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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Shameful

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 6th 2015)

Appalling

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The 30th edition of the African Cup of Nations descended into complete chaos this week. Both the quarter-final and semi-final involving the host Equatorial Guinea were shameful. Lacking skills and ability the hosts had little option but to try to intimidate the far more accomplished Tunisians and also the referee. There would be no repetition against the far more accomplished Black Stars.

Ghana outclassed the hosts. With less than ten minutes remaining and trailing 3-0 the 15,000 strong crowd in Malabo turned on Ghanaʼs supporters, hurling missiles at them. The Black Starsʼ fans took refuge by the pitch. Still the objects rained down on them. The match was suspended for half an hour. It resumed in farcical conditions, playing just the three minutes of added time. Ghana progressed imperiously to the final where they will play la Côte dʼIvoire – a repeat of the 1992 final in Senegal, which the Ivorians won on penalties.

Gamesmanship

Meanwhile, the headache of what to do about the hosts emerged. They had all but been given a bye into the semi-final through some atrocious refereeing by the Mauritian official Rajindraparsad Seechurn. The enraged Tunisians were punished by the Confederation of African Football, but the hosts were only given a $5000 for security breaches.

Equatorial Guinea made the most of what they had and sadly what they were given. The Mauritian official allowed himself to be influenced by the gamesmanship. Ranjindraparsad Seechurnʼs performance was so poor that he was sent home from the tournament and suffered further sanctions – a six month ban and being removed from the list of top African officials. CAF imposed a $50,000 fine on Tunisia, whose players, incensed by the refereeʼs performance had tried to get at him. They were prevented from chasing him down the tunnel by security officers. Nevertheless, the hosts were fined, but not for the shameful gamesmanship they employed.

Repeat Offenders

Well it had worked once. Why not try again. After all, the odds of the Nzalang Nationale (National Thunder) as the hosts are known achieving a famous win by outplaying Ghana were very long. There was a far better chance of pilfering a result using the same methods, but the Gabonese official Eric Otogo-Castane, had other ideas and so did the Black Stars.

The hosts had not been punished for their gamesmanship against the Carthage Eagles – far from it. They had been rewarded. The far better team was eliminated – robbed of their dreams by home-town refereeing at its worst. Seechurn paid the price – he deserved to.

Equatorial Guineaʼs coach Esteban Becker– a huge story in his own right as he took over just a couple of weeks before the tournament started after coaching their womenʼs team – blotted his copy book by blaming the Tunisians, claiming that they had been persistently fouling. Was he watching the same match?

Ghana left nothing to chance. They outclassed their hosts. The frustration proved too much for unruly supporters of the hosts. 36 people were injured; some required medical treatment The shameful violence continued long after the match ended outside the stadium. It was not the first time that Equatorial Guinea supporters had disgraced themselves.

The Ghanaian FA called on CAF to take strong action against the hosts. Equatorial Guinea was fined $100,000, but despite 14 people being hospitalised, CAF did not enforce a stadium ban – that was suspended. CAF defended the lenient punishment by claiming the ban had been suspended for the third place match against DR Congo tomorrow ʻto promote a spirit of fair play and brotherhood during the AFCON 2015ʼ.

Beggaring Belief

Astonishing. The shocking scenes in Malabo betrayed neither a spirit of fair play or brotherhood. The hosts disgraced the competition and should have been expelled. Instead they donʼt even have to play behind closed doors. CAF warned that any repetition will result in a stadium ban. As if it would matter then. What will Malabo host after the third place match? Qualifiers. Certainly nothing on a par with this match.

CAF denies showing favouritism to the hosts, but would any teamʼs supporters guilty of the violence rained down on Ghana on Thursday night have escaped playing behind closed doors at the very least? Meanwhile, Tunisia can only cast a bemused eye over these events. What grave offence will it require before Equatorial Guinea face punishment that fits the crime?

Meanwhile, CAF claimed to have acted decisively in the Seechurn case and they did, but they demanded either an apology from Tunisia over claims that they were involved in a conspiracy to ensure that the hosts progressed, or proof that this had happened. The deadline has passed.

The Tunisian FA refused to give an apology and has yet to provide proof either. They maintain that their protest related to the performance of the referee and asked for clarification. But while CAF punished Seechurn and Tunisia – the victims of the refereeʼs blundering performance – the hosts got a clear message. They benefited from the refusal of the officials to punish them once and even after very serious offences the sentence was far from deterrent. The decision to play the 30th edition of the African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea has been seen to be a catastrophic error of judgement.

The Shame of AFCON 2015

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Technophobes

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 5th 2015)

Travesty

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The international career of Mauritian referee Rajindraparsad Seechurn is all but over. His performance in the quarter-final between hosts Equatorial Guinea was far below the required standard. Seechurn has paid the price. Although the headlines were dominated by one very soft decision – the injury time phantom penalty – there was much more.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has suspended him for six months over his performance in this match. He has also been removed from CAFʼs list of top African referees, which to all intents and purposes ends his international career. It was a baffling performance, but the Carthage Eagles contributed to some of their misfortune.

Tunisia made the mistake of making their superiority tell. They were better on paper, in FIFAʼs rankings and on the pitch too. The hosts were there for the taking, but Tunisia bided their time, deservedly taking the lead midway through the second half.

Robbed

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They were coasting to victory. But then the referee intervened and the timing raised eyebrows too – injury time had just begun. The hosts were going out without looking like scoring until gifted an utterly undeserved lifeline. Substitute Ivan Bolado fell over in the penalty area. Defender Hamza Mathlouthi had challenged him. To the consternation of the Tunisians, Seechurn gave a penalty.

Before former Real Madrid prospect Javier Balboa converted the penalty – he doesnʼt want to talk about the award of it, just that he had pressure on him and still had to score it – a green laser was clearly shone at the eyes of Tunisian goal-keeper Aymen Mathlouthi.

So extra time began. The appalling decision affected the Tunisians. They clearly felt that Seechurn would not give any decision in their favour – with cause – as clear fouls were ignored. The time-wasting, especially by Equatorial Guineaʼs goal-keeper Felipe Ovono Mbang, was outrageous.

Enraged

Seechurn made no effort to control it or sanction it with a yellow card. Instead, he allowed the hosts to run the clock down. Adding insult to injury he allowed a ludicrous two minutes added time, much of which was wasted by a brawl caused by the hostsʼ bench refusal to return the ball for a throw in. Seechurn did not even allow the added time to be completed – ending the match a few seconds early.

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The Tunisians were understandably incensed. They chased the referee, who was protected by security police, which prevented the enraged Tunisians from getting to Seechurn. In addition to the sanctions against Seechurn, CAF have punished the Carthage Eagles, fining them $50,000 and demanding an apology – no individual players were punished. Equatorial Guinea were punished for the poor security.

Solutions

Seechurnʼs career at the top level of African football is over. Good. His performance in this match alone – thereʼs no shortage of complaints about his refereeing in other matches too – was so abysmal that he should not officiate at élite level again. Arguably he should not be trusted at any level. His decisions defied logic.

But there was a simple solution that could have delivered the correct decisions in actual time. It could have been referred for a video review. As the match had already stopped due to the decision anyway it would not have affected the flow of the game. Examining the footage would have shown that it was not a penalty and the match ends differently. There is no extra time and no further injustices and no ugly scenes that followed.

A review system such as used in cricket or tennis where decisions can be appealed could also be used at least in cases where the game has stopped. Conceding the use of goal-line technology – only used in some matches – while refusing to review absurd decisions like the phantom penalty is absurd and will inevitably lead to injustice.

The use of available technology could and should have prevented the shameful scenes in Bata. There is no longer any credible reason not to make full use of it.

A Disaster Waiting to Happen

By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 2nd 2015)

Dramas

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The quarter-final matches of the ongoing 2015 AFCON lived up to expectations in terms of drama. Ghana’s match against Guinea was a stroll in the park. Following that performance the Black Stars now look almost set to break the over three decades jinx of not winning Africa’s most coveted football championship. Their next match is against hosts Equatorial Guinea, but the way that they reached the semi-finals will not have been lost on Avram Grant or his side and hopefully CAF too.

The other matches were brutal physical contests that rendered impotent any talk of serious football tactics. The most refreshing aspect of the matches is the avalanche of goals that came tumbling down from the plateau of earlier mediocre performances made worse by poor finishing in front of goal. In the past few days the floodgates have opened and the drizzle of goals has started to pour down.

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Integrity

The match with the least number of goals, between hosts Equatorial Guinea and Tunisia now threatens the integrity of the competition. Indeed, in the opinion of my friend and co-journalist, Satish Sekar, the main feature writer of Empower-Sports magazine, CAF’s reaction to the referee of that very controversial match Rajindraparsad Seechurn will impact, one way or the other, on the rest of the championship and even beyond.

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For a team that was still under suspension for fielding an ineligible player in an earlier competition, it was highly suspicious why CAF swallowed its pride, disregarded the consequences of treating its own punitive measure as a minor inconvenience and awarded the hosting rights to Equatorial Guinea – of all the countries that showed interest to host it.

It was a step too far for Satish. He normally attends the African Cup of Nations and had planned to go this time until Morocco withdrew and the tournament was moved to Equatorial Guinea. Remember that Morocco had withdrawn from hosting the competition only a few weeks before due to the Ebola virus scare, and CAF had sought for an alternative volunteer host country.

Satish believed that awarding the tournament to that nation was simply wrong – it rewarded an ineligible country for cheating. To maintain integrity in football, especially in these times when corruption and more has reared its ugly head in the beautiful game, CAF had to maintain its ban on Equatorial Guinea.

Lack of Pedigree

That’s how this small Central African country, without any deep or rich pedigree in African football, became last-minute participants in the championship, replacing Morocco. And it should be remembered that Equatorial Guinea has only ever qualified as hosts – never on merit on the football field. In 2012 they had earned their spot as legitimate hosts. This time they were not eligible, because they had fielded an ineligible player and been rightly punished for that transgression.

For some observers CAF was setting itself up for a possible disaster by ignoring their own rules. Last Sunday night that fear became real. The rest of the world outside Africa is watching to see what happens next. I did not watch the match. I was high above the Sahara desert heading to Europe at the time. By the following morning the reports of that ignoble match were everywhere.

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Fiasco

The highlight of the reports was that the Tunisian players had chased the Mauritian referee after the match and were going to assault him but for the intervention of security personnel. Also, George Leekens, the Belgian coach of Tunisia, affectionately known as the Carthage Eagles, was so outraged that, at the press conference after the match, he described the officiating of the match as the worst in the 45 years of his experience in football.

I quickly rang up my friend, Satish Sekar, who had been following the matches with a microscopic lens. He would be neutral and give me a professional perspective. Satish was scathing in his remarks, to say the least. A football purist he dislikes poor officiating and the failure to use technology to correct bad or even mistaken decisions with a passion.

Highway Robbery

This is the worst case of highway robbery – in football – I have ever seen”, he said. “Dick Turpin (the notorious 18th Century highway robber) was hanged for less! What happened was simply unbelievable. CAF made a mistake. Why did they take the match to Equatorial Guinea? In the first place they were ineligible because they were under a ban by the same CAF for fielding an ineligible player”.

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Satish believed that a disaster would follow that decision. Incredibly the hosts had complained previously that CAF did not want them to progress. But what of Seechurn?

The referee was either completely appalling and incompetent, or, the match is a set up”, Satish said. “It is hard to believe anyone could be that bad. It wasnʼt just one bad, or even terrible – there were several. The Tunisians were robbed. It is even more painful for them because they had a good chance to win the cup and had done enough to win in normal time”.

The phantom penalty was a terrible decision made even more sinister in appearance by the timing. The hosts were on the way out when a blatant dive resulted not in a deserved yellow card, but a penalty. Adding insult to injury Seechurn refused to enforce the laws of the game in extra time as well and tolerated outrageous time-wasting at every opportunity once the hosts had taken the lead.

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The decent thing for CAF to do is order that the match be replayed”, Satish said, “but I know that will never happen. But they need to do something about a referee with such a dodgy record. Information is now readily available about the man’s record in previous matches too. CAF and the championship’s integrity are at stake. That referee should be sent back home in disgrace”.

A catalogue of ʻErrorsʼ

Satish went on to provide a vivid description of what happened at the tail end of a match that the Tunisians had wrapped up in normal time, and how they were robbed with some disgraceful and dubious officiating. If indeed, the situation is as bad as Satish, Leekens and many others here in Europe describe, why has CAF not done anything publicly to sanction the referee?

Have the Tunisians become the scapegoats, the sacrificial lamb needed to make the competition respectful and justify CAF’s decision to bring the competition there? Only if Equatorial Guinea continue to win will spectators fill the stands that have so far been full of empty seats at all venues except where they are playing.

The referee’s penalty kick decision was an undeserved gift. Even television replays have shown that there was no offence committed deserving of a penalty kick. What is clear, however, is that the end of the road is near for Equatorial Guinea. Their hopes of winning it all should end when they meet Ghana next.

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Defining Moment

It will be a great injustice if a team that has played some of the poorest football in the championship, has no pedigree, which got to this stage with the help of a dodgy referee, gets to the final and possibly wins it. Ghana are favourites to get to the finals where they are likely to meet old foes Côte d’Ivoire.

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However, a hard match against DR Congo stands between Hervé Renardʼs team and the final. A Ghana versus Côte d’Ivoire would truly be a terrific final, a befitting climax to a dramatic feast of African football – a repeat of the 1992 final, during which the Elephants beat the Black Stars on penalties. It may also restore some badly needed integrity to this edition of the African Cup of Nations.

Trending Analysis

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

Geographic Trends

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.