African Cup of Nations

Soaring Super Eagles supply Sunday best in AfCoN final

Soaring Super Eagles supply Sunday best in AfCoN final

Nigeria footyIn a tournament marred with substandard pitches and poor performances from some of the continent’s biggest names, the Super Eagles of Nigeria finally gave their famously fervent fans reason to be cheerful with an excellent showing in South Africa. With former Nigerian defender Stephen Keshi coming under fire in the run-up to the tournament after dropping some of the country’s established stars, the patriotic manager showed that the future is bright for a team that many were calling a lost cause after almost two decades without a major trophy. One of Keshi’s protégés, locally-based Sunday Mba, fittingly scored the final’s only goal. Triumphing over a side from Burkina Faso making their first appearance in the final of this tournament, the strength and passion of the Nigerians was a delight to watch in the midst of their rivals’ horrendous capitulation.

Zambia will perhaps be the most disappointed in the aftermath of this year’s competition after failing to escape a group containing newcomers Ethiopia and the surprise package of Burkina Faso. The intimidating strikeforce of last year’s winners proved to be shooting blanks in 2013, with returning ‘Best Player’ Christopher Katongo failing to justify the hype surrounding this year’s African campaign. They joined the entirety of North Africa in lamenting missed opportunities, as teams from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were forced to make the long journey home after falling at the very first hurdle. In a new low for a region whose flag-bearers are seven-time champions Egypt, a lack of quality was evident throughout nine dismal games in which the teams shared a sorry seven goals between them.

The Black Stars looked to be shining after Ghana’s impressive showing in the group stages, with free-flowing attacking football returning to a young team looking to build on last year’s fourth-place finish. In the end, however, fourth place will be little consolation for a team that should have put the young upstarts of Burkina Faso away long before their eventual elimination on penalties. The hot form of Mali was quickly doused in the semi-finals at the hand of Nigerian powerhouses Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike, the latter a hulking brute of a forward who has struck fear into the hearts of defences across Africa in the past two weeks. The Malians struck back, however, in an impressive third-place playoff match which saw them fly past the Ghanians to nab the bronze.

It would seem that the bubble has finally burst for the Ivorian ‘Golden Generation’, for whom it may finally be time to admit defeat and move along. The gifted Didier Zokora is entering the twilight of his career and as we witness the steady decline of phenomenal striker Didier Drogba it may be time for a Plan B. The Elephants’ disheartening defeat to Nigeria proved that they no longer have the legs to keep up with younger, quicker side, with Moses in particular looking to prove to the doubters that there are new Kings of Africa. In defeating all comers and claiming a deserved trophy in the midst of doubt and insecurity, they’ve certainly made a bold claim to that title.


Another generation out for a golden duck

By Charles Walmsley

Has there been a more emotional victory that Zambia’s in the African Cup of Nations final? Nineteen years on from the plane crash that took the lives of 18 members of their golden generation that had defeated Italy in the 1988 Olympics and promised World Cup qualification, a side without any superstar players returned to Gabon, the country of the tragedy, to win a major trophy for the first time. Even the locals could not ignore the alluring narrative as they threw aside rivalries to support Herve Renard’s team en masse. Yet in this final another, less compelling narrative was being formulated as the Ivory Coast’s own ‘golden generation’ once again left a tournament empty handed.

There was a sense of inevitability in the disappointment; it was the fourth time that a side blessed with the gifts of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and the Toure brothers failed to convert their position as pre-tournament favourites into ultimate victory. Throughout the tournament they had been functional rather than brilliant, creating little but defending very well – they didn’t concede a goal in the finals, indicating that Francis Zahoui was trying to avoid the sudden capitulations that had afflicted the side in the three previous competitions. This defensive focus would have been alright had Didier Drogba been the player that he was four, or even two years ago. As it was though they relied too heavily on his goal scoring prowess, especially as Gervinho brought his awful club form this season with him. Although Drogba finished joint top of the scorers chart he was remarkably inconsistent, especially in the final where his dreadful penalty miss once again raised questions about his performance under pressure.

Drogba was not the only big name player to underperform though – the aforementioned Gervinho scored a great solo goal in the semi-final against Mali but was largely anonymous for the rest of the tournament and missed the penalty that allowed Zambia to win the shoot-out. This has underlined the strange thing about the ‘golden generation’ – the star players are often the worst performers in the big games. It isn’t simply a case of playing with worse players than they’re used to since in the current squad six play in the Premier League, four in Ligue 1 and two in the Bundesliga. Perhaps, like England’s golden generation, players don’t have enough coherence as a team. Certainly Zambia were far more unified in the final, united through having played with each other in effectively the same team since U17 youth tournaments, as well as the emotional spirit of the 1993 plane crash. Yet this Ivorian side have played together for a long time as well and, unlike that England side, have been strong until a single moment of capitulation, as in 2010 when they allowed Algeria back into their quarter final with a last minute equaliser, or in 2008 when Egypt put four past a previously solid defence.

Their greatest issue has probably been the weight of  expectation as they, like all golden generations, followed a much weaker side so were instantly called upon to guarantee success almost from the moment they arrived on the international scene. Now, more than half a decade after their first World Cup qualification, the question is whether this side will ever succeed. In any other year this would probably have been their last chance but the change in the tournament’s dates, moving to odd rather than even years, means that this golden generation may have one more chance to claim a trophy. Even this may be optimistic though as Drogba eyes a lucrative end of career move to China or America and the likes of Yaya Toure consider their future in the national set-up, not wishing to miss club action two Januarys in a row. It now looks likely that the side will join Beckham, Owen et al in the long list of failed golden generations.

In defence of the African Cup of Nations

By Joshua Coulson

As the Premier League descends into its biennial debate about the merits of a major international tournament mid-way through a season, all eyes in Africa last week turned towards Bata where hosts Equatorial Guinea face surprise package Libya in the opening match of this year’s African Cup of Nations. It is easy for English football supporters to bemoan the loss of their star players, but let’s turn our eyes for a moment to look at the impact the sport has on the world’s poorest continent. The ACON is often looked down on patronisingly in the UK with the tournament more notorious for poor goalkeeping, administrative nightmares and tragedy rather than high quality football. But what is so often forgotten is the power that this tournament has in Africa – the inspirational stories inspired by sport are so much more potent in countries gripped by poverty or crisis. Mandela spoke of sport having the power to change the world, and the glamour and thrill of the Cup of Nations invokes such passion amongst its vibrant and colourful fans, serving as a valuable distraction in a continent where struggles for basic amenities are commonplace.

Take for example the Libyan passage to qualification, a story so incredible that even Hollywood script writers would have struggled to have written, where a team with few stars names and no competitive football for months qualified in spite of having to play ‘home’ matches in Egypt or Mali as the nation descended into civil war. Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta paid his own way through qualification, without a wage for six months, whilst coping with half the team being unavailable for selection depending on whether Tripoli or Benghazi was under siege (imagine England being forced to play without any London-based players for a match because it was too dangerous to leave the house). And yet, playing in a new kit under a new flag, they qualified against the all the odds and are now a powerful symbol of the new Libya. Their three Group A matches will be a positive distraction for a nation that is slowly recovering from the Gaddafi regime.

And the tournament itself is likely to be the most open and exciting to date. There are three debutants in this year, the most since 1972 (hosts Equatorial Guinea along with Niger and Botswana). With eight of the last nine winners failing to qualify, including seven time winners Egypt and the West African powerhouses Cameroon and Nigeria, the strength in depth of African football is evident. With global coverage, young players will be looking to book a move to Europe and the quality of African football is getting better all the time.

Relatively speaking, the impact on the Premier League will actually be quite small this year. Remarkably, only 11 players from England will be in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea (compared to 34 who went to Ghana in 2008), but there are some big names to look out for. Alan Pardew will be hoping to see new signing Papiss Demba Cisse combine well with Demba Ba for Senegal, justifying his Demba-Demba experiment (as opposed to Ferguson’s failed Djemba-Djemba trial), whilst Chelsea will miss Drogba and Man City will be depleted without the Toure brothers. Meanwhile, Arsenal fans will probably be glad to see the back of Chamakh and Gervinho for a few weeks, and Kalou will hardly be a big miss at Stamford Bridge.

This African Cup of Nations is set to be the most exciting yet. As an entire continent looks forward to seeing some of the world’s best players back at home I for one am eagerly anticipating the colour, vibrancy and excitement of the menagerie of Lions, Crocodiles, Panthers, Eagles, Zebras and Elephants descending on West Africa this month. This is a tournament for Africa, but we are all fortunate enough to be able to enjoy it too and share in this celebration of the power of football.

African Cup of Nations Preview – The Favourites

Once a team is branded with the term ‘golden generation’ there is almost an inevitability about their failure. Expectations begin to outweigh reality; youthful promise is mistaken for complete articles and it becomes increasingly difficult to establish an identity as the public expects a certain style of victory. The ‘golden generation’ of Ivory Coast footballers have certainly experienced this, failing to get past the group stage in the past two World Cups, admittedly due to tough groups, and choking in the African Cup of Nations for the last three tournaments. This despite having Didier Drogba, Salamon Kalou and the Toure brothers in their team.

Now they have another chance to win a major tournament; with South Africa, Cameroon, Egypt and Nigeria all absent they are one of the favourites to take home this year’s African Cup of Nations. Despite political troubles at home the side managed to qualify with a 100% record and are the highest ranked African country in FIFA’s world rankings. Manager Francois Zahoui generally prefers a 4-3-3 with Didier Drogba as a target man for the attacks, but the inclusion of Emmanuel Eboue in midfield allows for an easy switch to 4-2-3-1 with Eboue partnering African Player of the Year Yaya Toure in the defensive midfield roles, while Chiek Tiote’s recent form for Newcastle suggests he may be a better option than the ageing Eboue.

If Ivory Coast are to win the tournament for the first time in twenty years Gervinho will be key. The Arsenal forward is one of the few players to still possess pace in the Ivory Coast team and could well be the chief provider for Drogba. Although he has not yet established himself in England in the way many would have hoped the extra space he will probably be afforded by weaker defences should allow him to flourish.

Their nearest rivals will probably be Ghana. The team which were so cruelly denied a semi-final place by Luis Suarez’s goalkeeping in the 2010 World Cup is largely still intact, with only goalkeeper Richard Kingson and midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng no longer representing their country. However whether the players are the same is a different question. Asamoah Gyan, star of that world cup team, has been suffering with injuries whilst questions remain over his motivation after a move to Al Ain in the UAE left his bank account looking healthy but his time playing against high quality opponents shortened. This could prove a problem for the Black Stars as the 4-4-1-1 they used in qualifying places Udinese’s Kwadwo Asamoah alongside him. Although a great player Asamoah is more of a playmaker than a finisher – he has scored only one international goal in 37 games and is generally a creative link between the midfield and the attack.

Another issue is in goal since the three keepers selected in the squad have only 11 caps between them. Although Norwegian based Adam Kwarasey has proved himself capable so far the 7 caps he has may not give him the experience needed for dealing with the pressures of international tournaments. Aside from this Ghana’s squad is still impressive and their world cup performance will undoubtedly give them a belief that they can go one better than last time and win the tournament.

Of the other teams Morocco and Senegal are most likely to mount a serious challenge to the title. Senegal in particular look strong, with a front line consisting of Moussa Sow (top scorer in Ligue 1 last season), Mamadou Niang, and Newcastle’s new signing Papiss Cisse. With Demba Ba on the bench Senegal certainly don’t lack firepower up front and are likely to use it, playing an attacking 4-3-3 with tough tackling midfielders Mohamed Diame and Kader Mangane providing strength as well as flair for the team. Having never won the title before this side will be looking to go one better than the 2002 team that lost on penalties to Cameroon in the final. They will certainly be buoyed by recent form which has seen them only lose once in their last thirteen matches.

That defeat came against Morocco, who will also fancy their chances in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Without the same amount of quality as the other three they rely on an organised style under Belgian manager Eric Gerets. There is no doubt that he has united the team into a more cohesive unit than they’ve been for years, with the infighting that plagued previous regimes no longer affecting performances on the pitch. In Mehdi Benatia and Mbark Boussoufa they have two of the best defensive players in Europe, giving the team a good basis from which to launch their attacks. Benatia in particular looks to be a rising star in an impressive Udinese team. Up front Marouane Chamakh could be looking to use this tournament as a ‘shop window’ for his talent – a good performance could see him move away from Arsenal where he is so out of favour that even the lacklustre Arshavin is ahead of him.

In his strike partner Adel Taraabt Morocco have a player capable of either propelling the side to the final or derailing the entire campaign. Which Taraabt will turn up depends largely on whether he manages to reconcile his differences with Gerets – the two fell out after the striker was dropped for a qualifier in June last year and in response he decided to retire from international duty, only to reverse his decision a few months later. Ever forgiving, Gerets has brought him back into the side but his temperament remains a concern. He has also failed to score in the Premier League this season, suggesting that the Championship may be his highest level.

With so many of the historically more successful sides missing this is a great chance for these four sides to take home the continent’s trophy. Certainly they possess the players to do so, and it will be a shock if someone else triumphs. However if there’s one thing that African football provides its uncertainty. All four sides have some weaknesses and if the like of Zambia and Guinea manage to exploit these then we may see a new team emerge as Africa’s best.