The 2013 AFCON is neither the first nor last international football tournament to have an, ahem, ‘disappointing’ opening round of group matches. But that has usually been down to teams’ fear of losing their first game, something which the laws of football say you must not do. In South Africa, even when the attitude wasn’t fearful, the football was mostly dreadful. The second round had to be better. Didn’t it?

Group A

Angola and, for 70 minutes, Morocco failed to shake off their first round stupor. But Group A’s salvation was at hand in the neat-passing form of South Africa and Cape Verde. Bafana Bafana, unsurprisingly, made changes after Saturday – and what side wouldn’t benefit from the introduction of a combative, if serial fouling, Oldham Athletic midfielder such as Dean Furman? Gone, mostly, was the ‘big boot’ which so disfigured their tournament debut, replaced by the high-tempo passing game which ITV pundit Quentin Fortune had promised.

A full-back’s left-foot far-post volley was a fine way to end three-and-a-half goalless hours of Group A football. Siyabonga Sangweni was probably lumbering upfield for a booming free-kick into the box and been caught out by the kick being taken short, but he adjusted well to the freedom of Durban, courtesy of Angola’s defence. It went from worse to worse still for Angola who only got ten players back out on the field for the start second half. Angola relied on what Eurosport’s Stewart Robson called the “fight ball” to talented but very lone striker Manucho, so barely had a Plan A, let alone a Plan B. Rent-a-foul Furman “made a difference in South Africa’s midfield” by being a midfielder. And substitute Lehlohonolo Majoro’s cleverly-worked solo goal sealed the win which the tournament desperately needed.

Cape Verde’s shirts on Saturday, blue with some ‘stuff’ spilt over the left shoulder, appeared to negate the need for a change kit. Nonetheless, they wore one against Morocco, described as “all-white” by Clyde Tyldesley, despite the ‘stuff’ remaining and giving the impression that each player had a pony-tail, particularly disconcerting on mountainous centre-forward Julio Tavares. The Blue Sharks hinted at a more direct style with Tavares starting. But, pleasingly, their ball-players were given as much room by Morocco’s defensively-clueless midfield as they’d been afforded by the hosts. And when Ryan Mendes finally deigned to pass the ball, Platini (real name Luis Soares, nearly pronounced ‘Suarez’ by Tyldesley before a hurried correction) applied a finish which requires a classier word than “dink.”

As the Islanders continued to control proceedings, ITV’s best co-commentator, Clark Carlisle, said “I don’t know why I’m surprised, they are higher in the rankings than Morocco,” putting the Verdeans’ display into proper context at… long… bloody… last. But coach Luis Antunes was only halfway through substituting his forward line, as he did against South Africa, when the Atlas Lions levelled, Abdelaziz Barrada given space by Verdean captain Nando’s first lapse in concentration and crossing for Youssef El-Arabi, a half-time sub for Stephen Ireland-lookalike Nordin Amrabat, to apply a  finish of rare (i.e. some) quality. Despite repeated commentary box insistence that the Verdeans were tiring more than Morocco, it was end-to-end stuff as soon as five minutes of stoppage time was announced (two of which could only have come from the five which disappeared during Zambia/Ethiopia). And at the final whistle, both teams looked knackered. Possibly for the first match all week, both teams deserved to.

Group B

Group B produced round one’s highest-quality match. Not this time. Ghana/Mali would have been a radically different, if not necessarily better, game had Black Stars’ keeper Fatau Duada seen red for handling the ball outside his penalty area, pulling it away from Seydou Keita, who was one of the few players you’d trust to make the situation a clear goalscoring opportunity. There’d have been livelier debate about that if striker Chieck Diabate was in Keita’s position. The individual player stats later revealed that Diabate had made three “accurate” passes and nine “bad” ones, and for once the stats seemed relevant.

Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu was booked for celebrating of his winning penalty by lifting his shirt to tell us “Allah is great” via his vest (why do players need vests in a South African summer?) – despite not actually taking his shirt off. Maybe the ref was a Christian (the African Football Federation aren’t happy, apparently). With ages left, both Loder and Bright appeared to lose interest. Bright even tired of mentioning that he’d seen Ghana come from two-nil down to beat Tunisia 4-2 in a pre-tournament friendly – some days after we’d tired of hearing about what sounds like Bright’s only proper tournament research. And one of the VIPs had sunglasses so large that they were clearly hiding the fact that he was asleep.

Another stinker. But Ghana will be through if they avoid defeat against Niger, whose draw with DR Congo came from a hugely-improved but still not THAT good a performance. ITV had fun with a montage of the otherwise wonderfully mild-mannered Patrice Muamba’s pained frustration at DRC’s failings. But you didn’t have to be Democratic-Republic-of-Congolese to feel that way. Anderlecht striker Dieumerci Mbokani showed why he top-scored in the qualifiers, but was denied by Niger keeper Dauoda Kassaly, quite brilliantly. Twice. An exact name-sake of the clown between Niger’s posts on Sunday (Daouda Kassaly must be the Nigerien equivalent of John Smith), he gave the tournament’s best all-round goalkeeping display to date and was primarily responsible for Niger’s first-ever finals’ point.

This set off more “we’ve-won-the-cup” celebrations of a draw. Even Niger’s manager Gernot Rohr, previously a careworn Jack Benny clone (ask your grandparents), risked a smile and offered handshakes all-round to his backroom staff. But Niger could have won if Sidibe Modibu hadn’t struck the post with a golden early opportunity afforded him by DRC’s defending. The Cup of Nations “is a big shop window” for the clubless Modibu, noted Peter Drury. Unfortunately, Modibu threw a brick through it.

Group C

Green is the colour for Group C, for the team’s shirts at least, if not the Nelspruit pitch. Even Ethiopia, resplendent again in their yellow Liverpool-1980s away kit, have a nifty green-and-yellow striped number ready-to-wear, as seen among their unfeasibly large support. Sadly, the Wayla Antelopes might now only have one chance to wear them. As Zambia and Nigeria bobbled through their first half, the pitch was being blamed for just about everything bar the unexpectedly poor UK economic figures announced that morning – Eurosport’s Danny Mills offered some unintended irony by calling the surface “a great leveller.” Then John Obi-Mikel missed a first-half penalty and suddenly everything was his fault.

When Zambian keeper, and regular penalty-taker, Kennedy Mweene despatched his late spot-kick cooler than Joe Cool in a draught, he was courageous. Mikel, however, selfishly used his Nigerian captaincy to grab himself a goal. “Surely one other player” is a proper penalty-taker, Mills suggested. Well, you’re the analyst. You tell us. And given that there were ‘proper’ penalty-takers among the Nigerian absentees contractually-entitled to a mention during every Super Eagles game, Mikel might have been the only volunteer. Nigeria upped the tempo after half-time, with Emmanuel Emineke, one of the few strikers having a decent tournament, scoring in the midst of a personal purple patch. However, they lost their lead late again, although not quite so late.

It wasn’t their fault, either. Mweene got his chance to strut the stage via the softest penalty award from a referee resembling a cross between Luis Suarez and Gareth Southgate with, on this occasion, officiating skills to match. And Zambia kept their title defence alive with their second consecutive, scrappily-won, barely-deserved point; the sort of form from which tournament victories often arise. Ray Winstone’s half-time live odds for Burkino Faso/Ethiopia looked… well… odd. A Traore was 8-1 to score the next goal, although written that way, it didn’t specify which one. And some cruel soul thought it worthwhile revealing that the Burkinabes were 25-1 to win 4-0.

Traore had eye-catchingly half-volleyed the Stallions into a 1-0 interval lead. But most of the eye-catching football had been Ethiopian, with Shimeles Bekele hitting the post to finish the move of the tournament to date (pitch-length and eight passes, including an exquisite backheel to put Bekele in on goal). Matt Smith predictably (lazily?) likened them to Barcelona while Muamba saw “Arsenal at the Emirates” in their neat short-passing game (once a Gooner, always a Gooner). Yet the Antelopes were still being half-written off, until Burkinabe keeper Abdoulaye Soulama caught one through-ball outside his penalty-box and received the red card that should have been Ghana keeper Duada’s. Jim Beglin suggested that any goalkeeping handball outside the box was a red-card offence. But a clear goalscoring opportunity needed to be involved too, and it wasn’t here. Burkina Faso hardly suffered, though. In trying to press home their man advantage, Ethiopia left even bigger gaps in their already porous defence.

A Traore did score next (at eight-to-one, remember). And Alain’s 30-yard left-foot tracer bullet after a neat one-two with Jonathan Pitroipa – a likely goal of the tournament which meant ITV could, at long last, start on a video montage of spectacular goals. Soulama’s dismissal and replacement took over six minutes. And (after Djakaridja Kone’s goal in normal time), Pitroipa grabbed the goal he deserved during the resultant stoppage time. So, Winstone’s unlikely win-double came flying in. Ethiopia weren’t quite placed in ‘plucky’ territory. But Sam Matterface insisted that years of war and famine contributed to their late collapse. It was probably more down to losing influential captain Adane Girma to injury in the tenth minute. But perspective and football are rare bedfellows.

Group D

West Africa 2 North Africa 0…

If Niger’s goalkeeper Daouda Kassaly has displayed dual footballing personalities in this tournament, Cote D’Ivoire’s Gervinho has brought a different one to South Africa to that which missed from a yard-and-a-half at Bradford in the League Cup last month. That noise you heard as he finished off a neat one-two with the Elephants’ Peter Crouch tribute act Lacina Traore was Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger scratching his head. For largish parts of the second half, Tunisia were just about the better side and despite their non-event of a first-half display, 3-0 was harsh on them. When Yaya Toure is in the mood, there’s little to stop him. And Cote D’Ivoire’s second goal was classy evidence of that. But they needed it.

They didn’t really miss the benched Didier Drogba. Yet Didier Ya Konan was the impact substitute, scoring in stoppage time with his second touch, having controlled the ball with his first. Without Drogba, and certainly without Kolo Toure, the Elephants are partly looking the part of favourites. But only partly, so far. More head scratching could be heard from the Maghreb, as an Algeria side that has looked intermittently better than most in the tournament became the first ones to be knocked out of it. In the age it took to fix one of the Rustenberg goals in their second half against Togo, “the minnows from West Africa” (ITV commentator Joe Speight), one social network wag suggested that they could “swap it for the Algeria goal,” as only one had been in use for much of the second period.

Emmanuel Adebayor coolly gave the Hawks a first-half lead, taking the sort of chance he passed up in the opening minutes against Cote D’Ivoire. Yet that was a distant memory until substitute Dove Wome offered us a stoppage-time reminder. And in between times, the Desert Foxes had probably more chances than they’d wasted against Tunisia and more refused penalty appeals than… well… Zambia the previous day, to pick an example purely at random. But they paid for only finding the back of the net when “Nottingham Forest’s” Adlene Guedioura ran into it and left it in need of some lengthy repair. A better second round than first, then. There was evidence of a considerable warming up in all Groups, except B. And something hangs on almost every final group game. The 2013 AFCON may be a good one yet.

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