The Real Fireworks Begin Now

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 30th 2015)

Easy Gone

Segun at Wembley

The Indomitable Lions are out as the boys are now being separated from the men in AFCON 2015. As a result, I have also lost my bet about who will win the tournament. Truth be told I did not think they had the capacity to win the tile, but being the ‘gambling’ man, I had put my kobo on Cameroon to beat the odds and ‘steal’ the title.

I failed because, last Wednesday, on a dramatic night that left much of Africa breathless with excitement, drama, suspense and a little controversy, my young hard-working Indomitable Lions were halted.

The last set of matches at the group stage were always going to be very critical, particularly since the games had been extremely close since the championship started with very few goals and too many drawn encounters. Remarkably, 10 of the first 16 matches ended in draws with an overall average of less than two goals per match.

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Jockeying for Position

Group D of the championship has been particularly interesting because of the way the position of second team to qualify in the group had to be decided. La Côte d’Ivoire ended as undisputed leader. The Indomitable Lions finished bottom of the group. Guinea and Mali had ended with exactly the same number of points, goal difference and goals scored. There was nothing between them.

One day after the matches, ballots were drawn in the boardroom and Guinea won. That has now generated fresh debate over the propriety of such a rule that takes the process of winning away from the field to the boardroom.

Many football purists, myself included, now suggest that such decisions should be based on a process that must start and end on the field of play, and not by the drawing of lots. I believe the issue will be looked at again after the championship by CAF. But that was not the only drama of the last group matches. Each group had plenty of it own.

Decided

In Group A, as predicted, Equatorial Guinea, even as hosts, struggled, rode on the back of unprecedented local crowd support, won only one match. That was enough to see them join Claude le Royʼs Congo as the two teams from the group. Congo were the best and most consistent team. They were well organised, played robustly and defeated both Burkina Faso and Gabon.

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Group B was also very closely fought. Also, only one team won a match in the entire group. Tunisia defeated Zambia. All the others matches ended in draws. Cape Verde were not the same team that caught everyone’s imagination in 2013. They drew all three of their matches. DR Congo also drew all their three matches but scored one goal more to edge out Cape Verde on goals aggregate. Zambia were a shadow of the victorious all-conquering 2012 African champions. They were the only team that lost a match in the group.

It is in Group C that there was the greatest drama on the field of play. This was the only group that had teams winning and losing matches, and with plenty of shocks and surprises. The results in this group confirm that football is not mathematics. Surprisingly, Ghana lost their first match to Senegal. Shockingly, after their World Cup heroics, Algeria defeated South Africa, but lost to Ghana and Senegal could only draw with South Africa.

At the wire, dramatically, Ghana that were at the bottom of the table with South Africa going into the last match, having surged to the top after a pulsating match that saw them oscillate from the brink of defeat to earn a clear victory over a determined, hard-fighting but porous Bafana Bafana.

The South Africans are now left totally confused about what to do with their football to take it to commanding heights. They are left wondering how things that looked so bright going to Equatorial Guinea could suddenly turn so dark in the end.

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Senegal had comfortably and confidently topped the group going into the final set of matches, but suddenly found themselves losing out completely after a dramatic defeat by the Desert Foxes in their last match. When the final whistle was blown they were out, and their conquerors, Algeria, were in with Ghana.

But the drama did not end there. Who was the group leader? It took careful interpretation of the rules of the competition to determine who came first in the group. Ghana emerged finally as group leaders. Algeria that had the same number of points but higher aggregate of goals (having scored more goals in the other matches), but they came second.

It was the result of the match between Ghana and Algeria, which Ghana won, that clinched it. In my humble opinion, the aggregate of the goals should apply ahead of the result of the match between two teams in a group competition – it is a mini league after all, so all the matches played should count first.

I have already looked at the drama in Group D where, as in group B, only one team won a match – Côte d’Ivoire. The team they defeated on the final day of the group matches, Cameroon, were instantly knocked out.

Mali and Guinea could not be separated, not by points, or goals, or even the result between them. That’s why lots were cast and Guinea ‘won’ to join Côte d’Ivoire into the quarter-finals, leaving behind a fuming and disappointed Malian team. However, the dust of the group stage matches has settled.

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Narrowed

The gap between the traditional African football ‘giants’ and the rest has narrowed. Predicting the outcome of matches is becoming increasingly more difficult these days. This is very good for the game. Having said that, somehow, only a few of the traditional ‘giants’ are still firmly in the race for the title.

Of all the teams only two have won the championship more than once. Ghana has won it 4 times in 1963 – their first appearance – retaining it in 1965 before losing in the final to Congo-Kinshasa (later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The Black Stars, as Ghana are affectionately known, won it for the third and fourth times in 1978 and 1982 respectively.

The Black Stars lost in the finals of 1992 to Côte d’Ivoire and to Egypt in 2010 the last of three successive triumphs for Egypt – the Pharaohs have been deposed, failing to qualify for the last three editions of the African Cup of Nations. Ghana have reached at least the semi-finals in the last five editions. DR Congo, masquerading as Zaire then won it for the second time in 1974. Zambia were the beaten finalists then

Four quarter-finalists have triumphed once – Congo in 1972 at Mali’s expense, Algeria defeated Nigeria in 1990, Côte d’Ivoire in 1992 and Tunisia beat the intended hosts of this edition Morocco in 2004. The others – Guinea and Equatorial Guinea – are new kids on the block.

Final Thoughts

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Finally, once again, the matches have been very competitive, hard fought, full of drama and exciting, but the standard of play, which is relatively low, must be of concern to those monitoring the development of football in the continent.

There is definitely a dearth of emerging exceptional talent from Africa as reflected in the ongoing championships. And legends of African football Didier Drogba and Samuel Etoʼo have hung up their international boots.

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