diawara’s cross, and Keita perfectly-placed to half-volley home. Keita just about lived up to his star-billing, as did Niger’s Moussa Maazou. Maazou’s direct running provided the brightest sparks of Niger’s three-loss 2012 finals campaign. And he was certainly direct in his running again, not least when running directly at the referee after Mali’s goal in futile, and misguided, protest.
Meanwhile, Mali keeper Mamadou Somassa won fashion-victim-of-the-match with thigh-high pink-ish socks which, combined with his un-nerving habit of hitching up his shorts prior to every kickout, was possibly the campest sight of many an international football tournament.
The drama/quality co-efficient at Nelspruit was high. Neither Zambia nor Ethiopia could settle for a 1-1 draw as neither side could defend. And Nigeria were a goal up, a man up AND in possession near the Burkina Faso box with 17 seconds remaining, yet still drew. If Mills was entertained by the mediocre Angola/Morocco encounter, the Zambia/Ethiopia error-ridden shambles had him in raptures from the off… although, this time, you could see his point. It was a role reversal for the Chipolopolo – the neutrals’ darling as last year’s winners but pantomime villains here alongside the ‘characterful’ Ethiopians and their massive support. Without condoning such crowd behaviour, Zambia’s goal celebration being cut short by flying vuvuzelas was downright funny.
Had anyone been hurt, there would be no cause for merriment. But the celebration was a particularly wretched example of those ghastly synchronised efforts which have occupied more time on training pitches than work on attacking setpieces, to judge by their generally woeful quality. So… ha-ha. Zambia were fortunate to be ahead as the Walya Antelopes’ Salahdin Said should have scored twice by then. He lobbed keeper Kennedy Mweene early on, but the ball bounced over the empty goal from inside the six-yard box. He then sent the Zambian custodian a telegram ahead of his 24th-minute penalty-kick, which Mweene had time to read and eat before the carefully-placed shot arrived at the clichéd “right height for keepers.”
Ethiopia were temporarily knocked back by the spectacular dismissal of keeper Jemal Tassew for a kung-fu kick on Chisamba Lungu that Quentin Tarantino would have cut from Kill Bill for being too reckless (“a touch of the Joel Schumacher’s there,” noted Mills, confusing his film directors with his early 1980s West German goalkeepers). Tassew was dismissed the precise moment he was plonked on a stretcher – an un-necessary piece of theatre from the referee, who then pretended it hadn’t happened by adding three minutes stoppage-time for a delay of six. He nearly produced his card too early, and had to put it away again – “is that his wallet?” asked an unsure Tim Caple, prompting Mills to tell us where referees kept their cards, clearly speaking from bitter, frequent experience.
Tassew’s red should have been a game-changer. But Ethiopia were inspired after half-time. And Addis Hintsa’s introduction added quality to that inspiration. “He looks a player,” Martin Keown would have said. And Hintsa’s penetrating pass shortly after coming on started the move which gave Adane Girma a deserved equaliser. Both sides subsequently had chances, and should have had a penalty. Zambia’s Stopilla Sunzu (great name for a defender) actively cleared one stoppage-time cross with his upper arm. But the mass Ethiopian ranks celebrated like they’d won anyway. And however many vuvuzelas they’d lobbed at unsuspecting Zambians, you couldn’t but be pleased for them. We were frequently and superfluously reminded that Nigeria were not “the team of old that dominated African football” – we saw that for ourselves as they laboured against a side who probably weren’t the Burkina Faso of old.
Unlike Ethiopia, Nigeria were uninspired after going a man down, their performance as soft as Efe Ambrose’s bookings. They didn’t build on their excellent first-half goal. And when the Burkinabes introduced one of their best players of 2012, Alain Traore, to join their other best player of 2012, Jonathan Pitroipa, the momentum was with the eleven men. They had shown plenty of imagination at lousing up setpieces, especially when two players collided in pursuit of the same free-kick. And comically-naive defending gifted them their point. With Ekoku probably screaming “take it to the corner and sit on it”, Nigeria kept looking for a second goal throughout the four minutes of stoppage time. And Burkina Faso found it on 93 minutes 58 seconds after a cross evaded two defenders who couldn’t have looked more giraffe-like had they been giraffes, and was rolled in by Alain Traore. Cue more “as-if-they’d-won-the-cup” celebrations of a 1-1 draw.
Group D became the “Group of Death,” as it supposedly had no weak teams. Even Togo occasionally looked good against a Cote D’Ivoire side struggling to under-achieve, other than by letting Kolo Toure have possession – the rounder of the Toure brothers nearly giving Adebayor a second-minute goal (just as Bright was praising the Elephants ‘composure’) before taking his man-marking of the Togolese captain too literally. But while Kolo Toure looked rusty, so did Didier Drogba, marked into anonymity and reduced to drawing fouls throughout his 73 minutes. And Didier Zakora wore ‘Maestro’ on his shirt, which was certainly incongruous and possibly for a bet. Gervinho and Yaya Toure were sharp, though, combining well for Toure’s opening goal, which deflected off a defender’s arse.
Yaya Toure hit the post from 20 yards with no discernible backlift. Then, unexpectedly, a Togo goal, Jonathan Ayite converting a non-defended corner just before half-time, Cote D’Ivoire clearly believing that not conceding a goal throughout the tournament was going to be a waste of time, as it proved last year. They took much of the second half to regain their supposed composure before Gervinho snuck in at the far post to volley the 85th-minute winner with his ankle. And the perennial tournament favourites survived a late scare to become only the second matchwinners in seven games.
Tunisia became the third, which no-one saw coming. And no-one AT ALL saw such a quality winning goal coming, least of all Algeria’s keeper Rais Mbolhi, beaten ‘all-ends-up’ by Youssef Msanki’s superbly-struck 25-yard stoppage-time curler. The game speedily degenerated into a nasty, foul-ridden, borderline-disgrace – Tunisian striker Issam Jemaa was desperately unlucky to injure his knee in about the first decent challenge. At one stage there must have been more free-kicks for spiteful tackles than accurate passes. Algeria played what little football emerged from the malice. Islam Slimani’s first-half header hit the bar with keeper Moez Ben Cherifia as beaten ‘all-ends-up” as Mbohli would be an hour-and-a-bit later. And Adlene Guediora did himself a mischief pinging one long-range effort inches over. So Tunisia’s Ethiopian-esque victory celebrations included surprise as well as delight.
Algeria’s perma-surly coach Vahid Halilhodzic sat in the dug-out after the match, picking his nose (not the nicest close-up shot, thank you host broadcaster) – he was still there when Eurosport’s programme finished, and he might be there still. Meanwhile, a limping Jemaa threatened to bust his good knee by joining in the post-match jollity, while two Tunisian fans fell headlong into the safety net in the moat around the pitch, like trapeze artists with no sense of timing.
A wonderful end to a far-from-wonderful first round.
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