by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 22nd 2015)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Otherwise, these are my further observations and analysis:
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!
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.
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.
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!
This is the group where the teams refuse to be separated. Guinea have looked sharp and focused.
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.