Africa’s Cup of Nations, Round One
Has it ever been said of an entire tournament that it has “lacked quality in the final third”? Because the 32nd African Cup of Nations (AFCON), which began in “Mo Salah’s Egypt” last Friday, is partway there.
Most first-round matches were AFCON-traditionally cagey and low-scoring. Most of the better-known, and therefore automatically ‘fancied,’ nations huffed-and-puffed to narrow wins over varying degrees of minnows, with performances as oppressive as the Egyptian summer heat into which the tournament has been maladministered.
Only Uganda and Madagascar provided genuine star quality, although three of Mali’s goals were stellar and Ghana/Benin was dramatic, while Cote D’Ivoire and South Africa spread football fertiliser all over their pitch. Cote D’Ivoire should have been ashamed to win but winning goalscorer Jonathan Kodja celebrated with far more style and limb co-ordination than the gangly frontman produced in 90 comical minutes.
The pitches have been the tournament’s best aspect. After various mudbaths and sandpits in recent AFCON venues, the green, green grasses of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia have been a god/Allah-send. But the Confederation of African Football (Caf), Africa’s administratively gormless governing body, can take little credit for this.
As is an increasing norm, the selected host failed to deliver the tournament. Cameroon were Indomitable Lions when winning the last AFCON, in 2017. But, despite being six months later than its traditional New Year slot, the tournament’s infrastructure demands also proved indomitable and Cameroon lost host nation status last November, Egypt almost unanimously winning January’s new bidding process, becoming North/Arabic Africa’s first hosts since…er…Egypt in 2006.
Individual reams have also maintained the tradition of financial disputes with their own federations, Cameroon before the tournament, Nigeria as I type. You’d laugh if it didn’t so undermine African football’s competitiveness at national level.
Nonetheless, most of the better-recognised nations and personalities are in Egypt, 2012 champions Zambia and 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso the main exceptions. French coach Herve Renard, who led Zambia to that title, is in Egypt because of course he is. In charge of Morocco this time, slicked-back hair and white shirts to the fore, as per.
Group A: Egypt 1 Zimbabwe 0; Democratic Republic of Congo 0 Uganda 2
Egypt began in some style, creating a slew of early chances against Zimbabwe. But their creativity was waning a bit when Mahmoud Trezeguet gave them a 41st-minute lead with an excellent right-foot shot, after two calamitous mistakes by Zim captain Knowledge Musona in the build-up. Egypt still should have scored more, though. And Zim keeper Edmore Sibanda was outstanding, as was his injury replacement, the fabulously-titled Elvis Chipezeze.
“The Congolese were not in their usual element,” noted Caf’s official match report, winning the understatement of the tournament award RIGHT there, after Uganda thoroughly outclassed the Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC were awful, slow where Uganda were quick-silver, chaotic where Uganda were thoroughly well-drilled.
Both Ugandan goals were created by Faruku Miya, early in each half. Patrick Kaddu headed home Miya’s 14th-minute near-post corner, Emmanuel Okwi heading home Miya’s left-wing cross on 48 minutes. They would have had Alan Hansen dribbling on-screen about “pass-and-move” and should have won by more. And for all DRC’s inadequacies (not including their kit, from GAA kit suppliers O’Neill’s), Uganda were joyous to watch.
Group B: Nigeria 1 Burundi 0; Guinea 2 Madagascar 2
Nigeria’s eventually deserved win over Burundi showcased numerous familiar names, including Saido Berahino in Burundi’s front-line.
Odion Ighalo’s 72nd-minute introduced as a sub might have reignited nightmares among watching Watford fans. But within four minutes, before the flashbacks really kicked-in, he flashed back to his early good times in Hertfordshire, expertly finishing Ola Aina’s cheekily but firmly backheeled through-ball.
Nigeria struggled until the introduction of another sub, Ahmed Musa, for the one-paced Jon Obi “is he still only 32?” Mikel after an hour. Although Berahino looked as ‘little-boy-lost’ as he has done in English football recently, Burundi competed well, until Musa gave Nigeria pace and purpose, with headline-writers’ moral dilemma Abdul Fiston constantly threatening.
It will be a (pardon the pun) mad group if Madagascar’s upbeat response to going behind to Guinea is a guide. Sory Kaba’s 34th-minute lob, pirouette and finish excusably befuddled Madagascar keeper Melvin Adrien and put Guinea worthily ahead. Then the narrative went pear-shaped. Abel Andrianantenaina (“give me an ‘A’, give me an ‘N’” is not thought to be in the Madagascar fans’ songbook) headed home Carolus Andrianmatsinoro’s fabulous, pacey, 48th-minute near-post corner. And on 55 minutes, Andrianmatsinoro himself finished with double-aplomb when clean through.
Guinea looked likelier winners after Francois Kamano’s 65th-minute penalty, awarded for Roman Metanire’s foul as Ibrahima Toure shaped to score, Guinea players furious that Metanire was only booked (although in conceding a penalty, he hardly denied a goal-scoring opportunity). But a draw was only fair on two teams who deserved something for their efforts.
Group C: Senegal 2 Tanzania 0; Algeria 2 Kenya 0
Senegal and Algeria could/should have won by more against some of the more, ahem, ‘limited’ opposition in Egypt. Senegal’s front-of-goal failings were not for the want of trying. Algeria’s, especially after they took a two-goal interval lead, were.
Senegal missed first-half chances galore and found Tanzanian keeper Aishi Manula in photogenically good form when they did hit the target, except when Keita Balde fired a low left-footer through him on 28 minutes. Krepin Diatta’s deflected 64th-minute thunderstrike should have opened at least one floodgate against a Tanzania side offering nothing up front. But it didn’t. Still, Senegal probably won’t rue their attacking malfunctions. And Kenya should offer opportunities to fix them.
Algeria showed little concern for their goal difference. They were in complete control after Baghdad Bounedjah’s 34th-minute penalty, given for Philemon Otieno’s dim-as-fcuk foul on Youcef Atal, and Riyad Mahrez’s deflected left-foot shot 10 minutes later. But after half-time, they sat back, dismally (if admittedly correctly) cocksure that Kenya lacked threatening creativity.
Group D: Morocco 1 Namibia 0; Cote D’Ivoire 1 South Africa 0
They’re (I’m) calling this the Group of Death. Morocco gave a possession-wasting masterclass against blanket-defensive Namibia and only won through Itamunua Keimuine’s tragi-comic 89th-minute own goal. Cote D’Ivoire and South Africa gave wasting-everyone’s-time masterclasses, the ‘winners’ of a limb-numbingly dull petty-foul-fest reliant on one bit of quality from Max Graedel, a veteran of countless Ivorian AFCON finals under-achievers.
Keimuine will have better days. In fact, he’s likely had three of them since this match. He was only on as a sub for 10 minutes before getting booked AND conceding the free-kick which deftly headed past his own keeper. It was a goal of which he might have been proud if he’d plonked it in the right net. Instead, team-mate Petrus Shitembi might have been a more appropriately-named scorer.
‘Shitembi’ might also have described Cote D’Ivoire striker Kodja’s display, as he scored the winner against South Africa very much despite a giraffe-like clumsiness and balance deficiency. He nearly made a giraffe-size mess of the on-a-plate opportunity gifted him by Graedel’s fabulous low left-wing cross, almost treading on the ball with his first touch before digging out a shot which nutmegged South African keeper (and Welsh sitcom heroine trapped in a man’s body) Ronwen Williams.
And he certainly had some neck (I’m here all week) to celebrate wildly post-match, especially after thumping the best first-half chance straight at Williams, concentrating more on a photogenic finish than an accurate one. At least he is not afraid to miss, which might be just as well.
Nicolas Pepe had earlier thumped the crossbar with equivalent velocity. And when Wilfried Zaha was introduced from the subs bench, he…er…made no difference whatsoever. South Africa were a nothing-burger throughout, though. A game best filed under ‘already forgotten.’
Group E: Tunisia 1 Angola 1; Mali 4 Mauritania 1
Goals, goals, goals. At last. Just a pity that Angola couldn’t find one more to punish the presumptuous Tunisians.
Tunisia, in reasonable control, led at half-time through another 34th-minute penalty, Youssef Msakni netting after Salomao Paizo star-jumped into a tackle on Naim Sliti. And it possibly seemed like a good idea at the time to assume that Angola wouldn’t score, as their defensive skills were way in advance of their attacking ones. It wasn’t, though.
Angola improved almost unrecognisably after half-time and levelled on 73 minutes when Tunisian keeper Farouk Ben Mustapha patted Mateus Da Costa’s weak but on-target shot straight to Djalma Campos, who tapped-in. If Mustapha had slammed the ball as hard as he subsequently slammed the turf in frustration, he wouldn’t have had to slam the turf in frustration.
Mauritania played the role of minnows better than anyone else, while Mali’s own defensive incapabilities contributed to the opening round’s highest-scoring match.
Mauritania keeper Souleimane Brahim watched three Malian goals fizz past him. But boy did they fizz, Abdoulay Diaby’s 37th-minute left-foot opener the fizziest. Brahim was also transfixed by Adama Traore’s 55th-minute drive and by Traore’s replacement…er…Adama Traore’s 74th-minute left-foot whack. And he watched bewildered at being punished for a penalty box non-foul on Lassana Coulibaly on half-time, Moussa Marega converting the spot-kick.
El-Hacen El-Ide converted Mauritania’s own penalty on 72 minutes, their first-ever AFCON finals goal (it’s their debut) after Mamadou Fofana’s obvious-on-radio push on Ismail Diakite. And they were genuinely plucky.
Group F: Cameroon 2 Guinea-Bissau 0; Ghana 2 Benin 2
Seeing Clarence Seedorf in Cameroon’s technical area placed scrutiny on his bitty managerial career. But until going two-up against Guinea-Bissau, Cameroon were as impressive as his playing career. Two goals in three minutes proved decisive, Banana Yaya heading home a 66th-minute corner, Stephane Bahoken scoring a minute after coming on, miles offside but fed possession by a defender’s deflection.
Yet, like Seedorf’s management jobs, things soon went a bit sour. Guinea-Bissau had three final-quarter near misses. And there is no certainty how Cameroon would have responded at 2-1. They were quite good for quite a time though, in one of the better opening round games.
Ghana/Benin was better still, thanks to clueless clownstick referee Youssef Essrayn. With 35 minutes left, and Ghana clearly wanting more than a 2-1 win in a match they began as near-unbackable favourites, Essrayn cautioned the already-booked Ghana’s John Boye for time-wasting when he left a free-kick to keeper Richard Ofori. Nearly as weapons-grade idiotic as the World Cup ref who almost booked a Dane for time-wasting, 30 minutes into a game Denmark were losing.
Man-mountainous striker Mickael Pote gave Benin a second-minute lead but Andre then Jordan Ayew, netted emphatically to turn matters around by half-time. Enter Essrayn. And on 62 minutes, Pote got an indeterminate part of his lower leg onto hyperactive sub Jodel Dossou’s cross to equalise. There’ll be “more goals,” Bright declared on 79 minutes. And Benin’s Steve Munie had a glorious late headed chance from six yards. Two-two it was then, as Huddersfield Town fans already knew.
Ghana might be happy in the circumstances. Benin were, regardless of circumstances. Essrayn can **** off.
Eurosport are part-atoning for their shameful Asian Cup non-coverage and for ceding under-20s World Cup rights to Free-for-a-reason Sports. They are welcome back…even co-commentator Mark Bright, who seems to have voice problems beyond his usual propensity for talking sh*te. And his medication seems to contain laughing gas, with jokes as terrible as “Kenya, famous for Kilimanjaro, have a mountain to climb” producing giggle-fits.
Match officials have been atrocious, producing constant incorrectly-given offsides, fouls, goalkicks and corners (the latter two instantly ‘exposable’ by replay technology for YEARS). ‘Letting the game flow’ has meant ‘letting most brutal fouls go,’ though “that’s a foul in the Premier League” might say more about the snowflake EPL (light the blue touch paper…and retire). Never fear…VAR is here…from the quarter-finals on (no…me neither). But nearly all these errors are outwith VAR’s remit.
Meanwhile, the non-Egypt games are being watched by gatherings, not crowds. Some traditions never die.