With all teams having been introduced to the watching world, and the four Afcon groups beginning to take shape, Bleacher Report’s African expert Ed Dove responds to the action with six things he's learned from the opening round of group matches.
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You can contact Ed on Twitter @Eddydove
Igesund, Zuma, and Khumalo
One of the great hopes of this, as any tournament, is a strong showing from the hosts. It’s general consensus that a successful run by the hosts boosts the mood and the aura of a competition, and usually makes for a more enjoyable spectacle for all—the 2002 World Cup performances of South Korea, and to a lesser extent, Japan, are cases in point, while last year’s Afcon co-hosts Gabon gave us several unforgettable moments during their courageous run to the quarter finals.
Even though South Africa became the first World Cup host to not to qualify from the Group Stage during the 2010 World Cup, the team still gave a bold showing and delighted fans with a famous victory over France.
Aspirations for this tournament were dampened by the poor results that preceded the competition, whilst Saturday’s limp display against so-called "minnows" Cape Verde poured veritable buckets of misery upon Bafana Bafana. Seemingly both unwilling and unable to produce the kind of football their fans (and irate coach Gordon Igesund) demanded, the home side shrank under the weight and expectation of home support, and laboured to a nil-nil draw.
Any faint hope that South Africa might recreate the magic and emotional euphoria of their predecessors, the legendary "nation-builders" of the 1996 Afcon, whose victory provided a totem of identity and pride for a united, post-Apartheid South Africa have seemingly dissipated with the reality that the renaissance of Bafana Bafana’s football is some way off yet.
A fairly low-key opening round of fixtures, games which have produced five draws, have fueled suggestions that African football has deteriorated. However, perhaps what we are witnessing here is a general homogenization of the quality across the field of competitors. No longer are there a handful of top teams and a whole clutch of also-rans.
Ethiopia and Cape Verde are two nations who could only have dreamed of a place at the continental top table some years ago. The former beset by war and famine, particularly devastating for an economy founded on subsistence agriculture, and the latter never taken seriously due to a tiny population of half a million, they were two nations not to bother or harry those at the top of the CAF rankings.
Those days are very clearly over.
As Cape Verde demonstrated in their opening day contest with the hosts, and also in their draw with Nigeria in a friendly before the tournament, they offer organisation, resiliency and a touch of class up front—with Morocco and Angola still to play, the Sharks may well be harbouring silent hopes of making a splash in the latter stages.
Ethiopia’s effort against Zambia was even more admirable. A goal down and a man down, despite some plucky opening exchanges with Chipolopolo, all looked lost, especially after having missed a penalty in the first half. However, after the interval, the Black Lions rallied, and caused the holders numerous problems with their brave running quick movement.
Their equaliser, a smart finish from Adane Girma, was no less than they deserved, and Ethiopia will also be confident of troubling their other Group C opposition, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.
Ghana, my pick to seize the Afcon title this year, looked to be validating my every word during a sharp first-half performance against the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their class told, as they went ahead on 40 minutes through Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, before doubling their lead ten minutes after the break via Kwadwo Asamoah.
Asamoah, who I tipped to be player of the tournament, summed up all that was good about Ghana—his youthful energy and bold attacking play providing a refreshing change of pace from the fairly staid, uninspired action of the opening day. Yet as I highlighted in a recent review of the day’s action, despite all of their talent on show, Ghana are without a plethora of players who possess—not least among their qualities—experience in abundance.
Would a midfield containing Kevin Prince Boateng, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah have let a two-goal lead slip? Would the presence of John Mensah in the backline have helped to preserve their victorious position? I suspect so.
Ghana may well have the quality to seize their fifth African title, but they may need their younger players to keep calm heads, and their elder players—the likes of Derek Boateng, Jonny Paintsil and Asamoah Gyan—to take the lead when times are tough.
Naija boss Stephen Keshi
It all started so well. It was to be the Super Eagles’ triumphant return to the continental top table, the heavyweights of the West, a nation who consider themselves to be the finest ever to claim the Afcon, returning to their rightful position among Africa’s top sides.
For 94 minutes, it looked to be going to plan. A goal up through Emmanuel Emenike, after some excellent work from Ideye Brown, Nigeria were looking competent (despite having Efe Ambrose harshly sent off), and considered alongside Burkina Faso’s blunt attacking play, the three points looked to be in the bag.
But then, Jonathan Pitroipa, breaking into the box, finding himself in a tight angle, poking the ball past Joseph Yobo and Godfrey Oboabona, shuffled aimlessly into the path of Alain Traore—the Stallions personified—who blasted the ball past Vinnie Enyeama and into the Nigerian net.
The Super Eagles were deflated, dejected and unable to comprehend the evaporation of a victory that had been theirs moments earlier—a swathe of disbelief and incomprehension flooded social media sites.
Obviously, all is not lost for Stephen Keshi’s boys, but in the cold light of day, the difference between three points and one have rarely felt so stark. John Obi Mikel, the undisputed star of the Super Eagles set up and demonstrated, in glimpses, on Monday just what he is capable of, caressing the ball around like a libertine might adore his sweetheart’s cheek. Mikel, more than anyone, needs to step up, begin dominating contests and to ensure that Naija’s return to the high table is not an enormous unhappiness.
My pick for Dark Horses of the tournament were the Leopards of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Often overlooked by the media, not least of all Bleacher Report’s own Sam Tighe, not everyone has taken the time to recognise the qualities and history of the national side and their legendary coach, Claude Le Roy.
However, early signs made me question my faith in the former Zaire. Their preparation was overshadowed by a dispute over bonuses, and while this sort of narrative often results in a disorganised and fractured squad unfocused on the tournament ahead of them (see Togo at the 2006 World Cup), perhaps the opposite is the case with the DRC. It materialises that the dispute surrounded bonuses not for the players, but for the coaching staff—the playing staff showed a united front and allied with their trainers.
Perhaps this unity will stand them in good stead as the tournament progresses. It certainly looked this way in their opener against Ghana; two-nil down after 50 minutes, lesser teams and men, might have collapsed, but not Congo. They fought back impressively through Dieumerci Mbokani and Tresor Mputu, and more than deserved their point after a sterling second half display.
A Belgian website commented on my praise for Mbokani, and indeed, I believe he can make a big impact in this tournament.
Imbued with confidence after their comeback, and with Niger and Mali to come, could the Leopards be the Dark Horses I envisaged them as?
Something that I have really enjoyed during the opening series of matches—enjoyed rather than learned—has been the increasing use of the African diaspora—that is, the dispersion of African peoples beyond the continent.
It has become the vogue for African coaches to scour the globe before international tournaments, attempting to put together the finest collection of players they possibly can. While Equatorial Guinea and Tunisia have abused the rules in the past, enlisting players with little or no connection to their new nations, many of this year’s competitors have maximised their international potential to give themselves the best chance of success.
Particularly impressive are Morocco, who have an attack forged of the likes of Younes Belhanda and Nordin Amrabat, who have emerged to play for the North African nation after receiving their sporting education in the French and Dutch youth teams respectively. Perhaps this gently slowing of the African talent-drain is contributing to the African nations being more organised, more resilient and with the games being more conservative and refined, sides are more professional and aware of the European-influenced talent running through opposition squads.