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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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AFCON 2015 – Uniquely African Flavour

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

Remote Sensing

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ivory Coastʼs ʻGolden Generationʼ Fail Again

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 24th 2014)

Dramatic Ending

Fernando Santosʼ Greece snatched a last gasp win over Ivory Coast to advance to the knock out stage for the first time in their history. Baselʼs Giovanni-Guy Sioʼs clumsy challenge caught the back of Georgios Samarasʼ boot, sending the Celtic striker to the deck. Samaras picked himself to handle the pressure admirably.

Despite Ivory Coastʼs goal-keeper Boubacar Barry going the right way to his left, Samarasʼ penalty was well-placed. At 2-1 the Ivory Coast had to attack. Kolo Touréʼs weak shot went wide ending Ivorian dreams again. For the third World Cup in a row the ʻgolden generationʼ had failed to get out of their group in the World Cup.

Sabri Lamouchi and his team cannot complain. They knew what they needed to do to progress – just avoid defeat. Moments before conceding the penalty the Elephants outnumbered the Greeks four to two, but Yaya Touréʼs shot was easily taken by Panagiotis Glykos, who had replaced Orestis Karnezis after Udineseʼs goalkeeper was forced off with a back injury after 25 minutes.

The Ivorians only needed to avoid defeat, which forced the Greeks to play against type and rely on a not unlikely favour from the Colombians against Japan. Defender José Holebas hit the crossbar from just outside the area with Barry well beaten. Just before half-time a dreadful error by Newscatle Unitedʼs Cheik Tioté gifted possession to Samaras. He put substitute Andreas Samaris through and Olympiacosʼ midfielder through to put Greece ahead.

Chastened

The Elephants knew that they had to score, yet the Greeks came closes. Their most-capped player Giorgos Karagounis struck a thunderous 35 shot against the cross-bar with Barry beaten again. Moments earlier Salomon Kalou jinked between Dimitris Salpingidis and Vasilis Torosidis and shot just over. With 20 minutes remaining Lazaros Christodoulopoulos took a free-kick that ruffled the top of net from 30 yards out.

That caused the Ivorians to spring to life. A flowing move through the centre was spread to the left. Gervinho pulled it back for Swanseaʼs Wilfried Bony to score to Glykosʼ right. At that point the Ivorians were heading to the last 16. The 36 year-old Didier Drogba was taken off after 78 minutes. He received thunderous applause, as did Karagounis, who was substituted a minute earlier.

Sadly for the ʻgolden generationʼ and probably Lamouchi – this is his first managerial job – it was the Elephants rather than Greeks that came to this match bearing gifts. Meanwhile, history will be made as either Greece or their opponents Costa Rica will reach the quarter-finals for the first time.

 

 

 

Taking Control

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 19th 2014)

Restored Philosophy

Colombia took control of the group after beating Ivory Coast 2-1 in Brasiliaʼs Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha. The stadium that was the centre of the initial protests at last yearʼs Confederationsʼ Cup cost a staggering $900,000, 000 to build – a figure that according to Concern Worldwide could have fed almost 10,000,000 children for a year. The stadium – likely to be a white elephant due to the quality of football in Brasilʼs capital – is witnessing some excellent football.

Shorn of their talisman, striker Radmael Falcao García Zárate, chances were wasted by the profligate Teófilo Gutiérrez Roncancio before José Pékerman Krimenʼs side took control in the second half. Pékerman – the first foreigner to coach Colombia for 30 years knows Colombian football and its culture well. He is credited by no less an authority than Carlos Valderrama Palacio with restoring Colombian football to its attacking roots after taking over from former Colombian idol Leonel Álvarez Zuleta – the second most capped player in Colombian history. Álvarezʼ stint as national coach was uneventful, but staring disaster in the face Colombiaʼs hopes were put in Pékermanʼs hands.

The Making of a Star

Monacoʼs James Rodríguez Rubio is tipped by many to be a star of this World Cup, in the absence of club and country star Falcao . He justified the faith with a powerful header after 64 minutes to open the scoring and a secondary assist for substitute Juan Quintero Paniagua to put Colombia 2-0 up after 70 minutes. Four minutes later a mazy run by Gervinho from the left flank past three Colombian challenges and into the area saw the former Arsenal man beat David Ospina Ramírez at his near post.

 

Overall, Colombia, inspired by Rodríguez and Cuadrado, were worth the win. The first opportunity fell to Colombia. Fiorentinaʼs winger Cuadrado found Monacoʼs Rodríguez, whose back-heel set up Gutiérrez, but the River Plate strikerʼs shot didnʼt trouble Boubacar Barry in Ivory Coastʼs goal. Two minutes later Cuadrado set up Rodríguez after an excellent run down the left flank, but Didier Zokora cleared.

Nip and Tuck

More than half-way through the first half Ivory Cost get their first chance as Newcastleʼs Cheikh Tioté shot well over from 25 yards. It posed no threat to Ospinaʼs goal. Just under half an hour into the match Elcheʼs Carlos Sánchez Morenoʼs superb pass found Cuadrado on the left. His brilliant pass to Gutiérrez should have led to the opening goal, but the River Plate striker fluffed his shot badly – a truly awful miss.

Toulouseʼs Serge Aurier turned inside 38 year-old Mario Yepes Díaz and shot wide to Ospinaʼs left. Colombia had the best of the first half, but Swanseaʼs Wilfried Bony will still be wondering why he tried a spectacular overhead when he could and should have adjusted to Yaya Touréʼs cross and taken aim with the goal at his mercy. Cuadrado very nearly punished the profligacy. His shot from a tight angle on the right after turning Soulemayne Bamba inside out got a slight touch from Barry onto the bar.

Decisive

Less than five minutes later Cuadradoʼs corner was powerfully headed in by Rodríguez. Barry got a hand to it, but could only push it into his own net. Six minutes later a poor corner by Ivory Coast resulted in Serey Die losing possession to Rodríguez. He released Gutiérrez near the penalty area and he put Quintero through on the right of the area. Quintero shot across Barry to double Colombiaʼs lead. Gervinho (Gervais Yao Kouassi) brought Ivory Coast back into the match less than five minutes later. In possession on left flank Gervinho cut into area and beat Ospina at his near post. Niceʼs keeper got a hand to it but should have done better. Substitute Salomon Kalouʼs weak effort resembled conceding possession rather than a shot in the final ten minutes and despite a terrible defensive error Didier Drogba could not latch onto Aurierʼs pass. Ospina rushed out of his area to clear the danger. Colombia held on for a win that puts them in poll position to qualify. Greece and Japan play later knowing that defeat will all but end their hopes.

 

Elephants Stun Japan

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 14th 2014)

Elephants Never Forget

Sabri Lamouchi may have failed to lead the Ivory Coast to glory in the African Cup of Nations, but he saw the Elephants come from behind to beat Japan 2-1 in the last of four World Cup matches today. Japan took an early lead thanks to a neat corner to Yūto Nagatomo who squared it to Keisuke Honda who blasted it into the top corner to Boubacar Barryʼs right after 16 minutes.

Lamouchi took the courageous decision to change an ageing side that had been built around their iconic leader on the pitch Didier Drogba. But Drogbaʼs impact cannot be forgotten. He inspires those around him just by his presence. Lamouchi decided to give the captaincy to Yaya Touré, whose marauding runs forward never quite developed into testing the Japanese defence and keeper. But once Drogba came on things changed.

The Drogba Effect

Ivory Coast pressed forward, but clear chances when they came were not taken in the first half. Gervinho and Wilfried Bony could not find the net in the first half, but Didier Drogba was waiting his chance on the bench. Within five minutes of his entry to the fray the Elephants had turned the match around.

Serey Die made way for Drogba after 62 minutes. 3 minutes later, Serge Aurier got the first of his two assists an inviting cross from the right wing for Bony to head in the equaliser. Two minutes later Aurier repeated the dose, crossing for Gervinho to glance his header in to give the Elephants the lead.

Ivory Coast held on to win. The Elephants have never got out of their group in the World Cup – theyʼve had some very hard groups each time. Lamouchi must fancy his chances to achieve something Sven-Göran Eriksson couldnʼt.