CIV: BEGINNING OF THE END?
Posted: Jan 19, 2013
Special Preview by BAYO OLOWO-AKE (From Kampala, Uganda)
Didier Drogba, Arouna Kone, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zakora, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Gervinho and Emmanuel Eboue. These are names which resound, rather than just ring a bell and the level of this resonance is so overwhelming that —Cote d’Ivoire—the country they represent in the game of soccer, once again goes into the (2013) Orange African Cup of Nations (AFCON) as clear favourites.
This is not the first time Cote d’Ivoire will be stepping out as the choice of the bookmakers and that of the fans too. It’s a rather intriguing bet considering the fact that the choice of these two poles in football do not always converge. Perhaps, herein lies the test for the Ivoriens because in the last two AFCONs, they started impressively only to crash out spectacularly when it mattered most. They were finalists last year and, left to many fans and bookmakers, were as good as having won the trophy, even before kicking the ball in the final. When crunch time came with them contesting with the redoubtable Chipolopolo of Zambia, they were defeated in detail!
Why does Cote d’Ivoire, the land of the inimitable Zagboui, who mesmerised Lagos fans during the Nigeria ’80 AFCON Championship (during which that country held the Eagles to a goalless draw—the only game Nigeria would not win on her way to taking the trophy for the first time) always falter? Yes, they have won the championship once with Yeo Martial—an indigenous coach at the helm—but it was won when many realised that the best of Ivorien soccer was yet to come. Compared to the clear dominance players from this country have had on the game in the last decade, her failure to shine at the AFCON can be equated to nothing but an ultra dig on the reputation of Ivorien soccer.
In the opinion of some pundits, this year should be the right one for the boys from the Lagoon dominated Abidjan, the agriculturally rich Bouake and the serene land of Yamoussoukro. With the sun about to set on the illustrious career of Didier Drogba, Africa’s famous son, who at 34 years may not have the benefit of another AFCON, will the clement weather of the high altitude of South Africa shower blessings on the fortunes of the West African soccer maestro? We shall wait and see, but what is clear is that should Cote d’Ivoire fail again this time around, it might spell doom for Ivorien football generally, presenting their federation with a difficult assignment in rebuilding a new team given the dearth of visible fresh talents in this bustling land of cocoa watered by the Lagoon and the perennially growling Atlantic Ocean. The die is cast!
WEST AFRICA, THE ‘COLONIAL MASTERS’ OF AFRICAN SOCCER!
What do these countries Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger and Cape Verde have in common? You guessed right, they’re all in West Africa. Southern Africa has two (South Africa and Zambia), North Africa three (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia), East Africa one (Ethiopia), while Central Africa has two (Angola and DRC). Although Angola is a member of SADC, she is geographically in Central Africa. So out of sixteen nations at the AFCON, the western part of the continent has half of them! That makes West Africa what I call the ‘colonial masters’ of African soccer and suggests that the eventual winner of the tournament stands a very good chance of emerging from that sub-region!
WITHER SOUTH AFRICA?
The boys became men in 1996 when they took the AFCON on home soil. Several moons thereafter, it’s been mission impossible for the South Africans. Boasting the best league on the continent, achievements at continental championships at club and national team levels have however not been commensurate with the high standard of that league. What has gone wrong? Coaching? Management? Or as former Nigerian coach Clemens Westerhof once posited, is it because Southern Africans generally do not have the physique required to enable them challenge in the extremely physical African soccer terrain? Whatever the reasons for their being underachievers, what will not be in doubt when BafanaBafana file out for their first (and other) game(s) is patriotism from the players and overwhelming home support from the fans. We shall look out for the impact of these on the performance of the hosts and see if at the end of the tournament, the boys would have become men once again.
THE SUPER EAGLES: A CASE OF ‘WON KERESI NUMBER WA?
With an ‘accelerated’ re-building process going on and the attainment of positive results in the midst of it, the signal of a new team which plays the way Nigerians want their national team to, is beginning to emerge. Some of the results may not have gone down well with it’s numerous fans, but analysts agree that the Nigerian team has not done badly at all so far. Stephen Keshi has his job cut out for him but should not believe a Federation that tells him that if he comes back home with nothing he will not be sanctioned. That sounds like a story for the marines! If the Super Eagles were however to win their first game against Burkina Faso, proving that Fatai Rolling Dollar’s hit tune (‘Won Keresi Number wa’ i.e. ‘they’re below our standard’) is apt for the Burkinabes, then the pressure will be off and the continent of Africa may just be in for one of the greatest revivals in the history of the AFCON. For the boys seem willing, able and ready (apologies to the Nigerian Air Force) and winning that first game could set the tone for rekindling the memories of Nigeria ’80 and Tunisia ’94 combined in a way that soccer aficionados would be left speechless and imaginatively ‘traumatised.’
THE REST OF THE MOTLEY CROWD…
Habib Ali Mokri is my very good friend and a colleague. He is from Algeria and has not stopped regaling me with tales of the intense rivalry between neighbours in North African soccer. I thought I had a good understanding of everything, until I met Habib and started getting ‘tutorials’ on the goings on in soccer in the Maghreb. Of course, Egypt and Algeria are sworn bitter rivals but ‘luckily,’ the Pharaohs will not be in South Africa thereby helping to bring down some of the tensions. Morocco and Tunisia are however there and together with Algeria, they present North Africa with a formidable representation. The former has what looks like a solid team and it stands to reason that even if the three of them are not as strong as teams of yore, the pedigree they have in the AFCON could spur them into fronting a great performance.
Defending champions Zambia have shown little respect for other contestants, if we go by the comments of their coach, Herve Renard. I was left wondering if this was based on confidence or over-confidence, although the Chipolopolo are compact and focused. They contend with the psychological disadvantage of not having been ‘allowed’ the traditional twenty-four months to savour their AFCON victory, following CAF’s decision to switch the hosting years from even to odd number and avoid clashing with the FIFA World Cup. How will this affect the boys from the copper-rich nation? While your guess is as good as mine, there are not a few people who submit that the reigning champions are unlikely to extend their stay in the spotlight. We shall see.
As for Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Cape Verde, you’re permitted to underrate them at your own risk. While all the focus on Togo has been on Emmanuel Adebayor—the Nigerian-Togolese, if ever such a nationality existed, the team has subtle quality that can mess up the aspirations of the so-called big boys. So can the Burkinabes (just ask Ghana or Core d’Ivoire) and yes, wait for it, Cape Verde. For those who criticised the Super Eagles of Nigeria for their 0-0 drawn game with the boys from the West African tourist paradise, note that this team not only stamped an exit visa (out of the AFCON) onto the passports of our Camerounian brothers, but have over 80% of its players born and / or playing in Portugal! Now, deal with that and give me your comments!
Ethiopia is on a resurgence, fuelled by a radical youth policy that seems to be yielding fruit after several years in the backwaters of African soccer. Can the boys from Addis Ababa cope with the tensions of playing at this level? If they can, then expect serial upsets from them because the team is good. The only things against them are the lack of experience and not having played under the kind of pressure to be confronted in South Africa-a pressure higher than that generated by their country’s treacherous altitude.
DR Congo remains a maverick team, capable of upsetting better opponents on a good day, but those good days seem gone for a while. Except it obtains valuable tips from clubside TP Mazembe, the boys from Kinshasa might just be in South Africa to make up the numbers. Ghana will fancy it’s chances and will definitely remain one of the prime favourites for the Cup. However, for the Black Stars, winning their matches may depend on how to close games when they’re marginally ahead as well as taking the right decisions concerning who takes spot kicks when they’re awarded or become imperative in the event of a protracted stalemate.
The AFCON is here again and it’s time to savour Africa’s best soccer festival, arguably the most exciting of such tournaments the world over!
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