Mark Murphy has been slumped on his couch watching the African Cup of Nations for the last couple of weeks. He peeled himself away to bring us up to date with the goings-on in Angola.
After some early shocks, Africa’s football “powerhouses” (and Algeria) have scraped into the quarter-finals. And at times the football has been a joy – if, sadly but understandably, overshadowed. The gun attack on Togo’s team bus put the tournament into perspective, though not a proper one. Reactions were depressingly Euro-centric, more depressingly Premier League-centric and, more depressingly still but predictably, Phil Brown-centric. The view of Africa as a nation made an unwelcome return, as if events in Cabinda – some miles north even of Angola itself – somehow had a bearing on events in South Africa this June (the clue ought to be in “South” Africa). The venues are between 1,500 and 2,500 miles apart, or even the equivalent of London to New York, 3,000 miles, which suggests one exorbitant journalistic drinks bill on Concorde transatlantic flights.
South African World Cup chief Danny Jordaan drew the perfect analogy – Germany hosting the 2006 World Cup hundreds, not thousands, of miles from Kosovo and its separatist struggle. He also accused Phil Brown of being ill-informed, after his “I want my players to come home” whinge. Good man. It turned out that a Frenchman provided the best ‘British’ perspective. Arsene Wenger asked “Is it selfish motivation?” that led to Brown and others belly-aching, already likely to be 2010’s most rhetorical question. Mind you, Wenger added: “Sometimes you hear there is unrest in the suburbs of London and friends ask me ‘Is a revolution happening in London?” Wenger lives in Totteridge, in Barnet. Is there something we should know?
Tournament organisers told teams to fly to venues and to notify the organisers of travel arrangements. When they mentioned this, however, they were accused of trying to divert blame. Sadly Togo’s delegation followed neither instruction, which remains an awkward truth. If the football hasn’t yet matched 2008, that’s down to two things. Firstly, this is because 2008 was soooo good, and, secondly, Mali. Veteran ACN watchers will remember former Milan (and Manchester City!) star George Weah in hopelessly-inadequate Liberian teams (one wag remarked that Liberia were the worst team to contain a World Footballer of the Year since George Best played for Dunstable). Mali had no George, or anybody else, of any quality. Bar those 11 minutes against Angola, and the opening and closing minutes against Malawi, when it was too late, they were a non-event.
Frederic Kanoute has inspired a nationwide “spot the difference” extravaganza by announcing his international football retirement, and he was among their better players. Oddball tournament rules denied them a quarter-finals place – one-goal Algeria edging out seven-goal Mali is not “a good thing.” But so did their football. Those 11 minutes against Angola did, though, give the tournament the kick-start it needed, although it might have been better if Angola had come from four-down, or nicked it 5-4. In which case we’d have got more shots of the Michelle Obama look-alike who combined duties as a presidential wife with evermore frantic auditions for the Lusophone African production of Riverdance, waggling her legs in the air like a frustrated Tiller girl (ask your…er…grandparents). She wasn’t at Angola’s next games. Cannot think why.
Angola themselves probably exceeded expectations and avoided the embarrassingly early hosts’ exit that many expected, myself included. That might be beyond Gabon in 2012 unless they improve on this year’s showing. It looked like Gabon’s famous victory over Cameroon’s very domitable Lions was heroic backs-to-the-wall stuff (coach Paul Le Guen applying all the charisma to Cameroon that made him such a darling of the Ibrox faithful). But, alas, that was how they played throughout, and it was a joy to see Zambia run rings round them.
Group D was nuts. Tunisia were the only team to finish unbeaten, and they finished last. While the other three teams finished on level points, goal difference and, in Cameroon and Zambia’s case, goals scored too. Zambia beat Cameroon one-nil in the “number of goals all-but-thrown into the net by their goalkeeper” competition. But this wasn’t thought to be why they won the group. The three tied teams showed the weakness of “head-to-head” as a method of separating them, as they all beat each other. And disregarding results against Tunisia didn’t help as they were all draws. Except that this gave Zambia an edge in goals scored. So it was that Zambia won the Group of Weird, after finishing as level as possible with Cameroon, but despite losing to them 3-2. Vitally too. Zambia play Nigeria’s not-so-Super Eagles in the quarters, Cameroon get…ulp…Egypt. The views of the Mali football federation? Unknown.
If the watching world didn’t understand then how Algeria beat Egypt in November’s World Cup play-off, they sure-as-hell don’t understand now. Egypt were the only team to win all three group games, which is about right. And those who feared for them without the great Mido can relax. Just as significantly, Egypt are missing one or two key players, although they still had better games than any number of Nigerians on the pitch.
At first glance, it looked as if Nigeria’s matches were taking place on quaint tree-lined grounds. But closer inspection revealed these trees to be Nigerian strikers. If Everton boss David Moyes thought he was going to get a more match-fit Yakubu Ayegbeini back after intensive training and four games (surely Nigeria’s limit?), he’s in for a shock. Yakubu lumbered disinterestedly through Ghana ’08, picking up a couple of goals and a load of abuse on the way. In this aspect, if not many others, Angola 2010 is matching its immediate predecessor. Nigeria coach Shaibu Amodou has staked a claim as the most miserable dug-out dweller of the tournament. And with each North African coach’s facial expressions being either ‘downcast’ or ‘about to blow’, that’s some accolade. But he has to watch his team in every game. So who could blame him?
The coach with most to feel miserable about, though, has to be Mozambique’s Dutch former-incumbent Mart Nooij, sacked for not getting his team to the final itself. The Mambas were 100-1 rank outsiders for a reason, and to get the team to their first finals since 1998, and not disgrace themselves there– with one rotund exception – was an achievement. The Fifa World Rankings’ adjacency to reality has always been questionable. But Nooij taking the Mambas from 131st to 72nd in two years was another achievement. Federation chairman Fezal Sidat thought different: “There’s no point in renewing with Mart Nooij, who could not fulfil his goal of taking his team to the final,” Sidat announced, out loud. Zambia’s president told his team they “must” win the tournament. But he’s a politician in power – an excuse for being an idiot. Sidat and Flavio Briatore should meet up for lunch. They have a lot in common.
Mozambique’s “rotund exception” was portly custodian Joao Rafael, who provided the tournament’s YouTube moment with the worst-ever attempt at a forward roll outside infant school PE lessons. He was fortunate not to be badly hurt, as the roll stopped just as his considerable weight pressed down on his neck. But YouTube were straight to the point, entitling the video of the incident: “Rafael, crazy goalkeeper.” Most of the goalkeeping has been poor without being funny. Even the one assuredly sane keeper, Carlos Kameni, had a moment to file in the “brainstorm” column with his penalty concession against Zambia.
Most of the assistant refereeing has been laughable without being funny, the offside law an alien concept in some games. To be fair, about 95% of humanity struggles with the law as it now stands. But it shouldn’t be too much to expect Fifa’s assistant referees’ list to be among the 5%. It hasn’t just been the offsides. Never has there been a tournament with so many shots turned away for a corner by goalposts and turned round posts by goalkeepers for goalkicks. There have been few enough great saves without some of the best (eg Gabon’s Ebang Ovono turning Achille Emana’s shot aside against Cameroon) having officially never happened. The worst refereeing decision, though, probably met with a worldwide “Wolf!!”- an unpunished first-minute assault on Cote D’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba in the Burkina Faso penalty area. Drogba didn’t recover his composure – the impact of actually hitting the deck thanks to someone else for a change clearly messing with his head – which left all Cote D’Ivoire’s chances to Bacary Kone. Ergo 0-0. And Group B’s dynamic – three teams, with the “best” two playing the second match – should have guaranteed a gripping last match. This Group didn’t – as puzzling as Ghana’s decision to wear a Bradford City kit in the process.
Malawi’s coach Kinnah Phiri gained a new contract – against the grain of such tournaments which usually see coaching P45s doled out like confetti – and a decent shirt and tie to replace the moth-eaten Man at C&A cast-off he sported for the Flames’ first two matches. Sadly, his team lost out, despite playing far more good football than some quarter-finalists. Hello Algeria. The Fennecs has said they would use the tournament to look at “attacking option”, which thus far has been someone whose name can be pronounced ‘Gazelle’ – a nice line in irony, that. They may well have lulled future World Cup opponents, such as England, into a true sense of security. Burkina Faso don’t do irony. They had a centre-back called Tall. He was. And they didn’t do much attacking either. What was generally perceived as an admirable rearguard action against Cote D’Ivoire was, in fact, the limit of their abilities up-front. The perception is that Cote D’Ivoire struggled against the Burkinabes but were back to their “powerful best” against Ghana. But I don’t buy it – although as the Elephants have Algeria in the quarters, they can save their power until the semis.
The Black Stars are being forced to use the tournament as a reunion for their Under-20 World Cup-winning team. When they claim that “it will be a different Ghana team in the World Cup” you are free to take them literally. The tournament had been relatively free of cynicism, diving, petty haranguing of referees and general foolishness until Tunisia came into view. After one non-contact spat with a Zambian player, Khaled Korbi did the classic “three rolls back and one roll forward” manoeuvre so beloved of seriously “injured” players, suggesting that either the Zambian player had halitosis on an industrial scale, or that Korbi was a bit of a d**k. The Zambian player’s dental hygiene is not in question. Momentarily, there were hopes that captain Karim Haggui would put a stop to all the referee-jostling, as he – often forcefully – hauled his players away. Alas, this was just so that he could have a go himself. The referee of their game against Cameroon gloriously pretended Haggui wasn’t there. And, now, he isn’t.
TV coverage has been cut back due to costs. There are fewer journos about because the posh hotels are too expensive, apparently, which begs questions about BBC spending of taxpayers money at such events…even before considering Mark Bright’s presence. Without the Beeb until the semi-finals, Eurosport have had the monopoly on coverage. Their half-time analyses looked original and incisive until it became clear that they were showing a Dakar Rally (which didn’t appear to be in Dakar). Apart from Brian Hamilton’s obsession with calling big players “units”, the coverage has been unobtrusive and only occasionally obviously from “commentary positions” rather further from the action than most referees’ assistants – and Russell Osman (the very same) has still got more offside decisions right. Eurosport even managed to sort out the Group D confusion with an efficiency you’d imagine might be beyond ITV. And half-time analyses haven’t been missed. TV company bean-counters, take note. Actually, they probably have. Egypt v Cameroon is too good for a quarter-final. But that apart, things are going according to predictions, after early results which were less expected than the Spanish inquisition. Whether it will be remembered as a good football tournament is still not certain. For some, tragically, it won’t be remembered for football at all.