Heroes

CIMG6619

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 22nd 2015)

AFCON 1980 Triumph

35 years ago today, I was one of sixteen young Nigerian football players that walked onto the turf of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos full of nerves, but exhilarated by the atmosphere and the expectations of my nation. Nigeria had never won the African Cup of Nations.

The tournament started in 1957. It was time for us to take our place at the summit of African football for the first time. A crowd of some 100,000 Nigerians packed in a 60,000 capacity stadium like sardines to witness our attempt to create history.

Making History

CIMG2487

90 minutes of football later, driven by the passion of a hundred million other Nigerians, the goal was achieved. The Green Eagles played beyond their capacities and soared high above the Desert Warriors. In doing so, we destroyed the invincibility of an Algerian team that was at its peak – an obviously more experienced and probably even better team than the Eagles.

Remember that just two years later only larceny of the most shameful kind could rob that Algerian team of World Cup glory. The eventual World Cup finalists West Germany and Austria contrived in the Disgrace of Gijón to fix a result that saw both progress to the second round at Algeriaʼs expense. It was one of the worst moments in World Cup history, but it showed how big a threat Algeria was and how good a team they really were.

On the night, Nigeria could not be stopped, having come through some really difficult early matches. We played our best match of the championship, scored the highest number of goals and won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in our country’s history.

Duty
The President of Nigeria at the time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, led the sea of Nigerians that physically watched the event live at the stadium. As young men, we were over the moon. We had worked very hard and prepared well under the guidance of professional sports managers and administrators. Nigeria had well-established sports institutions, a clear sports policy, a clear strategy and vision for sports development.

We saw ourselves as ambassadors and patriots serving our country willingly in answer to our nationʼs call to duty. Our victory in 1980 was the culmination of a process that started in 1976 when the national team went to Dire Dawa and against all odds returned with bronze medals for the first time in our history. That was the impetus needed to aim higher and we did. In that spirit, we went to Ghana for AFCON 1978 and reinforced our confidence.

Cometh the Hour!

CIMG8139

When 1980 came and the event was held in our country we believed we had to win and were ready. The preparations were hard but meticulous, driven by our single-mindedness to be part of history. The entire country was involved on March 22, 1980. It was a day none of us that played in that match will ever forget. We soared like eagles – super-eagles.

In the end, hard work: good luck, the people’s support, our government’s commitment, all paid off. We won. And we were deservedly rewarded well without any solicitation by us. Football in Nigeria had never been the same and would never be the same for us any more.

Celebrations
This day, 35 years after that victory, I can still play back in my mind almost every minute of the final match – the blaring trumpet of the late musician Zeal Onyia marshalling Nigerians to the great battle, the vociferous singing of 100,000 Nigerians at the stadium, and the rampaging supercharged Green Eagles with humble me scoring a brace and coming closest to winning the continent’s best player award that year.

It was a day when the elements had no choice but to side with the eagles, and to provide Nigerians with the cause to truly celebrate. 35 years after that victory, the heroes of 1980 are still remembered by most Nigerians. Six of them have passed on to the beyond – Muda Babatunde Lawal, Best Ogedegbe, Okey Isima, Alloysius Atuegbu, Martin Eyo and Tunde Bamidele.

The rest are alive and kicking, not by our strength, but by the Grace of God, grateful for the opportunity of life, and of that day, March 22, 1980 when our names were written in Gold in the archives of African football.

On behalf of all 22 of us, including Emmanuel Okala, Sylvanus Okpala, Felix Owolabi, Shefiu Mohammed, John Orlando, Frank Nwachi, Christian Chukwu, Ifeanyi Onyedika, Henry Nwosu, Moses Effiong, Charles Bassey, Godwin Odiye, David Adiele, Kadiri Ikhana, Adokie Amiesimaka and me, I use this opportunity to say thank you once again to all Africans for their support and love, which since 1980 has occasionally still been showered lavishly on us.

Segun at Wembley

Advertisements

The Final Chapter

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 15th 2015)

Afcon 2015 – New African Champions

After an exciting three weeks of pulsating but technically mediocre festival of football in Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants of la Côte d’Ivoire have become the new Champions of African football. They took the coveted trophy that was relinquished, rather humiliatingly, by Nigeria. The Super Eagles had exited at the qualifying stage of the championship.

CIMG6619

It may have taken well over 20 years for their trophy drought to end, but when it finally did the whole of Côte d’Ivoire exploded in an orgy of celebration as the government declared a national public holiday and lavishly rewarded the gallant heroes with houses and cash gifts. It was a far cry from the disgraceful treatment Ivorian players received from former dictator Robert Guéï after a poor performance in Afcon 2000.

History

The final match against Ghanaʼs Black Stars created razor-sharp pressure for both teams. Tactically, they cancelled each other out for 120 minutes and the match had to be settled by penalty kicks – again. That match marked the third time the Elephants played in the final of the Nations Cup and did not score a goal. It also marked the third time a final involving the Ivorians had gone to penalties.

The recourse to penalty kicks against these opponents historically favoured the Ivorians. In 1992 they won the championship for the first time against Ghana after a marathon penalty shoot-out that ended 11-10. They had tasted defeat in a penalty shoot-out too when Egypt won the first of their unprecedented three consecutive titles in 2006.

Two Sunday night’s ago the elements were on the side of Côte d’Ivoire once again, as ‘lightning struck twice on the same spot’. 

Ghana were left stranded on the banks of misfortune as they threw away an early two-goal lead, due to nerves, and lost 8-9 in the end, continuing a trophy drought that has lasted 33 years. The Black Stars have lost their last three finals, twice on penalties to the Ivorians and once to Egypt in 2010

Apart from the penalty shoot-out the final match was tension-soaked but technically ordinary and boring – a true reflection of the entire championship.

The Special Generation

Winning the championship was momentous for Côte d’Ivoire as it marked the end of an era for several of their ageing generation of players, some of whom have been among the best footballers in the history of African football. Between them, Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré have won the African player of the year award 7 times. Add to that other great players playing at a high level in Europe, including Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, and so on.

CIMG9165

It is unfortunate that Drogba chose to retire from international football on the eve of the championship. The victory would have capped a very illustrious and unprecedented career that had only the African Cup of Nations title as the missing trophy in his rich chest.

Scant Consolation

Overall, Ghana looked the slightly better and more organised team, even though Côte d’Ivoire were unbeaten did not lose any of their matches throughout the championship. However, the Ghanaians were the more entertaining team during the tournament. Consequently, it is not surprising that the player of the tournament came from the Ghanaian team.

Christian Atsu, currently on loan from Chelsea to Everton got more opportunities under Avram Grant than he has from José Mourinho or Roberto Martínez in England. The fleet, left-footed player operated from the right side of the Ghanaian attack, scoring two of Ghana’s three goals in the quarter-finals and constantly terrorised the Ivorian defence during the final. He deserved the award. He was a bright star in a very grey constellation.

Memories

Finally, the Championship will be remembered not for memorable matches but for other reasons: how the championship ended up in a country that did not even qualify for the championship and was under suspension by CAF; how the terraces were empty during most of the matches except those involving the host country; how Morocco were suspended (and rejected the suspension) for two tournaments for refusing to host the event due to genuine health fears; how Tunisia were suspended for failing to apologise for accusing CAF of bias and complicity when they were openly ‘robbed’ by a referee who only got a slap-on-the-wrist six-month suspension, for his shameful handling of the match in question; how supporters of the host country threw decorum to the dogs and unleashed mayhem on players and supporters of an opposing team with the shameful scenes watched on television all over the world; how both CAF and FIFA Presidents condemned the Western media for ‘exaggerating’ reports of the incidents that smeared the organization of the championship because they needed to make more friends than enemies amongst national federations with their elections coming, and so on.

Blatter and Hayatou 6

At the end of Afcon 2015, the championship simply could not produce or showcase the best version of African football as well as authentic new stars to illuminate African football into the immediate future. Letʼs hope that Afcon 2017 will supply both. The country that will host that tournament will be decided by CAF in April, following the withdrawal of Libya as hosts due to security concerns.

Next Time the Fire-power

Four countries that expressed an interest met CAFʼs conditions to host the tournament. Beaten finalists Ghana last hosted in 2008. They also hosted and won the tournament twice previously. The first time was in 1963 – the first appearance of the Black Stars in the tournament. That was the first of three triumphs under the legendary African coach Charles Kumi Gyamfi. Only Egyptʼs Hassan Shehata has matched him, although Hervé Renard has made history already and has power to add.

CIMG2675

The next time Ghana hosted and won was in 1978, the only victory of the Black Stars not under Gyamfiʼs supervision. Fred Osam Duodu was the successful coach. The most successful team in African history, the Pharaohs have won the trophy seven times. Egyptʼs last success – qualification too – was in 2010. They hosted and won in 2006.

Their fierce rivals the Desert Foxes of Algeria have only one title to their name. They hosted and won in 1990. That leaves Gabon. They have never won the trophy. Their best achievement was reaching the quarter-final twice, in 1996 when they went out on penalties to beaten finalists Tunisia and when they co-hosted in 2012. Gabon has never hosted in their own right.

The Shame of AFCON 2015

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 6th 2015)

CIMG8139

Redemption

Welcome to the final feast of AFCON 2015.

The two teams left standing on the final day are probably the two best teams of the entire championship. The emergence of Ghana and la Côte d’Ivoire at the finish line is confirmation once again that West Africa remains the most dominant region in African football. It is the two teams that have put up the most consistent series of matches, improving technically and playing better with each successive match.

It is understandably so because the teams are made up entirely of players from various leagues in Europe who did not have enough time before the championship to become formidable teams and have been using the matches of the tournament to build their team and be better organised. Like a fine wine they have grown better with time.

A closer look at both teams, to hazard a guess where the pendulum of victory would swing, reveals a deep rooted rivalry that will be on full display when they line up on Sunday to decide Africa’s champions for the next two years.

CIMG6604

Head-Scratching

I was asked on television the other night to name who, in my opinion, has been the best player of AFCON 2015. I ended up scratching my head in an endless attempt to recall the one moment of magic throughout the championship up to the finals that could provide me with the answer. I came up blank. I have only faint and blurred images in my memory bank.

The entire championship as a whole may have been exciting – it was in its way – but it has lacked spark and quality. Even Yaya Touré, the player that had just been crowned Africa’s best has been but a shadow of himself.

Asamoah Gyan, the other great Ghanaian superstar, has been slowed slightly by age as well as illness and an injury that have minimized his contributions even though his goal against Algeria in the dying minutes of regulation time gave Ghana the essential victory that took the team from the brink of exiting the championship to the leadership of the group. That goal marks Ghana’s turning point in the championship.

The Final Curtain Call

CIMG6588

There is now the final act. One great performance in the final of AFCON 2015 can provide the perfect setting and opportunity to finish as the championship’s best player. So far, in this most average of African championships, no one truly deserves it. But which of these teams do I think would win the championship?

Ghana have won it four times. But the last time was in 1982, eons ago. During the 33 years of their ‘drought’ they have met Côte d’Ivoire three times during the championship, but only once in the final. Ghana lost that match via penalties. That was at Senegal ’92.

Côte d’Ivoire have not scored a single goal in regulation time in the three finals they got to. Even when they won the championship for the first and only time in 1992 they did so through penalties!They never seem to have the nerve to finish clinically and win in regulation time! So, where does all that leave us?

My head tells me Côte d’Ivoire will win through penalties again. My heart tells me the Black Stars would win in regulation time. So what does my unreliable crystal ball say? Give it to the Star that is Black. Whichever, way, enjoy the final feast, for it will be a far cry from the shame that is Equatorial Guinea.

CIMG6619

The Shame of Equatorial Guinea

The Confederation of African Football, CAF, should never have awarded the African Cup of Nations championship, AFCON 2015, to Equatorial Guinea. Why they did should actually be the subject of a future inquiry. Too many things were not correct with that decision. The events of the semi-final match against Ghana now provide ammunition for those who thought it was a big mistake by CAF. On that dark long night the chickens finally came home to roost!

The Equatorial Guineans met their Waterloo on the football field as the Black Stars tore them to shreds with a very easy and humiliating 3-0 trouncing that could easily have been more. Without the 12th player to help them which happened during the quarter-final match against Tunisia, Equatorial Guinea were left exposed by the superior, more mature and better organised display put up by the very experienced Ghanaians.

Equatorial Guinea actually started the match spiritedly, matching the Ghanaians tackle for tackle, ball for ball. But as the game wore it soon became apparent something was wrong. Lacking the skill, organisation and ability of the Ghanaians, the hosts had few options, but bluster.

The strategy they adopted was to try to physically intimidate the opposition to submission, but the gamesmanship was found wanting. By the end of the first half their game had deteriorated into a brawl. It was not surprising that at the end of that half they had not only conceded two goals but had also failed to create even a single goal-scoring opportunity.

Issa Hayatou 3

Disgraceful

The limitations of their team, compared to the football aristocrats of Ghana were all too apparent – and quickly. Angry spectators, almost 15,000-strong, infuriated that the referee was not succumbing to intimidation and the emotional blackmail of the home team, turned their anger on the game. They knew that they were being beaten by the far better team., so they tried to get the match abandoned through shameful thuggery, thinking that it would be replayed.

They threw missiles of all sorts onto the field of play, and the match had to be temporarily suspended for over 30 minutes. Unlike the peaceful atmosphere that had pervaded the entire championship from the start until the controversial quarter-final match that was gifted to Equatorial Guinea by an obviously bad or compromised Mauritian referee, Rajindraparsad Seechurn, the semi-final was appalling.

After achieving their best result through questionable behaviour, which cowed the referee into shameful under-performance once, Equatorial Guinea tried it again, but the Gabonese referee Eric Otogo-Castane was no Seechurn and the Black Stars reacted differently to the Carthage Eagles. The semi-final match was a very bad advertisement for African football with the entire world watching the ugly incidents.

I can imagine what the CAF President Issa Hayatou and his Executive Committee members must have gone through in that half hour of absolute shame. They must have rued the day they gave Equatorial Guinea the nod to host AFCON 2015.

Blatter and Hayatou 6

Trending Analysis

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

Geographic Trends

CIMG1041

Central Africa is represented by three countries – DR Congo, Congo and the hosts Equatorial Guinea. West Africa still has three countries as well – Ghana, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. North African countries have Tunisia and Algeria still in the race. On history and rankings Guinea and Equatorial Guinea stand little chance of bucking the trend.

The distribution of the teams speaks volumes. Central African countries, led by the two Congos are rising powers in African football. Even their performances at club level is indicative of this new momentum. On the other hand there is a decline in Southern and East Africa. West and North Africa are still maintaining their lead in Africa.

CIMG6588

Hosting Trends

But there is another trend to consider hosting being the twelfth man. Of the 29 editions so far the host has won the tournament eleven times, been beaten in the final twice – thrice if you include when Nigeria co-hosted in 2000. The host has failed to reached at least the semi-final 7.5 times out of 29 editions, although in the first three editions that was inevitable due to the number of participants. Traditionally the hosts progress.

Ethiopia was the first host to fail to reach the last four. That happened in the tenth edition in 1976. It happened again to Côte d’Ivoire in 1984. Eight years later Senegal went out in the quarter-finals. In 1994 Tunisia failed to get past the first phase of matches. Co-hosts Ghana went out in the quarter-finals in 2000 while their co-hosts Nigeria won the tournament. In 2010 Angola were eliminated in the quarter-final, which happened to both co-hosts, Angola and Equatorial Guinea too in 2012 and most recently to South Africa in the last edition.

CIMG8137

Equatorial Guinea only qualified as replacement hosts. They have never qualified on merit and they have a very low FIFA ranking. On paper and form they should have no chance, but barring Tunisiaʼs host and fail – there were no quarter-finals when Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire also failed in 1976 and 84 respectively – the hosts can be expected to reach the quarter-final at least and Equatorial Guinea has achieved that.

They have already met the hosting norm of progressing to the knock-out phase, but of 26 of 29 hosts achieved that. 21.5 of the hosts have reached at least the last four, so history is on the side of Equatorial Guinea and then there is Tunisiaʼs recent trend. The last three occasions they have reached the finals they exited at the quarter-final stage.

Home-field advantage may just be enough for Equatorial Guinea to make history while at the same time maintain tradition.

CIMG8139

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.

CIMG8137

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.

CIMG2646

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.

CIMG6588

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.

CIMG6619

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

Blatter and Hayatou 6

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.

AFCON 2015 – Uniquely African Flavour

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 22nd 2015)

Remote Sensing

CIMG8139

I am watching AFCON 2015 remotely from my home in Nigeria. It has been a totally different experience. I normally attend in person if Nigeria are playing. Sadly they didnʼt qualify this time, so I am at home, missing the electricity and atmosphere of being at the venues.

I still must admit that the ongoing Championship has been a great football treat with some riveting matches defined by the athleticism of the players and competitiveness of the teams. It is very much unlike European or South American competitions that are highly technical and tactical.

This has been football with a unique African flavour – power, speed, a lot of long high balls, endless running, tight marking, fouls galore, brutish tackles, not enough creativity and surely not enough goals.

Nip and Tuck

The matches have been extremely close. Anything can still happen to change the faintly emerging picture of the first round. So far, as an indication that there are no more minnows in African football, after the first 10 matches, 6 have ended in draws. But besides that there have also been some ‘pleasant’ surprises.

Issa Hayatou 3

Ghana’s loss in their first match to Senegal is surely a shock. Senegal, before AFCON 2015, seemed to have been in some kind of football limbo. To defeat Ghana, therefore, is no small feat. But the Bafana Bafana is a different matter.

South Africa’s tame capitulation to Algeria in a match they could have won easily was another shocker. They had the match under full control until they lost a penalty kick that could have given them a comfortable two-goal cushion. Thereafter, they lost focus, confidence and direction, and conceded 3 quick goals to a resurgent Algeria.

The group that had 3 West African and one Central African team, produced truly very hard but very exciting thrillers. At the end of the first round of matches all the teams were inseparably tied on same points and goals – Cameroon, the Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Guinea. Also, as I predicted last week, the host nation, Equatorial Guinea, is struggling. They did not win either of their first two matches and both Gabon and Claude le Royʼs Congo are poised to send the hosts packing from a tournament they were controversially gifted at the eleventh hour.

CIMG2646

General observations

Considering the short time the host country had to prepare and host the championship, it is remarkable to observe that the grounds and playing surfaces are in reasonably good condition. Television coverage with commentaries and match analysis have also been of the highest quality and standards.

Technically, my first observations are that there is now an almost infinitesimal gap between African countries in terms of their football standards and facilities. All matches are now extremely close. Even the little Islands of Cape Verde have not lost in their first two games, although they have also not played with the same flair and confidence that made analysts at AFCON 2013 compare their playing style with FC Barçelona’s Tiki Taka.

Those comparisons may be gone but Cape Verde are still playing fearlessly in the championship and cannot be written off. With most of the teams there is a general lack of inventiveness. In front of goal, creating chances and converting them clinically continues to be a problem. Whereas, defences have been hard, physical and better organised, attacks have been uncreative, inconsistent and rather tame.

Star Quality

One bright star of the championship to me has been Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon. His performances in the two matches played against Equatorial Guinea and Congo (one win and one loss respectively) has thrown up an authentic ‘new’ African star. In the two matches, he stood out like the Northern Star. He has grown from the young man who had to be consoled by his father Pierre after Gabon’s exit when they  co-hosted three years ago. 

Pierre Aubameyang Snr

Another star performer has been Mali’s left-footed and menacing striker, Bakary Sako. He is a player to watch as one of the potential stars of this championship. He plays for Wolverhampton Wanderers in England’s Championship the tier below the Premier League. This striker single-handedly kept Cameroon’s defence busy all night, harassing them at will, and exposing the weakness on the right side of their defence in particular.

Tarnished Reputations

Ghana disappointed their fans in the manner that they lost to Senegal. They fell to very poor tactics. The Israeli Avram Grant recently inherited the Black Stars from James Kwesi Appiah. Given their antecedents in football they are likely to rebound in subsequent matches. But the Black Stars last won the African Cup of Nations under Charles Kumi Gyamfi.

Only Egyptʼs legendary Hassan Shehata can rival Gyamfi for the title of the greatest ever African coach. Ghanaians need no reminding that despite reaching the final in 2010 and 1992 their last triumph was 33 years ago. They are overdue, but thatʼs no guarantee. Côte d’Ivoire know that feeling too. Their only Cup of Nations success came against Ghana in 1992. Chelseaʼs talisman Didier Drogba never tasted international glory.

Herve Renard 3

With Hervé Renard in charge the Elephants have a coach who knows that winning sensation. Renardʼs new charges woke up from slumber only after they saw their awesome reputation going up in flames. They were a goal down and their best player on the night, Gervinho, was sent off.

The shock of the possibility of losing what most had thought would be a walk-over for the most-star-studded team in the continent, jolted them into frenetic action. Down to 10 players against Guinea they played like wounded lions, equalized against all odds, redeemed their reputation and restored their chances of advancing beyond the group stage.

Great Expectations

South Africa were the tamest team in the championship after the first round of matches. How could they have sloppily let go a match they had in their pockets already? After failing to convert a penalty kick that would have given them a comfortable two-goal cushion against an Algeria that looked ragged up to that point, the tide of the match suddenly turned.

CIMG2487

The Desert Foxes woke up, found their rhythm, and went on a rampage, scoring three times in 45 minutes to send the Bafana Bafana back to the drawing board, wondering what had hit them.

The Indomitable Lions, my wild bet to win the championship, as usual, were very athletic, hard-working and physical. At the same time they also looked very vulnerable in defence. Cameroon’s next match will show if my pre-tournament expectations have been set too high.

Observations

Otherwise, these are my further observations and analysis:

Group A

Burkina Faso, beaten finalists in 2013, will end their 2015 journey at the group stage. Congo will qualify and be joined by either Gabon or Equatorial Guinea!

Group B

Cape Verde Islands have played robustly but not as well as they did during AFCON 2013. The surprise element that they rode on in 2013 has evaporated. Now other teams take them seriously, and their road has become harder. They are likely to disembark the AFCON 2015 train at the group stage terminus.

CIMG1041

Zambia have not surprised anyone. They are working hard, but struggling. Without much fire-power upfront they are finding it difficult to convert the many goal-scoring chances that they create. They are a far cry from the team that excelled when last in Equatorial Guinea just three years ago. Tunisia look like the best team in the group with DR Congo a close second. The match between them will determine which team wins the group.

Group C

This is too close to call even now. The only sure thing is that South Africa will be the first to exit in the group. Beyond that anything can still happen. Algeria and Senegal have shot up to the front, but Ghana lurk dangerously, poised to benefit from any slip-ups. When they are having a good day Ghana can defeat any of the teams. Surely, there are more surprises to come in this group!

Group D

This is the group where the teams refuse to be separated. Guinea have looked sharp and focused.

Seydou Keita

Mali have looked interesting under the tutelage of ageless Seydou Keita. Côte d’Ivoire was shocked by the result of their first match. Even without Romaʼs Gervinho, they should still have too much talent not to come through this group.

Nevertheless, I am still keeping my money on Cameroon even though they have not played with the usual panache and confidence that create champions. Like a fine wine I am hoping they will get better with every match.

The African Cup of Nations 2015 Edition

by Seun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 15th 2015)

Embarrassing

CIMG6604

Itʼs that time again when Africaʼs best meet to contest which team is the continentʼs best. Of course, my first statement on AFCON 2015 must be that the defending champions will not be at the championship. How come?

It is hard for anyone to understand what happened and how it happened, but the reality is that the national team that won the 2013 African football championship undefeated, that qualified for the 2014 World Cup as one of 5 African countries, and one that boasts one of the best records out of Africa in all global football competitions, will not be at the 2015 World Cup because it failed to qualify. That’s how come!

Previous

The last time Nigeria was not at the championship it was by default – for political reasons. The military government of Nigeria of then dictator Sani Abacha resented criticism from Africaʼs icon and our continentʼs modern hero Nelson Mandela. Abacha deliberately chose not to send the Super Eagles to the championship. That was in 1996.

CIMG8139

The boycott backfired spectacularly. The most significant effect of Nigeria’s withdrawal that year was that the path to victory was paved for South Africa, a country fresh from the shadows of apartheid, to win their first and, to date, only African Cup of Nations championship. And Nigeria was banned from the 1998 edition as well – that will have taught the South Africans!

Absence

We canʼt blame a boycott this time. So, as Africa prepares for the football party, for many South Africans, the prospect of winning again, some 19 years after, particularly in the absence of their bogey team, Nigeria, becomes a realistic challenge! After all the Bafana Bafana have recently been playing football with uncommon determination and confidence, and have posted some very decent results, including their sterling performance against Nigeria in their last qualifying match for this edition of the African Cup of Nations. That surely ranks amongst one their best performances that I have seen since 1996.

From January 17th 16 African countries will congregate in Equatorial Guinea and a lot of eyes will be trained on the Bafana Bafana as they attempt to win their second Nations Cup. A look at the road they have to travel indicates that it will be very rough and tough. They are nestled in the same group with two of the current best football countries in Africa – Ghana and Algeria. For South Africa it may be easier to climb Mount Everest without a guide than to emerge unscathed from that group.

CIMG6619

Back to Nigeria briefly!

In two years, the Super Eagles have plummeted from the highest peak of African football, to the lower rungs. In the course of that tragic situation, Stephen Keshi the most successful indigenous coach in the history of the Nigerian football has fallen from grace to grass with scandalous defeats and performances that once looked remote, but have become a reality for Nigeria.

So dispirited have most followers of Nigerian football become that there is little interest in the championship. Having said that the 2015 championship will still commence this weekend and the Oracle will still peer into the crystal ball for what the immediate future holds for each of the countries.

The Oracle

Group A – Equatorial Guinea, Congo, Burkina Faso and Gabon

This is a very unpredictable and a relatively cheap group in terms of the antecedents of the countries. The only reason that Equatorial Guinea will emerge from this group is because, as hosts, they will ride on the back of home support to struggle and emerge.

CIMG1041

Congo will fight hard but will fade out in the second round. Burkina Faso, through hard work and endless running had their best chance of winning the championship two years ago when they went as far as the finals before being knocked out by the fire-power of Nigeria. Since then, they seem to have lost some of the fire that made their performance very refreshing and exciting the last time.

Gabon has never been such a great football country in Africa as to give any one of the serious contenders any sweatTheir only hope rests with Pierre Aubameyang. From previous records the striker in devastating form for Borussia Dortmund FC may not replicate that form in the championship. One man does not make a forest.

Group B – Zambia, DR Congo, Tunisia and Cape Verde

CIMG1037

Zambia in 2015 are not the same team that dazzled everyone only two championships ago. I donʼt expect them to recreate the magic they provided when last they were in Equatorial Guinea – great memories aside. 2012 was their time. It was fitting that they won the Cup of Nations for the first time in Gabon – the scene of the worst disaster in Zambian and African football, but this is not Gabon and a lot has changed in three years.

DR Congo have invested a lot in their domestic football, an investment that is yet to fully reflect in the national team. They remain dark horses even though the great coach Claude le Roy has left. Tunisia, as usual will play well, defeat the weak African teams, but falter against the West Africans. With none in this group they may succeed and emerge from the group.

Cape Verde are the hardest to predict. I do not really know what to make of this team. Two years ago we saw them display some of the most entertaining and brilliant individual football at AFCON 2013. In 2015, Africa should be ready to dance and celebrate some delightful football again.

Group C – Ghana, Senegal, Algeria, South Africa.

CIMG2487

What a group! This, indeed, is the Dream Group, not the Group of Death. The group includes Ghana and Algeria two of Africa’s current strongest teams. Algeria, put up Africa’s best showing at the 2014 World Cup. They appear to still be in great shape. On paper they may actually be favoured to win the championship, but against Ghana and South Africa they have equally formidable opposition.

Without question this is the group that will attract the greatest attention. I do not see Senegal emerging from this group. Ghana have the experience and maturity. Algeria have a good young team in great form. South Africa are riding on fresh enthusiasm and adrenalin. Separating them will be a huge challenge.

Group D – Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali and Cameroon

Three West African teams come against the only team from Central Africa in the group.

In qualification, Cameroon look very exciting with several new and younger players replacing Samuel Etoʼo and some other aged players. They will emerge from here.

The other three West African teams will slug it out. I think that even without the recently retired Ivorian great Didier Drogba, they still have the leadership of Africaʼs best player Yaya Touré. Coached by recent AFCON winner Hervé Renard, Côte d’Ivoire will justify their placement as the highest ranked African team – they will stop Mali and Guinea from joining Cameroon.

Herve Renard 3

Snowy

Finally, on to my crystal ball. As I gaze into it, I see that it is misty and murky – there appears to be snow on it! Nevertheless, summoning the spirit of Tiresias, I see the following happening. I will be placing a bet as usual. Blind Tiresias has inner sight – the best seer ever. He saw that coming.

I am putting my money not on Algeria that looks to have the best team, or Côte d’Ivoire that appears to have the most mature team and superstar players, or even Ghana that may have the most complete team, but on Cameroon. New, immature, no Samuel Etoʼo, and in a relatively difficult group, Cubs or not and in the absence of Nigeria, Iʼm still backing the Indomitable Lions.

Let AFCON 2015 begin!

Segun at Wembley