The tragedy that occurred in Port Said on Wednesday evening has overshadowed all else in world football this week, and this is a subject that we will be returning to when the dust has settled on a disaster so appalling as to be almost incomprehensible. Reports from Egypt have been pouring across the world via social media, and we would urge anyone reading this to bear in mind when reading reports on this subject elsewhere in the media that the events of this week are representative of broader political issues in Egypt than mere football rivalries. In the meantime, Mark Murphy has been keeping up to date with the final round of group matches in this year’s African Cup of Nations.
I felt for Equatorial Guinea towards the end of their 1-0 defeat to Zambia. Not because of anything on the pitch. But just in case anyone associated with the team had tuned in to Eurosport. “Is this the match where it all falls apart for Equatorial Guinea?” asked commentator Wayne Boyce, in a tone conveying both eager anticipation and expectation. And, anyway, it wasn’t. The co-hosts didn’t quite reach the heights of their win over Senegal. But, as Boyce pointed out after the final whistle, only a “moment of magic” separated the sides. Well, it was a moment, certainly, although “magic” might have been stretching it a bit. Captain Christopher Katongo cut inside two semi-tackles from wary defenders stood just inside the penalty box before directing a shot right into the corner of the net. Good placement, but in terms of “magic”, more Paul Daniels than Derren Brown.
Had Juvenal curled his 25-yard free-kick into the top corner two minutes later, rather than missing the angle of post and bar by inches…now, THAT would have been magic. And even in defeat, the co-hosts maintained much of their improvement from their turgid win over Libya. They missed winning goalscorer David Alvarez Aguirre (a cosmopolitan lot, remember?). They missed the suspended Laurence Doe, although Rui was a powerful presence at the back. And they missed Iban Travieso (Randy) at the other end; although Raul Fabiani was a…no… they missed Randy. Early on, the game had the feel of a non-league side taking on a top League One side in the FA Cup first round, with every touch – especially the defensive ones – cheered mightily. Equatorial Guinea improved from slow starts to each half. And when Boyce said he couldn’t remember Zambian keeper Kennedy Mweene “having to make a save” that was more of a memory lapse than any perceived failings on the pitch.
Zambia, though, had that bit extra and were worthy match and group winners, though coach Herve Renard appeared to need convincing of this as he launched into a member of his staff during his now-traditional rant when his side are…er…winning. If this tournament has a dark horse, Zambia are it. As Boyce noted, having European-based players is the “key to a successful side.” Take Senegal, for example…ah… As Libya snuck past a weakened but hardly “second-string” Teranga Lions outfit, I wondered what (or where) ‘Teranga’ was. But if it is a place, then it’s a safe one if its lions are like… that. Libya’s goals were out of context with the rest of the match, the winner being a prime candidate for future ACN trailers, although it would take some nifty camera work to get a Senegalese defender into shot, from either Ahmed Zuway’s header across the edge of the box or Ihab Boussefi’s crunching volley. Still, at least Senegal were consistent, 2-1 losers each time. And it was tempting to suggest that “football was the winner,” although that is probably not an opinion to venture in downtown Dakar anytime soon.
Before 2012, Sudan hadn’t won an ACN finals’ point since 1976 – although I’m guessing you knew that. Their 2-1 win over Burkina Faso was their first victory since 1970, when they were hosts and champions, we were informed. Often. Group B became a curiosity, Cote D’Ivoire with a 100% record and no goals conceded, Burkina Faso with a 0% record, despite being more entertaining. Meanwhile, Sudan and Angola battled for second, which produced more exciting arithmetic than football. The pseudo-complex “head-to-head” rule, used to separate teams level on points, proved beyond the otherwise well-informed Eurosport commentators. We were thus (mis)informed that Sudan needed three goals to qualify. They certainly needed to win and Angola to lose, otherwise Angola would qualify on, you know, points. However, the “head-to-head” rule didn’t apply as the teams drew 2-2.
So when Sudan went one-up and Angola one-down almost simultaneously, after about 33 minutes, goal difference was level, with Angola sneaking ahead having scored four goals to Sudan’s three. If Angola drew, they’d have enough points and Sudan could, in the words of the chant “score when they want” and still not go through. However, the Angolans seemed to forget this. The only passion on display was striker Manucho’s frustration at his colleagues’ putrid passing. And Cote D’Ivoire’s second goal, on 64 minutes, put Sudan ahead on goal difference. Having conceded one comedy goal when defender Miguel did a rain dance over the ball to let Emmanuel Eboue score, they let in an even funnier one after half-time. Dany headed over on-rushing keeper, the mis-named Wilson Alegre (second-choice behind the ridiculous Carlos, so hardly quick or lively) and Wilfried Bony tapped-in the already net-bound ball to save Dany the ignominy/greedily claim a goal (delete as your sense of generosity dictates).
Stewart Robson noted: “goalkeepers should be giving an angle off the back.” Wilson might ponder this into his dotage and still be no wiser. Sudan now led on goal difference. After 33 minutes of “being patient” (trans: being outplayed), Sudan took the lead when Mudather El Tahir avoided two two-footed lunges and kept his head (and his legs…just) in front of goal. And on 80 minutes, Mudather grabbed his second, and another comedy goal, latching onto Akram Salim’s sky-rocket of a drop-kick and rounding Burkinabe keeper Daouda Diakite, who seemed to treat his 18-yard line as some sort of forcefield. Burkina Faso treated the goalframes in a similar fashion, with Muomouni Dagano, a genuinely forceful presence up front, shaving all sides of each – apart from the inside. Half-an-hour’s stoppage time finally produced a Burkinabe goal, which Eurosport’s Tim Caple seemed to think mattered. But unless Angola grabbed one against Cote D’Ivoire reserves, it didn’t matter. They didn’t. Sudan proved easier to warm to than Angola, so a sort of justice was done, even if the tournament will be a little poorer without Burkina Faso’s Jonathan Pitroipa. His best effort of this game ended with a tame shot which you almost heard go “phut!” Like Angola’s tournament.
Remarkably, co-hosts Gabon proved the most convincing qualifiers. Their 1-0 win over Tunisia had a similar pattern to their Morocco triumph; a slow start, gradual improvement until half-time and a storming second period. Matters weren’t quite so “storming” here. They didn’t have to be, as Tunisia didn’t score and Gabon didn’t need the win as much. Indeed, the desire to avoid Ghana in the quarter-finals – the assumed ‘prize’ for winning the group – just wasn’t there; possibly as much of a comment on Ghana’s Group D struggles as any complacency. Remarkably, the ground wasn’t full, possibly down to the pre-match rain which dampened the pitch. Gabon’s first lady Sylvia Bongo was in, having missed the Morocco match after her (ahem!) ‘distinctive’ celebrations against Niger. She looked utterly non-plussed. But maybe she too was puzzled as to how slick-passing Tunisia qualified behind Botswana, the finals’ worst team. This was attributed to Tunisian fear of “physical presence,” with Caple clearly itching to say “they don’t like it up ’em.”
But Gabon’s 62nd-minute winner was more down to the pass of the tournament from Daniel Cousin to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He still “had a lot to do”, as they say. But Tunisia’s reserve keeper Rami Jeridi did most of it for him, gymnastically avoiding the shot, which demonstrated why he was reserve. Tim Caple declared it “three games played, three games won” on seventy minutes, which, after Jeridi’s gymnastics, might have raised a few eyebrows – even ones as heavy as Tunisian coach Sami Trabelsi’s. But Gabon were on top. And Tunisia’s most energetic player was centre-back Aymen Abdennour, who looked “a lot older than 22” on Planet Caple but looked eight-years-old in his game-long verbal battle with Cousin.
Morocco’s 1-0 win over Niger contained some gems. But the football itself proved as meaningless as its context. Had Morocco won each game 6-0, coach Eric Gerets’ FOUR…MILLION…DOLLARS salary would still have been shocking. How could being the “third most-capped Belgian” be so lucrative? “The buck stops with me,” he reportedly said after Morocco’s exit was confirmed. “About four million of them,” noted Eurosport’s Matt Jackson, inevitably but still pertinently. Gerets is, apparently, not resigning. So the Moroccan football authorities will have to pay him off. These events are thought to be connected. For what its worth (about $4m less than $4m, I’d suggest), Niger’s large, lightning-quick Moussa Maazou hit the bar. And Morocco’s goal looked offside (cue the jokes about Marouane Chamakh not interfering with play).
But the local TV director didn’t know enough about the offside law to replay the relevant moment. Commentator Dan O’Hagan declared Gabon “group winners” with…again…twenty minutes left. And there was just time to list Niger assistant-coach Roland Corbis’ impressive CV…impressive at least until his…er…”spell in prison” for match-fixing. “Pretty wretched” noted Jackson…about the match…probably. Niger avoided embarrassment, allegedly their tournament objective. And Jackson’s verdict on Morocco – “not very good at all” – was harsh, especially given their poor fortune against Tunisia. Still, Chamakh will be home early, which Arsenal fans can…er…
Group D was scrappy and tetchy (all three tournament dismissals in this group). As such, Ghana were worthy winners of it. Like Group B, the arithmetic of the climax was more gripping than the football. Guinea had little luck against Mali, which ultimately did for them. They were more impressive against both Botswana and Ghana than the Malians, but they needed to beat Ghana, which turned from quite possible to distinctly unlikely in the space of Mahmadou Ba’s two yellow cards. Indeed, Ba’s dismissal proved the night’s pivotal moment (what used to be called turning points), as Mali went 2-1 ahead against Botswana at about the same time. If Guinea could have nicked a late goal against the heavily-sedated Black Stars, they’d have qualified.
They were behind to a goal-of-the-tournament contender from Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu. Matt Jackson wasn’t sure if Badu’s first touch was deliberate – the ball bouncing up off his left foot. But if Badu wants to tell his grandkids he meant it, and everyone else he meets until then, no Ghanaian will complain. Guinea’s equaliser was deserved, if fortunate, Abdoul Camara’s overhit left-wing cross sailing over Ghana keeper Adambathia Kwarasey, making him look – for the first time – as hapless as predecessor netminder Richard Kingson. And even Bobo Balde (five SPL titles, remember?) stormed forward after half-time, momentarily thinking he was Alan Hansen. A Ghanaian player lay prone in the Guinea half and Balde took the opportunity to kick the ball out, almost as if he had no…idea…whatsoever what else to do with it. The injury was probably to one of Andre Ayew’s shoulders, as most injuries in this match were. He appeared to dislocate his left shoulder in the first half, only for Badu to put it back in almost immediately. “He must have done that before,” noted Jackson, probably correctly as Ayew carried on without missing a beat.
His shoulder appeared to dislocate again after half-time but such was the wave of sympathy and revulsion in the commentary box (the “relocation” of a dislocated shoulder is not what they call these days “a good watch”) that no-one noticed it was Ayew’s other shoulder causing him this trouble. This was as lively as the second half got, which in turn was as lively as Mali’s first half against Botswana. As Boyce noted every 94 seconds, Mali “only started playing once they went a goal behind.” With such vigour throughout, you…still wouldn’t have backed them to match Guinea’s six goals. But their winner was a double-masterstroke, substitute Cheik Diabate’s first touch falling for “Barcelona’s Seydou Keita” to sweep the ball home from twenty yards like…well…Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. The scenes after the Mali players watched the end of Guinea’s stoppage-time-addled encounter, were terrific, as Mali’s support for this match ran into thousands. And it was difficult not to be pleased for them. But it is difficult now not to be sorry for Guinea, who looked livelier and more entertaining than a number of sides in this stuttering tournament, like… Ghana.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.