More often than not, major tournament semi-finals are deep disappointments. Even the best of recent African Cups of Nations have run out of some steam by the time there were only four teams left. So given this year’s deeply disappointing tournament so far – and the prospect of 90-120 minutes of nerve-shredded beach football – imagine my surprise when…

Nigeria 4 Mali 1

In the end, Mali had more shots. But if ever a statistic was a damned lie it was that one. From the opening five minutes, when they passed the ball around like a green-shirted Barcelona, to NAME Musa’s disallowed goal in the 65th minute, the Super Eagles were simply magnificent. As Alan Hansen might have said: “Pace, power, technique.” And that was just Daniel Amokachi’s goal celebrations – the ex-Evertonian diverting attention from Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi’s stubborn refusal to CHEER UP with a high-octane attempt at the land speed record for running on the spot. Keshi eventually did cheer up. And who wouldn’t smile after a display like…that? Well…OK…ITV’s Efan Ekoku wouldn’t. But even Ekoku’s calm exterior couldn’t mask his true feelings as the Super Eagles went in at half-time with the game virtually won.

In commentary, Jim Beglin invoked “Istanbul,” as any ex-Liverpool player would. More relevant here though was Mali’s comeback from FOUR-nil down with ELEVEN minutes left against host nation Angola in the 2010 AFCON. Ekoku did invoke this but added, haughtily, that “this is not Angola, this is the Super Eagles.” Still, who wouldn’t boast after a first half like…that? Victor Moses again wore his EPL best for the occasion. Emmanuel Emineke and Ideye Brown were borderline-unplayable. Blimey, Jon Obi-Mikel started spraying passes about the pitch like a latter-day Glenn Hoddle. The number ten shirt “requires that you show a certain amount of craft, guile and creativity,” suggested Jim Beglin, which did little to explain the creative paucity of Mikel’s 40-something previous appearances in it. Still, blimey.

Mali’s number ten wasn’t providing a body of evidence for Beglin’s hypothesis. “West Ham’s Maiga,” or to give him his full name, “Maiga of West Ham,” so lacked “craft, guile and creativity” that he was subbed at half-time. Indeed, it was a summary of Mali’s overall lack of these qualities that beanpole striker Cheik Diabate was their main source of them. Mali’s only first-half dynamism came from Adama Tamboura, clearly a leading lecturer at the “good-going-forward” University of Marauding left-backs. But this proved Mali’s downfall, because as he bombed forward, he left more space down the right-flank for Nigeria than there was in the stands. Ergo 2-0 to the Super Eagles after half-an-hour.

Momo Sissoko had a tournament’s-worth of mishaps in the 44th minute – penalised despite nicking the ball on the edge of the box and then nicking it again when Emineke’s subsequent free-kick caught his heel and flew in the opposite corner of the net to that to which resplendently-pink-shirted Mali keeper Mamadou Samassa was headed. An early second-half Mali goal, combined with Moses’ departure through injury within minutes of the restart, might have divested Ekoku of his new-found haughtiness. And “the chance” fell to the clichéd “player you would want it to fall to,” in Seydou Keita. “You can tell by his face,” Beglin suggested, after Keita pulled his 12-yard effort wide. But it was only fractionally more droopy than usual, although he eventually turned angry enough for the host broadcaster to compile a montage of his “frustration” poses.

By then, Nigeria’s uber-lively sub Ahmed Musa had streaked clear of Mali’s V-shaped offside trap and nutmegged the pink Samassa for goal number four. “In some style,” ITV’s Steve Bower noted, over shots of Amokachi’s by-now trademark celebration which immediately rendered Bower’s comment ironic. Mali had a flurry of chances in the moments immediately following, stuck in the middle of which was Cheick Diarra’s well-taken goal, superbly created by Diabate, who for about ten minutes seemed to think he was Andres Iniesta. But Nigeria’s only remaining concern came three minutes from the end when Emineke’s right leg nearly fell off as he swung one powerful 25-yarder past the post. He appeared to land on a defender’s leg, which is probably what caused the injury to his semi-detached limb.

Ekoku noted – correctly, if much to the annoyance of any watching EPL fans – that Emineke, “as the lone striker,” would be a bigger loss to Nigeria than Moses. This was not supposed to be the mismatch suggested by the sides’ “Eagles” and “Super Eagles” nicknames. But at times in the middle third of the game, it seemed that way. And whether Nigeria can turn on the ‘super’ bit again after their last two performances isn’t a given, either. Many teams have had the look of winners in finals’ tournaments, only to implode; Russia in Euro 2008, Denmark in Mexico ’86 and… ulp… Nigeria in France ’98. In the immediate aftermath of this semi-final, it was possible to believe that such an implosion would be the opposition’s only hope this Sunday.

Burkina Faso 1 Ghana 1 (After extra-time, 90 minutes score 1-1. Burkina Faso win 3-2 on penalties)

Woooh. As I’ve written before, every tournament should have a “signature”  match – a classic encounter which represents the tournament for ever. Barring something sensational at the weekend, this will be AFCON 2013’s signature match. Concerns about the small corner of Nelspruit that will be forever the Sahara Desert were submerged by much of the football and all of the drama which unfolded. ITV’s Peter Drury was a shade ungenerous in calling the game a “curate’s egg” after 62 minutes. It was already a shade better than that; and would get much, MUCH better still. The fun began for some of us with the team sheet and the prospect of Burkinabe striker Aristide Bance and Ghana defender Isaac Vorsah marking each other at corners, with variant pasta recipes stuck on their heads.

Bance won the football battle. He was recently described by one ignorant tournament blogger as “useless.” That same blogger took some delight in noting down “Bance’s first hilarious miss – two minutes 12 seconds.” I know this, for it was me. And what a delight it was to be proved wrong, as Bance was sensational. But the referee, one Slim Jdidi, was also a sensation…of sorts, clearly looking elsewhere when Burkinabe playmaker Jonathan Pitroipa was unceremoniously shoved over in the penalty box in the fifth minute. “Boye was the centre-half involved,” said ITV’s Peter Drury. “And Boye was he lucky,” interjected Clarke Carlisle, with a speed which suggested rehearsal but at least stopped Drury cracking another wretched Waltons pun.

Carlisle’s reference to “a sniper in the stand” when Ghana’s John Pantsil got injured was possibly his first mistake of the tournament, as you could almost hear his hamstring twang in the slow-mo replays. Ghana’s penalty award, moments later, could only have come from a referee sympathetic to this early setback. Slim Whitman pointed to the spot after Mady Panandetiguiri and Christian Atsu challenged for a high ball so half-heartedly that some commentators might have bemoaned how football was “becoming a non-contact sport.” Eurosport’s Mark Bright wondered why Panandetiguiri’s defensive colleague Bakary Kone was “getting all upset.” I can’t imagine. The infamous pitch/surface was having less of an influence than Slim Shady, although its resemblance to early artificial surfaces at English League grounds sparked some wistful Carlisle nostalgia about kids’ cup finals he’d played in at Preston’s Deepdale…wearing tights. Thankfully, the football was good enough to divert our minds from such disturbing imagery.

Bance and Prejuce Nakoulma were forming a dangerous partnership but not half as dangerous as Ekoku and Fabrice Muamba in the ITV studio, whose views on the penalty incidents were, ahem, ‘alternative’ – “if Efan’s thought process is anything to go by…that’s a penalty,” Carlisle shouted after one particularly innocuous second-half challenge, clearly if amicably unimpressed. Bright was equally unimpressed when Asamoah Gyan struck a Burkinabe post (“it’s a tap-in”). And Gyan was to pay for his profligacy. Ghana’s gurning goalie Fatau Daouda had already clawed one Bance header from under the crossbar, rippling the net in doing so to make it look for all the world like another case for goal-line technology. But on the hour, Bance was gifted the equaliser, curling a right-foot shot around Daouda into the…er…dead centre of the goal after a poor throw out left Ghana’s centre-backs exposed and further apart than Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce.

This shook the Black Stars out of their Cote D’Ivoire-patented torpor for the first time in a tournament-and-a-half. Burkinabe keeper Daouda Diakite, in a yellow/brown kit which nearly served as camouflage on this pitch, even had to make a save of note before Gyan whistled a header past the post and received a kick near the unmentionables from Paul Koulibaly as the two players landed in the sand. Koulibaly was booked for what was a clear red-card offence, although to be fair to Fatboy Slim it was only ‘clear’ after about five different camera angles. He clearly knew something had happened but didn’t know what, so a yellow card it was. The post-match narrative was that Burkina Faso had all the rotten luck. Not so. Meanwhile, Bance was in full flow, creating chances and pinging in 30-yard shots where in previous games he’d barely been able to kick the ball 30 yards. Some of his efforts betrayed “a liking for Row Q” (Carlisle). But you could not fault him for trying.

Ghana looked fitter at the end of normal time. But, in as much as you “never write the Germans off” (The book of Commentary Cliches – Chapter 9: Internationals), you couldn’t write off the Burkinabes. And, true to form, they dominated extra-time. In a rare Black Stars raid Harrison Afful belied his name with a stinging volley, acrobatically saved by Diakite. And this seemed to inspire Ghanaian confidence that they could win it without penalties, as they replaced a midfielder for striker Emmanuel Clottey. The true significance of this “attacking change”, though, was that Clottey replaced Mubarak Wakaso, who was not only Ghana’s penalty-taker but also one so good that he was three-parts to a share of the tournament’s ‘Golden Boot’ on the basis of his three tournament penalties. The move was to prove costly, although it wouldn’t have mattered but for the thin man of Tunisia with the whistle, who disallowed Nakoulma’s goal for…er…

It may have been for a foul on Ghana’s Kwadwo Asamoah – except that Asamoah was doing most of the ‘fouling.’ Or for dangerous play, as Nakoulma’s foot was high as he poked the ball past the on-rushing Daouda – except that Daouda had started to on-rush far too late and was nowhere near Nakoulma’s hanging boot, let alone in ‘danger’ from it. As Quentin Fortune said of a referee earlier in the tournament: “’E’s ‘ad one.” And he was soon to have another one. Bance Faso were fired up by the latest injustice – like that was necessary. Urged on by the neutrals, whose boos for Ghana were audible even on the muffled TV soundtrack, Bance had shots either saved or cleared off the line (a Gordon Banks-style intervention by Afful). And there was time for Koulibaly to kick Gyan again before Pitroipa was upended in the box by a Boye challenge from the Bruce Lee defenders’ manual to give the Burkinabes a chance to make the final with a dramatic, late penalty. Burkinabe boss Paul Put smiled in satisfaction. But one of his coaching staff was in a wide-eyed panic, ready to disabuse Put of any delusions of refereeing competence.

“It put a doubt in my mind when the ref didn’t point to the spot,” noted Bright, alert as ever. And, yes, Slim Pickens was at it again, booking Pitroipa for his kung-fu kick-assisted ‘dive,’ – Pitroipa’s second caution. Slim S**te was understandably influenced by the otherwise beautifully-balanced Pitroipa’s predilection for falling over inside the box. But if Pitroipa was ‘looking’ for a penalty – and slow-motion replays suggested as much – he certainly ‘found’ it. Boye and Pitroipa were team-mates at French club Rennes. They are probably team ex-mates now. Thankfully, the ten men weren’t ten men for long. But there was still time for Gyan to flash another header a millimetre wide, with Diakite a distant spectator… and for Bance to have a last goalbound effort brilliantly blocked by a Ghanaian thigh. “Better than the match,” Drury noted of extra-time, correctly. And the match hadn’t been half-bad.

The penalty shoot-out was more dramatic still. Vorsah’s penalty, which bobbled yards wide, was the worst-ever in international football (“he squiffed it,” said Bright, finding the perfect word for once). And he knew it – having to be dragged back shell-shocked to the centre-circle by team-mates. But for Vorsah’s  “squiff”, Koulibaly’s penalty might have been the worst-ever –  he kicked Gyan harder, both times. And although Diakite might have saved Afful’s penalty with a fully-outstretched right arm, it didn’t matter. Bance chipped his penalty down the middle with the soaring confidence of a man whose night it was. Clottey missed the target – Wakaso’s thoughts at that particular moment…unknown. And if Diakite left his line so early and quickly that he nearly saved Emmanuel Agyemang Badu’s penalty at the taker’s feet then, hey, what the hell, justice was done. This tournament has been too bad for too long to be retrieved by a sensational semi-final. Nevertheless, it was a sensational semi-final.

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