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Can on-pitch action lift latest Nations Cup cloud?

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Piers Edwards | 14:18 UK time, Friday, 3 February 2012

For the second time in as many editions, the Africa Cup of Nations has been overshadowed by shocking football-related deaths on the continent.

As in Angola two years ago, where Togo's team bus was ambushed by separatist rebels, the Egyptian tragedy has an overtly political feel underpinning it - with many far closer involved than I discussing the divisions (e.g. rebellion-backing Al Ahly fans taking on a resentful police force) that prompted the appalling scenes.

The tragedy also resulted in the retirement of an African footballing legend - Mohamed Aboutrika - the Al Ahly midfielder who won two Nations Cup titles (scoring the winner in the 2008 final) for Egypt and would have had three had he not missed the last tournament through injury.

But the question of who will replace the Pharaohs as kings of Africa is still open to healthy debate after a first round that contained some incredible shocks, wonderful matches and outstanding goals.

Gabon fans celebrate their last-gasp win over Morocco, a result which took the Panthers to the Nations Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1996

All three could be found in last week's victory for co-hosts Equatorial Guinea over Senegal, as the lowest-ranked side to contest a Nations Cup in living memory dumped one of the most fancied teams out of the competition - with Kily's 25-yard drive, four minutes into injury time, a suitably stunning goal for a shock of this magnitude (one which, I know from the flood of texts received, was joyously celebrated on Tyneside).

It barely needed repeating yet it was further evidence of the extraordinary morale-boosting power of home advantage, and not - on this occasion - because debatable refereeing results were going the hosts' way.

The second stand-out tie involved the other co-hosts as Gabon beat dark horses Morocco in surely the match of the finals so far, with not just the shock of the referee awarding a penalty against the Panthers in the 90th minute (kudos to you, Mr Bakary Gassama) but then the exquisite free-kick that won the game 3-2 in the 98th minute to knock out Eric Gerets's men.

Unlike the Senegalese, who did less than a holidaying sloth on a slow day, the Moroccans did at least have some players who left their mark - most notably, the excellent duo of number 10 Younes Belhanda and captain Houssine Kharja.

They didn't deserve to be going home after the first round, just like Burkina Faso midfielder Alain Traore (what a left peg), Manucho of Angola (who seems back to his best) and Guinea's effervescent midfielder Ibrahima Traore.

Others are staying, such as Zambian duo Chris Katongo and Emmanuel Mayuka, and their lively Zambian side take on Sudan in Saturday's first quarter-final in Bata.

History has been made for a handful of teams at these finals, with Libya winning their first Nations Cup game in 30 years, but that seems a mere slip compared to the 42 Sudan fans had to wait between their triumph in the 1970 final itself and beating Burkina Faso on Monday.

Their quarter-final place was barely foreseen, even among Sudanese fans themselves, who took to the streets in impromptu celebration afterwards, so coach Mazda can feel extreme pride for leading his entirely domestic based squad to the last eight.

This Zambian side seems to fire under the guidance of coach Herve Renard, whose devotion to his job was clear to see as the Frenchman went livid with his technical advisors despite the Chipolopolo is leading co-hosts Equatorial Guinea on Monday - with Renard later slamming his side's attacking instincts.

Whatever the root cause, the Chipolopolo are the opposite to the Senegalese - a team that is more than the sum of its parts and where teamwork is key.

Zambia captain Chris Katongo celebrates his match-winner against Equatorial Guinea in flying fashion, as Emmanuel Mayuka looks on

In Saturday's second game, an Ivory Coast side that has been playing well within itself takes on the co-hosts in the biggest game in the history of Equatoguinean men's football.

The bad news for the National Lightning is that the game will be played in the 15,000-capacity Malabo stadium, whose open nature is no match for the atmosphere generated in the bowl-like Bata stadium, which can host over 35,000 fans.

The Elephants have yet to get out of second gear so will they click up against the co-hosts or can Javier Balboa, Juvenal and Thierry Fidjeu spring an even bigger surprise?

The other co-hosts kick off the action on Sunday, when Gabon will be very much at home in Libreville's Stade de l'Amitie, the arena which will host the final on Sunday week.

Panthers fans will once again look to the forward line of star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, veteran Daniel Cousin and the experienced Eric Mouloungui to deliver the goods, against a defence which has been superbly marshalled by captain - and Panathinaikos centre-back - Cedric Kante so far.

But the tie of the round could come in Sunday's last quarter-final when Ghana take on 2004 champions Tunisia. Organisers in Gabon have said they will hand out free tickets for this match in an attempt to avoid thousands of empty seats but then again, nearly half the population of Franceville - the birth place of the ruling Bongo family - could fit into the 25,000-seater stadium by all accounts.

Youssef Msakni has proved a real dangerman, as Morocco and Niger can attest, and his creativity has lit up a Tunisian side that can look pedestrian without his flair. But at the back, Karim Hagui struggled against the power and pace of Niger's Moussa Maazou so Asamoah Gyan will fancy his chances of taking him on - but is the Black Star fully fit?

Ghanaian fans may not be too bothered if the midfield can keep producing goals of the quality of Emmanuel Agyemang Badu against Guinea - the strike of the tournament so far for me, although team-mate Gyan, Equatorial Guinea's Kily, Gabon's Bruno-Zita Mbanangoye, Manucho, Msakni and dozens of you might disagree.

Two years ago, the Cabinda tragedy cast a huge shadow over the Nations Cup and seemed to affect some of the football played thereafter. So as the continent's football tries to disperse the latest cloud over it, can the quarter-finalists find the African game's true voice on the pitch and speak most eloquently from there? Let's hope they can.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 2.

    I don't think the violence in Egypt would affect the tournament in the least. Clearly the Egyptians have a history of violence in football as evidenced in the world cup qualification matches against Algeria in 2010. It is clear that this kind of attitude which is almost tradition in Egypt has no place in modern football and it's up to the Egyptian FA to develop the appetite and will power to remove violence from Egypt football. But rest assured, Africa's attention is no doubt on the tournament and this rather unfortunate incident would be no distraction at all.

  • Comment number 3.

    Right I'm putting my head above the parapit here - quite simply ban Egypt fron international football and ban Egyptian clubs from the African continental competions for 5 years - after all that's what happened to English clubs after Heysel - or will CAF/FIFA decide that Egyptian & African votes count too much so won't do anything?

  • Comment number 4.

    I waited for the Cup Africa tournament to see potential stars and players with ability impressing. It has been unexpected to me that most of the matches I watched ressembled league 1/2 quality.

    Where has African football gone? And where has African talent gone? All I will remember is some strange looking guys sitting in office chairs and the camera showing them congratulating each other.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    @ 4 - you think it has something to do with the fact that what you can call "quality African football" has been exported so sucessfully to Europe that playing for Ghana or Cote d'Ivoire (in my day it was Ivory Coast LOL) is just the same - I mean if Essien plays a blinder for Ghana and Ghana win the ACN then it's still not going to be as big as Chelsea winning the CL - maybe that's wrong but its symptomatic of international football - personally if I were a PL manager I'd be saying to players, respectfully, I can't stop you going to play in the ACN but I'd prefer it if you didn't.

  • Comment number 7.

    #6,

    No, there are reasons for expecting to watch a much better spectacle. In the past, we've seen African nations like Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, playing football of extraordinary quality in the World Cup.

    When it comes to individuals, some great footballers have been born and grew up in Africa. It was logical to expect to watch new talent coming through. That's why my disappointment was great to say the least.

  • Comment number 8.

    #3.

    Egypt undoubtedly have a problem with football related violence but it's definitely not at the same levels shown by English hooligans in the twenty years or so leading up to the ban post Heysel. Hardly a European city was spared from the curse of the English football fan. Something has to be done about football violence in Egypt but a blanket ban isn't the way forward.

  • Comment number 9.

    @ 8 - sorry but Egypt's issue is apparently nation-wide. Obviously you'd think that African economies mean there won't be a huge travelling contingent but that's no reason for not imposing a blanket ban. If you don't then it's again a case of one rule for Africa and another for the rest of the world. African and South American football is at least as violent as England - even at its worst. The difference is that England did something about it - then we're vilified for it.

  • Comment number 10.

    We're talking about punishment to Egypt for the latest tragedy when people are still mourning relatives. Shouldn't we be talking about other issues, out of respect to the people who died and their families?

  • Comment number 11.

    Been impressed with Zambia so far. I expected a lot from Ghana but they have been poor.

  • Comment number 12.

    I remember Daniel Cousin playing for Rangers
    --------

    And I noticed Bobo Balde still playing for Guinea!

    Too soon to be talking about banning a nation from competition until a review of what happened has been conducted #3 and why would you propose banning their national team on the basis of trouble at a domestic game? On this basis would England be banned because of WestHam/Millwall or Liverpool/ManU, or should Scotland be banned because of actions of Rangers fans in Manchester at the UEFA final? None of which is on the scale of violence in Egypt but its just not a comparable scenario as far as the national team is concerned.

  • Comment number 13.

    For me its not been an impressive tournament thus far and not as exciting as the previous two I've watched.

  • Comment number 14.

    Those who follow African football know that Egypt controls and rules CAF with an iron fist and for some reason FIFA handles CAF with kid gloves. If this tragedy had occurred anywhere else in Africa, CAF or FIFA would already have banned that country from international football for several years. But Egypt? No chance. Is CAF/FIFA practicing double standards? You bet!

  • Comment number 15.

    Although what happened in Egypt was appalling and shocking, I know of no precedent for a country and/or its clubs being banned from international competition as a result of an incident that occurred at a domestic fixture. English league clubs were banned after Heysel where Italian fans died in a Belgian stadium as a result of the actions of the followers of an English club. Also, there was no parallel punishment for the English national team.

  • Comment number 16.

    @ 15 - maybe a bit harsh but the way I look at it - the Egyptian government, the police/security services etc. MAY be involved in this - unlikely - but until there's a FIFA investigation into just what went on that night, then Egypt should be if not banned, not allowed to have home games in Egypt - or behind closed doors. That way the violence, if organised for political means, can't hurt the game (well at least not as much as it might) nor innocent fans watching the game.
    It would be interesting whilst I'm on about Government involvement, just what FIFA will make of the Egyptian Govt. investigating Port Said and therather now trivial interference of the Govt. in the John Terry captaincy matter.

  • Comment number 17.

    The blog starts 'for the second time in as many years' is misleading, it is suggesting that the recent violence involving the loss of many lives is a relatively new problem. Go back a decade or even two decades and you will find, rioting and the loss of many lives, from incidents involving football for the whole of Africa.

    Football in Africa, cannot be compared to elsewhere but that does not mean, no action should not be taken by FIFA.

    If you go back to the height of Europe's problem's, the policing and intelligence services, from each country tackled their own problems. They also worked together nationally to fight the issues relating to crowd control, they have years of experience in this field and we have witnessed their success.

    This does not exist on the African continent, policing and intelligence, related to football is far behind what we have come to expect in Europe. You also have to accept the fact that much of Africa is in a state of unrest and is highly volatile add that to football and the problems will always be there.

    FIFA and CAF should each accept part of the responsibility as should each home nation's association in Africa but as yet they have shown they care little for solving the problem. Words alone do not show a major problem is being dealt with.

  • Comment number 18.

    @ 17 - I think what you say is very much true - I know there isn't the travelling inter-border hooliganism that we saw in Europe but what they do have is very, very worthy of attention from both the judicary and the footballing authority.

    I think Egypt, right at this moment, is particulary unique but there are countries where, like Yugoslavia in the late-80's, are exceptioanlly fractured and if it's going to kick off (and positively if they are going to heal rifts) it'll be in a football stadium.

    I wonder if the standard of the ACN is down this year because you've seen the last of the real talent i.e. the genuinely talented, gifted, whatever you want to call it, leave Africa for Europe and in some cases South America - what's left for the moment are the players that won't make the highest grade - and the players like Essien, Kalou etc. now are more aware of their clocks ticking to win say the ECL and the WC - where the ACN is seen as a lesser tournament for them personally to win.

    You could argue that the ACN is ranked lower than the South American WC qualifiers for quality - but I'd say above the Confederations Cup.

  • Comment number 19.

    Best wishes to Zambia(Copper bullets) as they wait for the arrival of Ghana in AFCON 2012 semi finals!

  • Comment number 20.

    One of the things I've noticed during this African Nations Cup, is just how many countries are burdened by fielding sub-standard, EPL-based pros.

    When you see a team like Mali, who field a team almost exclusively comprising Ligue 1 and other continental-based players, progressing with consummate ease, yet English media darlings, the Ivory Coast, struggling lamely along with their contingent of EPL trundlers, then the pro-EPL agenda of English media outlets becomes acutely obvious.

  • Comment number 21.

    Patches

    There you go again, same old.

    The EPL based players are never going to really shine because they are not playing a typical EPL style. What I will say is most players are conditioned by English football, it is nigh on impossible to change them, once they have been in the UK more than a season or two. It explains why players who have spent their formative years here or have spent some time here in the UK, rarely shine in Europe. Of course there are exceptions but they are far outweighed by the failures.

    It does show how important coaching is and how it can lessen a players ability.

  • Comment number 22.

    21. At 19:19 5th Feb 2012, Londoner in exile returns wrote:
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Oh, behave yourself!

    Due to the bizarre level of interest which the EPL generates worldwide, a lot of countries are hamstrung by feeling obliged to pick English-based plodders from the country.

    It doesn't matter that the likes of Salomon Kalou, Sol Bamba, Kolo Touré and ex-EPL player, Emmanuel Eboué, would struggle to hold down a starting place for ''The Fisherman's Arms'' on a Sunday morning. As long as their names create ''brand recognition'' amongst viewers, then they will always be picked.

    See David Beckham for an English example of this phenomenon!

  • Comment number 23.

    Patches

    Your an annoying little 'B' I mean that with good intent. I do not think you read my posting. We are both saying the same, only I don't use the 'dog n duck' to over emphasise the point.

    I certainly believe playing in the premiership has ensured that many a player has failed to reach the potential, they showed as youngsters. England have over the years produced many players with skills, many could have made it in Europe's elite leagues at the time. The fact that very few ply their trade abroad is down to the money that exists here but it has had a harmful effect on players who could of been so much more. There are exceptions but they are a rarity.

    I can only agree with you, regarding Beckham and the loss of two sponsors for the England team, they pulled out when told Beckham could no longer be gauranteed a starting place. It was at the end of the Erickson reign and McClaren decided to call time on the boy wonder. What it did say, a player was gauranteed selection for PR purposes.

 

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