“I’m sure that when the knockout stage starts it will be as good as ever,” claimed Eurosport’s Dan O’Hagan. Sadly, the knockout stages in recent competitions have been consistently disappointing. And this year’s quarter-finals were, mostly, as “good” as ever.

Ghana 2 Cape Verde 0

Even by the low standards of this AFCON, the first half in Port Elizabeth was a ghastly affair. The Black Stars seemed determined only to expend as little energy as possible. And with that attitude pitted against a neat and tidy, but hardly expansive, Blue Sharks, the result was 45 minutes of the dreariest football. Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce noted that Ghana defender John Pantsil’s second name was pronounced ‘Paintsil,’ as in, to pick a phrase purely at random, “like watching Paintsil dry.” And it was no surprise that Eurosport had to include bits of half-time itself in its match highlights programme (there’s only so many times that you can tell viewers ‘Moneygram brings you closer’). Analyst Matt Jackson suggested the first-half was “stop/start at times.” But I couldn’t recall the “starts.”

Cape Verde’s  ‘minnow’ status continued to obsess the commentators almost as much as the Nelspruit pitch (see below). But at least they had a point about the sand dunes (“Pitch too sandy? Let’s put more sand on it, then”). ITV’s Efan Ekoku insisted Cape Verde were “not in awe of Ghana in any way,” as if they should have been. What first-half chances there were fell to the islanders – and even their mahogany-based centre-forward Julio Tavares looked comparatively lively. The impact of Ghana’s 54th-minute penalty was as per cliché. The game needed a goal to make Cape Verde come out and play. It got one, after a goal-bound Asamoah Gyan was felled by Carlitos. Protests centred on the challenge being a “shoulder-charge.” But shoulder-charges in-between opponents’ shoulder blades were fouls even in the olden days.

Cape Verde certainly “came out and played.” Ghana’s keeper Fatau Daouda celebrated one particularly good save like he’d scored himself…or as if it was first-ever particularly good save (quite possible, that). And Jackson felt “that every 50/50 has gone Ghana’s way,” for which Ghana were probably grateful (officious Mauritian official Rajindraparsad Seechum even intercepted one specially-worked Cape Verde corner). So Ghana’s second goal, a goalkeeper for once actually stranded after going up for a late corner, was harsh-and-a-half. Two-nil to Ghana was a commonly-predicted scoreline but like…that. And it was celebrated by some particularly deranged gurning to camera from Daouda, a vision of hell that only a mother could love. Cape Verde go home, which mostly means Portugal, despite all the guff about the Blue Sharks only having a half-million population from which to pick. Ghana go on, mostly unloved by those watching this tournament.

South Africa 1 Mali 1 (Mali win, 3-1 on penalties)

Oooops. That’s AFCON 2013 done for. When commentators say tournaments need host nations to progress beyond the group stages, they usually mean a bit longer than a wimpish quarter-final exit on mostly poorly-taken penalties, or an “England,” as it’s known in international football circles (well, if it’s not, it should be). “A little bit frantic,” was Eurosport analyst Danny Mills’ hugely understated take on the opening exchanges. Everyone was flying into everything and it was ‘end-to-end stuff, albeit from one end of just outside the centre-circle to just outside the other centre-circle. Mills noted that they couldn’t “keep that up for 90 minutes,” but not many teams could have kept that pace up for nine. And, as it turned out, neither of these teams could. This didn’t detract from the spectacle, however, as Bafana Bafana at last played to the potential ITV’s Quentin Fortune has kept promising.

Tokelo Rantie was an appropriate goalscorer as he had been the focus of most of the hosts’ penalty box activity, whether falling over in it – deliberately, accidentally and with help – until he was booked for time-wasting as he limped out of the game injured. “How much time can you waste?” Mills asked, adding that Rantie “could have called for a stretcher.” But Rantie’s ridiculous booking was less important than his departure, as South Africa weren’t as threatening thereafter. Mali had been no threat at all, although Mills was harsh to suggest that they were “playing for penalties” because they thought they had “a slim chance of winning in 90 minutes.” When Seydou Keita equalised, Mills noted, correctly, that: “I didn’t see that coming.” The 83rd-minute introduction of ponderous front man Cheick Diabate confirmed to some cynics (i.e. me) that Mali were by then playing for penalties. And Mills perhaps revealed why he’d seemed so keen for Mali to be doing so. “I love penalties,” he cried, aware that some might therefore think him “a bit sadistic.” His logic, though, was flawed. “There isn’t a great way to end a football match,” he declared, overlooking every last-minute winner ever scored.

This shoot-out wasn’t a great way to end this match, though. And it gave Eurosport’s Tim Caple one more chance to wonder aloud why the crowd seemed to boo South Africa’s Dean Furman when he had the ball, although Caple went no further than intonating a suspicion of sinister motives – Furman being Bafana Bafana’s only white player. Extra-time substitute Siphiwe Tshabalala hammered home his spot-kick with more power and accuracy than his two-step run-up suggested. But his colleagues’ penalties, like the predictions Mills made on where takers from both sides would put them, were uniformly awful. Mali’s progress could be AFCON 2013’s heart-warming story, given the conflict escalating in their homeland. But neutrals haven’t warmed to them as they did Zambia last year. The semi-final against the even-more-boring Black Stars might change that.

Nigeria 2 Cote D’Ivoire 1

So. Farewell then, Cote D’Ivoire. Again. For the umpteenth consecutive tournament, the Elephants have been favourites and have intermittently impressed before dozing their way to defeat. Some observers have called this doing an “England.” But, apart from 1996… and inside Kevin Keegan’s head in 2000, it is difficult to recall England being favourites and scarcely easier to recall the intermittent impressiveness. Nigeria probably started as the neutrals’ favourites – though Chelsea fans might have divided their loyalties between stars past (Didier Drogba) and present (Victor Moses)… and Jon Obi-Mikel. And any doubts should have been laid waste by Cote D’Ivoire’s 50th-minute equaliser.

ITV’s Joe Speight refused to call Didier Drogba’s dive for the free-kick which led to the goal “the work of a cheat” but he might have. Efan Ekoku later called the free-kick a “gift” but one could imagine even the mild-mannered Ekoku using a different four-letter word at the time. It still took some dismal Nigerian zonal marking to allow the equaliser. “Space doesn’t score goals, men do,” noted ITV’s Clark Carlisle, forgetting that women do too but making a basically fair point. Chiek Tiote hardly scores goals at all, despite Carlisle claiming to have seen him “score from some fantastic distances” (once, for Newcastle against Arsenal, perhaps?). He certainly doesn’t score headers, let alone international headers, just because Didier Drogba’s sense of balance is occasional. Nonetheless, the delight which greeted Sunday Mba’s deflected winner was that bit greater because of Drogba’s literal fall from grace.

There was no doubting that Nigeria were the better side. The Elephants gave us their traditional flash of top form either side of their goal, after what must have been an exasperated half-time team talk from coach Sabri Lamouchi. And they contributed to an excellent second-half, forcing one of the tournament’s better goalkeepers, Vincent Enyeama, into one of his better games. But the Super Eagles deserved their sobriquet almost for the first time since coach Stephen Keshi was captain Stephen Keshi – Mba’s goal even made the perma-surly supremo smile (although that may just have been wind). Moses reproduced the very best and most confident of his club form until taken out by Yaya Toure’s shoulder-charge… to his chin (even Nat Lofthouse in his 30-goalkeepers-a-season prime would have said “sorry, ref” after a challenge like that). His ‘heat map’, the pointless technology which shows players positions’ on the pitch throughout the game, covered… well… the pitch.

Emmanuel Emineke showed the pace and power that nearly put paid to Celtic’s Champions League hopes and Efie Ambrose showed the defensive qualities which helped give them those hopes in the first place. It wasn’t as if the pressure of past failures was weighing down on Cote D’Ivoire, either – they wouldn’t have wasted any effort on silly nicknames for the back of their shirts if that was the case. They just believed their own hype and forgot to play the football which produced it. And was it a trick of the light, or did Drogba’s ‘heat map’ include one very hot spot in the bottom left-hand corner, just where he fell to the ground in the 50th minute? A very good match and, if not quite a classic, then transparently the best of this tournament to date.

Burkina Faso 1 Togo 0 (after extra-time, 90 minutes score, bleedin’  obvious)

I suppose an entire team’s bonus could be wiped out in fines if one set of substitutes was to eschew the comforts of the Nelspruit dug-outs and bring along their own deckchairs to sit on. Yet Steve Bower and Jim Beglin still managed to make way too much of the Mbombela Stadium playing conditions. Had there been a word cloud attached to the manuscript of their commentary, ‘pitch’ and ‘surface’ would have dwarfed all others, especially ‘chances’ and ‘inspiration.’ The second half wasn’t, in itself, any sort of spectacle. It was just made to seem that way by the first one, which combined the aimlessness of the Ghana/Cape Verde first half with, yes, that bloody pitch. And it lacked “west African flair” (Beglin), whatever the difference is between that and any other “flair.” “We’re watching a grind,” added Matt Smith in the ITV studio, launching a thousand writs from any offended ‘grinds’ still watching.

The surface seemed somewhat flatter when Burkinabe Jonathan Pitroipa had the ball at his feet…and when he wasn’t being lifted off them by stray and not-so-stray Togo tackling. His match stats, on-screen after 82 minutes, included “fouls suffered: 4”, which suggested that the statistician fell asleep midway through the first half. They should have been awakened from their slumber by Burkinabe substitute Prejuce Nakoulma – a cross between Mike Tyson and ex-Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair, with all the power of the former and the playing ability of… er… anyway. Nakoulma gave no indication as to why he was sub in the first place and was at least as influential as Pitroipa when the game began to markedly turn Burkina Faso’s way as extra-time loomed.

Pitroipa was another appropriate goalscorer, although “free near-post header from a corner” would have been long odds as a goalscoring method; certainly longer than “a shoot-out penalty,” as the game apparently had graffiti daubed “all over it”, shortly after kick-off, which read “nil-nil and penalties.” Togo’s  mind-set took whatever blame was left after the surface took its share. “Can you win a tournament by sitting so deep for so long?” Beglin asked, clearly having holidayed in a Bhutani log-cabin while Chelsea were winning the Champions League. Togo certainly couldn’t with their defence. Beglin himself heavily criticised Vincent Bossou, suggesting that “if I was playing alongside Bossou, I’d have a right go at him” – although as Bossou was about nine feet tall you suspect Beglin might have kept his thoughts to himself.

And it wasn’t as if they hadn’t consistently created chances, even in this match. Adebayor had a header/shoulder cleared right off the line by a mind-blowingly composed Saidou Panandetiguiri, while the Spurs man’s half-pitch length run and shot would have been the goal of the tournament if Burkinabe custodian Daouda Diakite hadn’t made a save with an unspeakable part of his midriff. Burkina Faso were worthy winners, though. They have the advantage of more beach football experience for their Nelspruit semi-final against Ghana and they’ll have neutral support too, especially if their substitutes bring along their deckchairs.

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