The 2019 African Cup of Nations: From Shite to Sensational

by Jul 9, 2019Football, International, Latest0 comments

The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) transformed over the weekend. Mark Murphy explains how, although ‘why’ may be beyond him in this life….

The AFCON groups ended with a series of dull, dismal matches, enlivened only by the occasional late drama and Madagascar’s success. I had written a report on the final round of group games as the knockout stages began and watched with a mixture of delight and horror as the competition exploded into life (even Morocco/Benin ended up being quite good) and the number of required re-writes seemed to increase every 45 minutes. Here’s rewrite number 94…

Group A: Egypt 2 Uganda 0; Zimbabwe 0 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 4

Fair play, whoever found DRC’s REAL team, after their non-league XI lost their first two games. Now if someone at Africa’s football confederation (CAF) could find the real match officials…

For all the Democratic Congolese improvement on show, the most influential impact on the scoreline came from Zimbabwe’s sub keeper, Elvis Chipizeze, who found innovative ways to metaphorically throw the ball into his own net. Elvis Costello could not have done much worse, even if you’d nicked his glasses.

Elvis left the building for three of DRC’s four goals, with DRC’s imposing striker Cedric Bakambu taking the fullest advantage, bagging a brace before Elvis fumbled his late effort to bag the tournament’s first hat-trick, giving sub Britt Assombalonga a tap-in Britt Ekland could have netted (and if you’re asking who Britt Ekland is, I cannot save you).

Egypt did their group-stage thang, sealing victory by half-time and sauntering through the second half confident that their opposition wouldn’t have the temerity to recover. But Uganda (managed by Julian Assange as played by Michael Sheen) were unlucky not to draw, not just score. And maximum points with no goals conceded looked more impressive for Egypt than it was. As they soon discovered.

Group B: Madagascar 2 Nigeria 0; Guinea 2 Burundi 0

Madagascar were the story of the groups, beating a wretched, already-qualified ‘Nigeria XI’ to WIN theirs. But their progress also meant that the on-screen score caption for their last-16 encounter with Congo’s Republican Democrats would read “MAD” v “CON.” (Hey…you had to make your own fun in those far-off group-stage days…last week).

Their goals were gloriously silly. Nigeria’s Leon Balogun prioritised doing the splits over clearing the ball, leaving Lalaina Nomenjanahary needing only to keep a straight face to score. And there was exoneration of sorts for Carolus Andrea, publicly upset at being subbed against Burundi, when his 25-yard free-kick loopily deflected into the only inaccessible area of the goal. Madagascar finished out on their feet. But, joyously, not the tournament. And their fun had only just begun

Burundi embodied a mostly-dismal AFCON for East/Central Africa’s sub-confederation, CECAFA, demonstrating the potential quality deficit if 47% of competitors reach finals. And hopes of a tournament-saving thumping of Guinea were crushed when Christophe Nduwarugira’s 12th-minute ‘professional’ foul on Mohamed Yattara reduced Burundi to ten men…and Nduwarugira to tears.

Now, I’m not saying Burundi/Guinea was a non-event…but CAF TV’s highlights are actually ‘highlights’ of the Benin/Guinea-Bissau SECOND-round non-event. And no-one at CAF noticed.

Group C: Senegal 3 Kenya 0; Algeria 3 Tanzania 0

Group C ended in orthodoxy. Convincing wins for the big boys, Algeria sealing theirs before half-time and squandering 94 second-half chances, Senegal squandering a penalty opportunity before half-time and dismantling Kenya afterwards.

Sadio Mane’s soft 29th-minute spot-kick, after Philemon Otiendo upended Saliou Cisse, summed-up Senegal’s soft first half. His drilled 79th-minute penalty, after Otiendo sent Sarr skywards, summed up their far better second half. Otiendo saw yellow for both penalty-box indiscretions. But at least his tournament was over anyway. Mane’s fraught relationship with AFCON 2019 spot-kicks was to continue. And shoot-out disaster remains on the table.

Algeria strolled past Tanzania, Islam Slimani almost literally strolling through the Lake Tanganyikan gap between Tanzania’s centre-backs to open the scoring. Adam Ounas barely had to break stride to round keeper Metacha Mnaza for his second and Algeria’s third goal, right on half-time. And Algeria saved their energies for tougher tasks ahead, although simpler tasks were difficult to envisage after this (mis)match.

Tanzania’s Mbwana Samatta could be a very good player in a good side, rather than the bottom-ranked team in Egypt. And Tanzania had their moments in this AFCON (e.g. playing in its best group game) Just none of them in this game.

Group D: Morocco 1 South Africa 0; Cote D’Ivoire 4 Namibia 1

Meanwhile, back at the Group of Death…(a half) life!!! And, in the ‘Group of one-nils,’ a goal-fest. Even Wilfried Zaha scored. And Wilfried Bony…ha!…no…let’s not lose the run of ourselves.

Cote D’Ivoire changed their team yet had the same old struggles for 39 minutes against limited Namibia. Then a refereeing assistant’s flag, the non-waving thereof, gave the offside Max Graedel the opening goal. And Planet Football went doolally. Italian fourth division soundalike Serey Die pinged in a fully-40-yarder. Then Wilfried Zaha scored, as did substitute, and headline-writers’ plant, Maxwel Cornet.

Neither Morocco nor South Africa seemed unduly perturbed about playing for a nil-nil to win the group for Morocco and qualify South Africa. But WERE they playing for it? So many games in Egypt have seemed like that. That said, Achraf Hakimi’s 63rd-minute 20-yarder against the bar was casually side-footed enough to look accidental.

If there was a non-aggression pact in front of goal, though, M’Bark Boussoufa missed the meeting, taking genuine delight in his 89th-minute winner. South Africa thus had to wait until every group had finished before a third-placed side emerged who had been worse than they were (hello. Angola). The wait was, fabulously, unexpectedly worth every minute.

Group E: Tunisia 0 Mauritania 0; Mali 1 Angola 0

Two nil-nils would have qualified everyone bar Mauritania. But unlike Group F, where nil-nils would also have done a job, there was a positive attitude from three of the four teams, especially Mauritania.

Indeed, they could have won the group, given the first-half chances they automatically created by chucking floaters into the box. Mauritanian boss Corentin Martins faux-fainted in disbelief as another glorious chance headed for Libya, while Tunisian defenders’ reactions to each other appeared to range from “WTF?” to “who are you?”

Sadly, half-time halted Mauritania’s momentum and they were out on their feet AND the tournament by full-time, though with plenty to be proud of. “The Carthage Eagles have flown into the round-of-16,” CAF’s twitter account crowed about Tunisia’s qualification. Hardly. In fact, Tunisia stank the group out. And they continue so to do.

Angola needed a point to eliminate South Africa by one goal. But their answer to going behind was to introduce Wilson Edouard, whose appalling miss against Mauritania ultimately cost them qualification. And if he WAS the answer, they’d misheard the question.

Amadou Haidara despatched a powerful 25-yarder into the top corner. And with Angola terrified and terrible, it won Mali both game and group.

Group F: Cameroon 0 Benin 0; Ghana 2 Guinea-Bissau 0

Eurosport’s John Roder and Stewart Robson were puzzled by Benin’s changes for this match, not realising how much of a nil-nil Benin were playing for. Though Steve Munie as a lone striker offered a clue. But a weakened Cameroon dealt in stupid fouls and stupid offsides. While number nine Stephane Behoken’s entire point escaped me. CAF TV ‘highlights’ showed just how shit this game was. And Benin’s post-match celebration of their ‘achievement’ seemed overdone.

“The Indomitable Lions…held by the Squirrels,” Roder noted. Viewers knew how they felt.

Ghana won this ghastly group. Their game with Guinea-Bissau began just like Cameroon/Benin, although both sides struck the goal-frame and at least appeared to be trying. Ghana keeper Richard Ofori unconvincingly pawed Piqueti Silva’s 20-yard fizzer onto the bar and Ghana’s Jordan Ayew struck the post after springing a purely nominal offside trap.

Ayew scored straight after half-time, breezing past powdery defending (outmuscling it wasn’t). But Guinea-Bissau’s Joseph Mendes hit the post before Ghana started playing as they can. Thomas Partey’s close-range conversion of Abdul Baba’s cutback on 71 minutes made it 2-0 before Andre Ayew took his turn hitting the post.

Still, at least Benin aren’t long for this tournament, eh… EH???

SECOND ROUND

I hoped for a better second round. But I attributed that to the anti-depressants in my prescription painkillers, little expecting the Tramadol nights to follow.

Benin 1 Morocco 1 (Benin win 4-1 on penalties)

So, Morocco, who didn’t lose a game, are out. And Benin, who haven’t won one, are through. Still, if you’re that good at penalties, why not play for them by being boring for 120 minutes?

Morocco actually played quite well…but only after Moise Adilehou’s 53rd-minute volley from a corner put Benin one-up. Youssef En-Nesryi equalised via Jordan Adeoti’s error. And sub Sofiane Boufal galvanised Morocco. But Ajax star Hakim Ziyech thumped his last-kick-of-normal-time penalty against the post and skied an extra-time sitter. While Benin waltzed the shoot-out before he could salvage spot-kick redemption.

Benin’s Abdou Adenon received a second booking, on 96 minutes, for persistent faffing about while Adilehou received medical attention. And he, reportedly typically, took three further minutes to f…lounce off. Yet referee Helder Carvalho added…one minute’s stoppage-time. ONE. Morocco arguably wouldn’t have scored if they were playing NOW, whenever you’re reading this. But appalling officiating, nonetheless…once again.

Senegal 1 Uganda 0

Just as well Senegal won, as they were on the arse-end of the worst bit of officiating in Egypt to that point. Which says a LOT (see above…oh…and below).

Uganda’s mountainous goalkeeper Denis Onyango (Everest-esque in his fabulous white kit) was booked for felling Ismaila Sarr outside his area on four minutes. And he clattered Mane to concede a 60th-minute penalty, a booking regardless of context or location. Yet referee Mustapha Ghorbal let Onyango face and, inevitably, save Sadio Mane’s spot-kick, not booking Onyango again BECAUSE he’d booked him already. Which is nuts…although not for this tournament.

Mercifully, Mane had already won a fractious encounter (three bookings in the first ten minutes) when he converted a lightning-quick 15th-minute counter-attack after Uganda lost centre-circle possession, easily the best football of what Senegal boss Aliou Cisse apparently correctly predicted would be a “typical African game of football.” Doesn’t like African football, then.

Nigeria 3 Cameroon 2

Game-of-the-tournament, ‘they’ say, despite both sides defending like they didn’t recognise their own change kits.

The goals went in two-by-two, after Nigeria took a 19th -minute lead through Odion Ighalo’s deflected drive, as defending champions (no…really) Cameroon repeatedly failed to clear their lines. The quite Domitable Lions turned matters around on 43 and 44 minutes, Stephane Behoken explaining himself at last by side-footing home Christian Bassogog’s cross from three yards before Clinton Njie latched onto a flicked-on long-ball and finished with the closest thing to ‘aplomb’ that Cameroon have managed since they’ve been in Egypt.

Nigeria turned matters back, though. Ighalo was millimetres onside when he volleyed home star turn Ahmed Musa’s neat chest pass (now THERE’S aplomb) on 64 minutes. And two minutes later, Alex Iwobi side-footed Ighalo’s pass through Cameroon keeper Andre Onana. Well done, Premier League, even if ‘Super’ Eagles is still pushing it for these Nigerians.

South Africa 1 Egypt 0

The noise was constant from 70,000 Egyptians for 85 minutes. Then, Thembinkosi Lorch converted a fabulous counter-attack into the shock win of this AFCON. And stunned silence preceded the noise of 70 jubilant South Africans (with at least one disbelieving ‘f**k off’ audible).

This was no smash-and-grab. South Africa could/should have won comfortably. Inventive and incisive, they were everything Egypt were supposed to be. But slightly mis-spelled Music Hall Act Percy and Lorch (Percy Tau and the afore-mentioned stadium-silencer) were the inspiration, not Salah and Trezeguet. Salah had an early chance. Then…nothing. “It’s No for MO again,” noted Eurosport’s Andy Bodfish, before ‘treating’ us to his full “Riddle-of-the-Sphynx,” “Death-on-the-Nile” repertoire (Lorch was the “Jewel-of-the-Nile,” apparently).

Egypt were outfought, out-thought and out….of their own tournament. South Africa’s performance contrasted diametrically with their group-stage struggles and came from the city centre of nowhere. And it was all the more delightful for that.

Madagascar 2 DR Congo 2 (Madagascar won 4-2 on penalties)

The fun continues. And Madagascar continue to be this AFCON’s best and arguably most entertaining story.

On eight minutes, Ibrahim Amada somehow curled in a magnificent 20-yarder with his instep, defying keeper and the laws of geometry. DRC played to their strengths, Cedric Bakambu, who headed in the 21st-minute equaliser from left-back Ngonda Muzinga’s sumptuous cross. Faneva Andriatsima’s 76th-minute diving header from Romain Metanire’s cross was a classic counter-attack goal. And it looked a worthy winner until Chancel Mbemba headed home sub Meshack Elia’s 90th-minutee corner, having gone close twice in identical scenarios.

Both keepers were busied in extra-time. But although Yannick Bolassie skied the vital spot-kick because of course he did, there was only ever going to be one shoot-out winner, much to the delight of Madagascar’s depressingly-young president Andry Rajoelina, the focus of much host-broadcaster attention as he jumped on the team’s bandwagon. From the (not-at-all) cheap seats.

Algeria 3 Guinea 0

Algeria took a second consecutive stroll to a 3-0 victory. Three outstanding goals (the first set up by the foulest of the AFCON’s unpunished foul throws to date) were the scoreboard difference. The real difference was far larger. Guinea were booed off at half-and-full-time…which wasn’t harsh

Baghdad Bounedjah blazed an early sitter beyond Cairo’s city limits. But he combined well for Mohamed Belaili’s wonderful 24th-minute opener, finished from the tightest angle. Swift counter attacks brought goals two and three crashing around Guinea’s ears, Riyad Mahrez and supersub Adam Ounas (three goals and tournament joint-top-scorer from the bench) the beneficiaries.

Algeria are this AFCON’s class act just now. Such quality at this stage of a tournament usually sets up a team for a fall. But Algeria look capable of bucking that trend. And they can have no better incentive than to win the tournament of their archest football rivals, Egypt.

Cote D’Ivoire 1 Mali 0

Wilfried Zaha, eh? His displays have been as disjointed as his team’s. But his 76th-minute goal brought Cote D’Ivoire to the quarter-finals (adding millions to his Arsenal price tag, apparently) as the tournament’s two top scorers were otherwise stalemated by imposing defences and composure-free forward play in a high-speed but largely terrible match.

Zaha side-footed home one of those “big diagonals” so beloved of Eurosport’s Stewart Robson, a long crossfield punt missed embarrassingly by its target, beanpole striker Jonathan Kodja and by ball-watching Mali full-back Youssouf Kone. Nice finish, mind. Mali suffered from having a striker, Moussa Marega whose “major problem is his finishing ability” (Robson). While Moussa Djenepo was perpetual motion in yellow. But all his good work foundered on Mali’s tree-trunk strikeforce.

Meanwhile, Cote D’Ivoire suffered from not being very good at all, apart from the omnipresent Serey Die. And if they progress much further, we’ll suffer too.

Ghana 1 Tunisia 1 (Tunisia win 5-4 on penalties)

Where to start? Well…Tunisia deserved to win. They only played for the few minutes surrounding injured talisman Wahbi Kazri’s galvanising introduction from the bench, which included Tana Khenessi’s 73rd-minute goal. But they packed more good football into those minutes than Ghana managed all night, Rami Bedoui’s 92nd-minute own-goal being a suitably ludicrous equaliser.

However, the key minute was the 121st. Tunisian keeper Hassen Mouez held the ball in-play, preventing his long-heralded replacement by Farouk Ben Mustapha for the imminent shoot-out. Nonetheless, referee Victor Gomes allowed the substitution, taking the ball from Mouez, handing it to Ben Mustapha and blowing the final whistle. Ben Mustapha naturally made the only shoot-out save, although it was a sh*t penalty that I might have stopped.

Substitutions can only occur “during a stoppage in play.” But these clownshoe officials disallowed a goal for a non-existent handball by an offside Thomas Partey. So why the surprise?

QUARTER-FINALS

VAR. In THIS tournament. With THESE officials. Dear me (polite version) The quarter-finals (Senegal/Benin, Nigeria/South Africa, Algeria/Cote D’Ivoire and Madagascar/Tunisia, predicted winners named first) start tomorrow (Wednesday). They might not finish until October…