Articles related to CAF 2006 WC qualifiers:
Preview May 22, 2004
Update Aug 8, 2004
Update Mar 17, 2005
Update Apr 23, 2005
Update Jun 24, 2005
Update Sep 19, 2005
Wrap-up Oct 8, 2005
Update: Africa Group Stage, Rounds 1-3
by Peter Goldstein
This is a World Cup qualifying update, and it's kind of long. Kind of really
long. As a matter of fact, the word-counter clocks it at an embarrassing
13,829. I guess I should apologize for that, and I do--but if out of pity
you manage to read the whole thing, you'll know about:
1) a player who head-butted his coach in training;
2) two teams attacked by their home fans;
3) a striker for Monaco outscored by a midfielder who couldn't make it in
the Swiss third division;
4) a famous veteran, recalled to start for the national team, who refused to
leave the field when substituted;
5) players with the nicknames "Police," "Lionheart," "Maestro," and "The
6) a team that may actually ask FIFA to suggest who to hire as head coach;
7) Norwegian swear words (censored, unfortunately);
8) a coach fired for his own personal safety;
9) Sepp Blatter acting nice to somebody (!);
and most amazingly of all:
10) fans that cheer their team even after a loss.
That's right, it's Africa, folks, the greatest show on Earth. They've played
only 3 of 10 games, so nothing's settled yet, but we're starting to get a
feel for the races, and there's all sorts of good stuff out there--and when
you put a fanatic next to a keyboard, you get 13,829. Anyway, rounds 4 and 5
take place in the fall, and we'll be back around November with another
violently excessive update. For now, just set aside a week or so, and read
(But first, a note on club affiliations. Since many African players are
unfamiliar to the average fan, it seems useful to identify their clubs, even
though it means a lot of parentheses in the text. In general, 1) if the
player plays abroad, I've listed either his club or the foreign country in
which he plays; 2) if the player plays in the domestic league, I've left the
club name out. There are a few exceptions to both 1) and 2); in some cases
it seems simpler to leave the club out or more appropriate to include it.)
Congo 2 0 1 4 2 6
Senegal 2 0 1 4 3 6
Togo 1 1 1 3 2 4
Zambia 1 1 1 2 2 4
Liberia 1 1 1 1 3 4
Mali 0 1 2 1 3 1
Take a look at the group standings. As you can see, Senegal is tied for
first on points. Now go check what the Sengalese press has to say...notice a
kind of discrepancy? Like the fact they're demanding Guy Stephan's
resignation, if not out-and-out ritual suicide? Are these guys maybe a bit
Probably not. Senegal may be on top, but they've been entirely unconvincing,
and at the moment they're not even the shadow of the great World Cup team.
You can blame some of it on key absences: El Hadji Diouf was suspended for
the first 4 games, Khalilou Fadiga's heart problems will keep him out
indefinitely, stalwarts like Omar Daf, Salif Diao, and Aliou Cisse are
either injured or not match fit. But even so the side is playing well short
of its potential.
For the opener, home to Congo, the starting 11 included just 3 members of
the team that upset France: centerbacks Lamine Diatta (Rennes) and Pape
Malick Diop (Dinamo Bucharest), and keeper Tony Sylva (Lille). Guy Stephan
went with a 4-3-3, with an attacking line of Henri Camara (Wolves) on the
right, new face Babacar Guèye (Metz) on the left, and Mamadou Niang
(Strasbourg) at the point. But only Guèye performed with any distinction,
and the first goal didn't come until the 58th minute, on a header by Diatta
off a corner. The 3-man midfield, Amdy Faye (Portsmouth), Sylvain N'Diaye
(Marseille), and Pape Sarr (Lens), was highly praised for their compact play
and overall domination, but Congo offered relatively little resistance. The
crowd was small and unenthusiastic, the 2:0 win strictly routine. The second
game, at Togo, figured to be much more of a test.
And a test it was, like the Titanic was tested by the iceberg. Togo won 3:1,
in what was universally regarded as the worst Senegal performance in many a
year. The Lions got one look at the game, when they were awarded a 3rd
minute penalty. But Camara's PK was saved by keeper Kossi Agassa, and the
rest was nightmare. Particularly embarrassing was the left side of defense;
Ibrahima Faye (Caen), who had replaced Daf so well at the Nations Cup, was
repeatedly undressed by the Togolese attack. The vaunted midfield got
shredded. The front line, with Diomansy Kamara (Modena) in place of Niang,
came up with nothing. Pape Bouba Diop's consolation goal brought little joy.
Stephan was roundly criticised for letting the erratic Camara take the
PK--but then he was roundly criticised for everything else as well.
What to do? Home against an improved Zambia, Stephan yanked Ibrahima Faye
and moved right back Habib Beye (Marseille) to the left, with Diatta shunted
out to the right. Diatta in fact made the cross for a 20th minute strike by
Guèye, but that was almost the only high point. In attack, Moussa Ndiaye
(Istres) was preferred over Camara, but played so poorly he had to be
replaced--by Camara. And Faye too had to come back in, to replace a failing
Diatta. The 3-man midfield was overwhelmed by the Zambian pressing, and only
desperate defense kept the visitors off the board. Somehow Senegal hung on
for a 1:0 win, but they were booed off the pitch.
It's hard to know where to go next. Diouf will miss only one more game, but
it may take time to work him into an effective scheme. The 4-3-3 just hasn't
done the job, and the team badly needs the midfield leadership that someone
like Cisse or Diao can bring. The one bright spot has been Guèye, who after
an uneven start has shown considerable skill and creativity. Senegal's group
looks weak right now: Mali, one of the supposed contenders, is drooping
badly, and although Zambia has played well, they have yet to show class over
time. The Lions are still the logical pick to qualify--just don't expect Guy
Stephan to be around to see it.
Despite the loss at Senegal, Zambia, coached by Ben Bamfuchile and directed
by former great Kalusha Bwalya, now looks like a contender. Pretty
remarkable, considering the comedy with their legionnaires. For the opener,
home to Togo, midfielder Moses Sichone of Köln demanded a $5000 bonus. Later
he claimed he had changed his mind--but he still didn't show up. Meanwhile,
Russia-based midfielder Gift Kampamba refused to come until the FA paid
$1600 owed for a plane ticket. In the good vs. evil derby, Sichone's
teammate Andrew Sinkala came to camp and pointedly announced he was donating
his bonuses to an orphanage. Perhaps inspired by such selflessness, or
perhaps not, Zambia won 1:0 on an early goal by young striker Jacob Mulenga.
They almost gave it away, though, when flamboyant young keeper Kalililo
Kabonje's time-wasting gave Togo a last-minute free kick in the 6-yard box.
But the Hawks let the chance slip, and Zambia escaped.
For the second game, at Mali, the pro roulette continued. Sinkala went back
to Germany, in search of more and better orphanages. Kampamba got his money,
showed up in camp--and then left without notice. Sichone was dropped
entirely, and veteran defender Elijah Tana from Petro Atletico declined the
call. At least Sweden-based fullback Edwin Phiri chose to play, but sort of
spoiled it by picking up a second yellow card in the 59th minute. To that
point Zambia were playing well, and were up 1:0 on a goal by striker Harry
Milanzi--but he's based in South Africa, so he didn't have to travel far.
But the man shortage finally caught up, and Mali equalized in the 80th
At this point Bwalya finally got fed up. Disgusted with the Eurotrash, he
left them all off for the big game at Senegal, except Boyd Mwila of Sweden,
who would only play 7 minutes. It was thus an almost entirely African-based
side that took the field against the mighty Lions in Dakar. And outplayed
them. So for now, they look like the regulars. Kabonje, despite his antics,
is proving to be a useful keeper. Tana finally came up from Angola, and he,
Billy Mwanza (on trial with Bastia), and Lloyd Mumba can all play central
defense in the 4-4-2. Dudly Fichite gave Senegal fits from his left midfield
spot, and Numba Mumamba is influential on the right. Captain Mishek Lungu is
a reliable defensive midfielder. Right now the worry is up front, where
Milanzi and Mulenga have been inconsistent, and prospect Collins Mbesuma
(Kaizer Chiefs) hasn't yet come into his own. But four points at this stage
is fine, and the team was unfazed by the tough loss to Senegal. I bet Bwalya
won't even watch the Eurovision song contest next year.
If Mali could get results with just African-based players, I'm sure they'd
do it. Because despite top-drawer pros like Frederick Kanouté (Tottenham)
and Mohamed Lamine Sissoko (Valencia), the Eagles have picked up exactly one
point in three games. Worse, they've lost to what were supposed to be the
minnows of the group, Liberia and Congo. Their only point came from their
second game, home to Zambia, but even then they needed a late goal from
Kanouté with the opposition down to ten men.
The failing is team-wide. The attack has been poor, with only one goal in
three games. Kanouté has missed a number of chances, and neither Sissoko nor
striker Dramine "Rivaldo" Traoré (Ismaili, Egypt) has been anything like
consistent in support. The team also lacks a true playmaker; Soumaila
Coulibaly (Freiburg), the liveliest of the midfielders, tends to be stronger
on the wing. The back line has been leaky: Boubacar Diarra (Freiburg),
Fousseiny Diawara (St. Etienne) and Adama "Police" Coulibaly (Lens) have had
varying degrees of success in the middle, and young right back Adama
Tamboura hasn't found his feet. The only plus has been Fousseiny Tangara
(Mantois), who looks like a potential star in goal.
There's still a lot of talent in Mali, and the pool will be growing shortly.
Cedric Kanté, defender for Strasbourg, is coming off a long-term injury;
striker Alioune Touré (PSG) and defender Djimi Traoré (Liverpool), former
French youth internationals, have recently declared their citizenship. The
FA is also hoping to convince disgruntled Ajaccio attacker Mamadou Bakayoko,
snubbed for the Nations Cup, to rejoin the team.
But none of this will help coach Alain Moizan, who got his walking papers
after the loss at Congo. Whoever the new coach is, he'll have one chance to
get Mali back in contention: after the summer break, they open with Senegal
at home. The Lions are vulnerable, and a new head man might give the Eagles
the necessary kick in the rear. But if they can't get three points in
Bamako, even Otto Rehhagel won't be able to rescue them.
Speaking of coaches, the Togo coach is Steven Keshi, to whom ignorance is
apparently bliss. Before the opener at Zambia, the Togolese press asked him
whether he was going to use the five naturalized Brazilians who had played
under former coach Antonio Dumas. Keshi replied that he didn't know where
they were, and didn't even know their names, so he couldn't call them.
Later, when asked by the Zambian press about his overseas players, he said:
"We can't say how many professionals we have in the team, but I think they
are about seven or eight." A pretty good estimate, actually: by my
calculations it's 7.43.
But it's not what you know, it's how many goals you score. The crushing 3:1
win over Senegal announced the Hawks as a legitimate contender for group
honors. As a bonus, the victory sent yellow-and-green clad Togolese fans
pouring onto the field and descending en masse into the streets of Lomé. The
other results, an 0:1 loss at Zambia and a sterile 0:0 draw at Liberia, have
been less riot-inducing, but 4 points is 4 points, especially with two road
games behind you, and no one is going to take Togo lightly anymore.
Maybe it's Keshi's "don't ask, don't tell, don't know, where am I?" policy,
but so far it's been hard to get a comprehensive portrait of the squad. The
biggest name in Togolese football is striker Emmanuel Adebayor of Monaco,
who dazzled Senegalese defenders all afternoon and got the opening goal. A
lot lesser-known is winger Yao "Junior" Senaya, recently released by FC
Grenchen of the Swiss third division, who got the other two goals coming off
the bench. (According to the club website, by the way, he likes rice and
orange juice.) Another effective attacker is right-sided midfielder Sherif
Touré, who has played for both Livingston and Hannover 96. (According to the
Hannover website, he also likes rice and orange juice, and I'm not making
that up.) No diet reports on Yaovi Abalo (Amiens) and the towering (1m96)
Daré Nibombé (Mons), but they're the men at the heart of the defense. Keeper
Kossi Agassa, who stopped Henri Camara's penalty kick, is a regular at Metz.
At the moment their most likely achievement is a Nations Cup berth, and
Keshi, in one of his brief moments of consciousness, has said that's his
goal. But in the fall they have back-to-back home games against Congo and
Mali. If they stock up on rice and orange juice (and can figure out who to
feed them to), six points are not out of the question, and they might
actually lead the group at the halfway mark.
But leading the group now, amazingly, are bottom seed Congo, about whom
detailed information is even harder to come by. Their best-known and most
technically accomplished player is captain and playmaker Rolf Nguie-Mien
(Köln). Several regulars get more or less time in the French second
division: central defenders Teddy Ongoly (Reims) and Christel Kimbembe
(Creteil), midfielder Oscar Ewolo (Amiens), keeper Mouko Barel (Dijon).
Willy Endzanga has been scoring in bunches for Algerian champions JS
But it's been the lesser-known names that have made the headlines. Against
Liberia, Congo exploded for three second-half goals: PK by Michel Bouanga
(Jura Sud, French fourth division), header by Mamouna Armel (International
Pitesti, Romanian second division), header by Gervais Batota (Mangasport,
Gabonese first division). Two weeks later, against Mali, it was Armel again,
with a volley for the only goal of the match. Neither he nor Batota played
in the opening loss to Senegal; both look like fixtures now.
What a difference two games can make--from minnows without a cause to
national heroes. After the win over Mali, President Denis Sassou Nguesso met
with the players, and the sports ministry plans a public fund to support the
team. It's the Thrill in Brazzaville. But by far the hardest part of the
schedule is still to come: two against Zambia, two against Togo, one against
Senegal. A heartfelt salute to Christian Letard and his men, but it's too
early to tip the Red Devils for a top three finish.
That leaves Liberia, who have a respectable 4 points, but whose journey has
been, well, sort of the opposite of Congo's. After the first game, 1:0 home
to Mali, they were history-makers, magicians, the future of the nation.
After the third game, 0:0 home to Togo, they literally had to be escorted
from the stadium by an armored personnel carrier. (Uh, 0:0 is a draw, folks.
You get a point for it.)
Why the decline? Partly it's that Liberia are an ordinary side; the other
part (stop me if you've heard this before) is problems with the pros. For
the opener, a veritable United Nations answered the call: Alvin Kieh from
Cyprus, Fallah Johnson from Indonesia, Frank Seator from Malaysia, Prince
Daye from Spain, Sunday Sieh from India, George Gebro from Greece, Anthony
Langford, Eisaiah Benson, and Ben Teekloh from Ghana, Jimmy Dixon and Dioh
Williams from Sweden, and the biggest name, veteran striker James Debbah
from Bahrain, formerly of PSG and Anderlecht, now at the end of his career,
who hadn't been called up in two years. Zizi Roberts, in the USA, was the
dissenter: he refused because the FA wouldn't prepay his ticket. In any
case, it was a joyous day in Monrovia: Debbah provided the leadership,
Benson and Dixon excelled in defense, Sieh made some fine saves, Williams
was man of the match up front, Kieh got the winning goal off the bench, and
the fans rejoiced.
But FA head Izetta Wesley wasn't happy: she publicly blasted the
professionals, claiming they were asking too much to play. Their demands
were never actually reported, so it's hard to judge the case--but for the
trip to Congo, suddenly the pros were nowhere to be found. Several cited
club engagements; Debbah was said to be on a private visit to the USA; for
others no reason was given. Only Sieh, Gebro, Teekloh, and Kieh were
available. Coach Kadallah Kromah had to go with 7 different starters,
including several local youngsters, and they were no match for the
Congolese, going down 0:3.
Now everyone was unhappy. Wesley was blamed for driving the pros away.
Kromah was blamed for criticizing the team after the loss. For the home
match against Togo a few of the pros trickled back, including Debbah, and
some new ones were brought in, notably striker Francis "Grandpa" Doe from
the USA's second division. Still, the back four excepted, this group hadn't
played together, and despite some solid individual performances, there
wasn't much team coherence. A dire 0:0 was the predictable result.
Enough to make the fans stone the players? Probably not, not even in Africa.
But maybe what provoked them was a little incident that happened in the
second half. Debbah had been ineffective up front, and Kromah decided to
substitute him. But Debbah wasn't terribly happy with the decision, and
refused to come off. For fifteen minutes. His quotes afterward were
priceless: "As a professional I should not have done that but again if you
judge me from this game it's not fair." "They should look back at what I
have done for Liberia and my voluntary return, they should be grateful and
treat me with respect." "I have no regret, the fact is that the mistakes
came from the the technical staff who did not formulate the system that we
played." "The players were just inept. You don't expect a victory from such
a team." He said he wouldn't be back: "I have paid my dues, so I have no
regrets. I served my country already." Guess what, Jim--no one's exactly
So whither Liberia? Although they're not going to qualify for Germany, the
Nations Cup isn't entirely unthinkable, and several of the players have made
strong contributions. Seah has been a reliable keeper, Benson has won the
job at right back, Johnson has played well at both left back and centerback,
Langford has the makings of a good central midfielder, and both Williams and
Doe can do the job up front. If there's an FA and a coach who can get them
all to play at the same time, they could yet remain respectable. But I'd buy
stock in the Projectile Manufacturers Association of Monrovia just in case.
South Africa 2 0 1 4 4 6
Ghana 1 1 1 4 2 4
DR Congo 1 1 1 4 4 4
Cape Verde 1 1 1 3 3 4
Uganda 1 1 1 2 2 4
Burkina Faso 1 0 2 3 5 3
South Africa's campaign began on an unusual note, with coach Stuart Baxter
swearing over the phone in Norwegian. (He didn't reveal what he said, but
Jan Alsos might be able to guess.) He was swearing over the phone in
Norwegian because Lillestrøm wouldn't release substitute keeper Emile Baron
for the opener home to Cape Verde. The club was undoubtedly impressed by
Baxter's mastery of foreign invective, but they still wouldn't let Baron go
until it was too late. So Baxter settled for local boy Moeneeb Josephs, and
checked his dictionary for the next time out.
The rest of the news was less swearworthy. The famous Charlton exiles,
defender Mark Fish and striker Shaun Bartlett, were back in camp, and
although Benni McCarthy (Porto) was off somewhere getting married, he'd be
back soon. Playmaker Steven Pienaar (Ajax) was almost over his shin injury,
and was expected to play in the key road game at Ghana. Tactically, the big
question was in defense, where left back Bradley Carnell (Mönchengladbach)
was for the moment unavailable. Baxter decided to shift young Nasief Morris,
normally a right back, over to the left, and play centerback Neil Winstanley
on the right. Fish and Aaron Mokoena (Genk) started in the middle, with
Mbulelo Mabizela (Tottenham), normally a centerback, pushed up to defensive
midfield to mark Cape Verde's playmaker Calò. It proved a more difficult
task than expected, so Mabizela did the job in attack instead, scoring
twice, the second on a tremendous long-range shot. Another plus was young
Benedict "Tso" Vilakazi, dynamic and inventive at right midfield. But on the
whole the team was flat, and the reorganized defense was a particular
problem. Morris and Winstanley were out of position and showed it, Fish was
erratic, and even keeper Hans Vonk (Ajax) showed some nerves. Having led
2:0, the team was lucky to get away with a 2:1 win when Calò missed a
last-minute scoring opportunity.
And for the game at Ghana, a much harder matchup, the news was suddenly a
bit more upsetting. Pienaar was ready, but Bartlett was unavailable because
his son was ill, and Carnell came down with a chest infection. We don't know
what language Baxter cursed in, but Dutch is a good guess, because Vonk was
out with a mysterious ankle injury that the doctor couldn't diagnose. On the
back line, Baxter put Morris out on the right where he belonged, and called
in Jacob Lekgetho from Russia to play on the left. Up front, with Bartlett
absent, he put in target man George Koumantarakis, figuring that on Ghana's
bumpy pitch the high ball would be useful.
It all made sense, but Bafana were creamed. The final was 0:3, and the game
wasn't that close. With horrible mixups in defense and no cohesion in
attack, the team never really got started. Only Pienaar showed any kind of
class. The press blamed Baxter's decision to arrive in Ghana only the day
before, but in truth they were just played off the pitch by a superior Black
So now everyone was ready to swear, in Esperanto if necessary--then Mark
Fish walked out of camp. Oaths? Imprecations? Unprintables? Naah: Fish quits
every couple of years anyway, and it was a relief to get it out of the way
early. And in fact it made Baxter's life a lot easier. Carnell played on the
left, Morris on the right, Mokoena and Mabizuela in the middle, and WC
veteran Macbeth Sibaya (Kazan) in the holding role. Plus, McCarthy was back
from his honeymoon, Bartlett's son had recovered, and Vonk was healthy. And
so, playing at home, Bafana blew Burkina Faso away. The strikers were
uncontainable up front, Pienaar and Vilakazi controlled midfield, and it
hardly mattered how the defense was set up, because they barely had to break
a sweat. The boys could have had half-a-dozen before halftime, but settled
for goals from Pienaar and Bartlett, and eased to a 2:0 victory.
The first half was an impressive performance, the best for Bafana in quite
some time, and they're firmly back in the favorite spot. Next time they play
Ghana it'll be at home. But the European season starts soon, and as usual,
much will depend on getting players in camp from a far-flung roster. Want to
help out? Send Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Belgian, Greek, German, Danish,
or Italian expletives to email@example.com.
Over in Ghana, coach Mariano Barreto had plenty to swear about himself. He
was mad at the European schedule that left his legionnaires tired, madder at
the FA for not giving him the training plan he wanted, and maddest of all at
the local clubs for not freeing up their players. After an opening loss at
Burkina Faso, women and children covered their ears--but no, Barreto was all
sweetness and light. He was proud of the lads: they'd followed his
instructions to the letter, looked like the better team most of the way, and
just run out of gas, losing 0:1 to an 80th minute goal. The highlight had
been Sammy Kuffour of Bayern Munich doing his best Franz Beckenbauer
impression, dislocating his shoulder late in the game but strapping it down
and finishing out the 90 minutes. Despite the loss, the Barreto was
confident the team would be ready for South Africa.
And ready they were. The attack, which had been inconsistent against Burkina
Faso, was in full cry, with striker Baffour Gyan (Dynamo Moscow) a handful
up front, and the Italian gang, midfielders Sulley Muntari of Udinese (1
goal) and Stephen Appiah of Juventus (2 goals) rippling the net. Michael
Essien (Lyon) was dominant as the anchor, and William Tierro from local club
Asante Kotoko was excellent in support of the front men. Kuffour was back
from injury, and he and John Mensah (Chievo) were a rock-solid pair in the
middle of defense. Dan Quaye of Hearts of Oak looked a winner at right back.
The team showed a cohesion that had been greatly lacking in the past, and
everyone agreed that morale had never been higher.
Perhaps the best sign of all came in the third game, where Ghana scraped a
1:1 draw despite a subpar performance at bogey side Uganda. Substitute
Asamoah Gyan (Baffour's brother) snatched the point with an 88th minute
header, sending the Black Stars into the break in a well-deserved second
place. It's an attractive side, with an excellent mixture of youth (Muntari,
Essien, Mensah, and A. Gyan are all on the Olympic side) and European
experience (Kuffour, Appiah, striker Ibrahim Tanko of Freiburg). If they
have a weakness right now, it's up front, where none of the starting
forwards has yet found the net. Isaac Bokaye of Arminia Bielefeld, coming
off a leg injury, may soon be ready to bolster the strike force.
The Black Stars' program is notoriously disorganised, and there's quite a
ways to go yet. But Barreto is unafraid to crack the whip: he made it clear
that late arrivals in camp, which he felt caused a problem against Uganda,
would not be tolerated in the future. If he can keep everyone on the same
page, this will be a side to be reckoned with. Long-suffering Ghanian fans
might understandably be a bit pessimistic, but for now the signs point to a
genuine run at that glorious elusive World Cup berth.
DR Congo historically has been even more chaotic than Ghana, and it's been a
great show this time around. Only one of four scheduled friendlies was
actually played. New coach Claude Leroy was given just three days (three
days!) to work with the team before the opener at Uganda, and found that
some of the players on his list hadn't even been contacted. Never fear: as
an incentive to the pros, the federation had decided on a lavish bonus of
$100 per man.
Leroy coached the team to an 0:1 loss, strategically waited until the day
before the next game, then threatened to quit. A frantic FA kept him on the
job for the moment, and President Joseph Kabila himself offered a $30,000
bonus for a victory over foes Burkina Faso. Before over 100,000 thunderous
fans in Kinshasa, DR Congo let in two soft goals (the press wondered whether
keeper Guelor Nkela had been bewitched, literally!) but scored three
themselves, albeit the last one on a doubtful injury-time PK. So with all
the cards in his favor, Leroy threatened to quit again, this time because
the FA hadn't finalized his contract terms. He got what he wanted: salary, a
car, a villa, and regular airplane tickets to Paris for himself and his
family. He also got a promise that the FA would build a large-scale
development program, but we'll believe it when we see it, if that's OK with
you. I'm sure the money, car, villa, and tickets will do for the moment. On
less important matters, the team got a 1:1 draw at Cape Verde in the third
In fact, Leroy is slowly building a team with promise. In defense he has
experienced South African leaguers Dikilu Bageta and Cyrille Mubiala, plus
Belgian-based fullback Papy Kimoto. Mbayo Kibemba of Gencerbirligi is a
strong defensive midfielder, who also got the opening goal against Burkina
Faso on a remarkable 35-yard lob. Mbuta Mbala, named player of the year in
the local league, has been a key man in the attack on the left wing. They
have yet to find a consistent finisher, although Lomana Lua Lua (Portsmouth)
is back on the squad after suspension, and could prove to be the man. Even
better, the star of stars, striker Shabani Nonda of Monaco, has committed to
the team, and although he's injured for the moment, will play when healthy.
(A relief to announcers and journalists, since the man who scored against
Cape Verde was Alain Kaluyitukadioko.) The coach is putting his plane
tickets to good use, running down further pros like fullback Ilunga Hérita
(St. Etienne), central defender Hervé Nzelo Lembi (Kaiserslautern),
midfielders Franck Matingou (Bastia) and Kiki Musampa (Atletico Madrid).
One Congolese website described Leroy as a man "with the faith that can move
mountains." All well and good, but government officials are much harder.
It's way too early to predict DR Congo to contend. When Leroy returns from
his European trip, there's going to be a grand public contract-signing
ceremony. If the pens actually have ink in them, that'll be enough for now.
Defender Joel Kitamirike, the former Chelsea property, really wants to play
for Uganda. The fans really want to see him play for Uganda. But he hasn't
played for Uganda because they can't get his citizenship sorted out. Uganda
normally doesn't allow dual nationality, but Kitamirike holds an English
passport and doesn't want to give it up. He was assured that local officials
would find an answer, and flew all the way to Uganda to play against DR
Congo--only to find they hadn't worked it out after all. A month later, the
authorities had found the right loophole, so again Kitamirike flew in, ready
to play against Ghana--only to find the FA hadn't informed FIFA of the
switch, so he was still ineligible. If they can figure out how to use the
fax machine down there, Kitamirike should finally play in September, where
he'll partner Argentine-based Ibrahim Sekajja in what should be a formidable
Silliness aside, the Cranes have been a pleasant surprise so far. New coach
Mike Mutebi has built a tough, competitive side, which lacks only the punch
in attack to be a threat to the top teams. They opened with a 1:0 home win
against DR Congo, slipped at Cape Verde 0:1 while missing several players
through injury, and came within three minutes of beating Ghana at home. The
midfield is led by tough holding man Noah Basule, and gets most of its
inspiration from Assan Bajope and Serbia-based Phillip Ssozi. When
everyone's available, the defense is an excellent unit: right back Suleiman
Tenyma from the USA, left back Nestory Kizito from Serbia, Kitamirike and
Sekajja in the middle. The front line has been the main weakness so far.
Hassan Mubiru, who plays for local club Express FC, is the finest striker
Uganda has produced in years: fast, confident on the ball, he can score and
create. But he hasn't been up to standard, and Mutebi hasn't yet found the
right man for the partnership.
If the Cranes can find a goal scorer, a Nations Cup spot is not out of the
question. But for some reason the FA wants to change coaches, the new choice
being Hassan Mohammed of Egypt. This is truly weird: not only has Mutebi
done a good job on his own, but North African coaches often don't mix well
with southern sides. Ugandan sports minister Henry Okello Oryem personally
stepped in to persuade the FA to delay the move at least until after the
fall games. Mutebi's contract says that he'll assist any foreign coach who
comes in, but I say stick with your man. It's a side with potential, and in
a balanced group like this, chemistry will count for a lot.
Burkina Faso sits in last place at the moment, courtesy of their third-round
hammering at South Africa, but they too have genuine potential. Only a
suspect PK cost them a road draw with DR Congo, and they beat Ghana at home
in their opener. It's a team that relies on solid play and cohesion, as
opposed to spectacle. Belgium-based players Lamine Traoré (Anderlecht) at
centerback, Amadou Touré (Mons) at both left back and defensive midfield,
and Mahamoudou Kéré (Charleroi) at central midfield have been the most
reliable performers, although Kéré has missed time with illness. Local
player Issouf Sanou has emerged as a useful attacking midfielder. Up front,
big Mououni Dagano, the striker from Guingamp, has been a consistent danger.
The two road games have seen BF using a 4-5-1 with Dagano as sole striker,
but coach Ivica Todorov might be tempted to move Mamadou "Bebeto" Zongo
(Vitesse Arnhem), who got the winning goal against Ghana, up from the
midfield to be his partner. In fact, wherever he plays, Zongo may be the key
to the success of the team. A deadly finisher with excellent touch, as a
youth he was labeled the best striker ever to come out of Burkina Faso. But
he's been out of the national team for three years with knee problems. He's
still only 23, and if he can stay healthy and find his form, the Stallions
will have a first-rate attack. The fall schedule, home to Uganda and at Cape
Verde, is relatively favorable, and it's a good chance to get back into
contention for what would be their sixth consecutive Nations Cup berth.
Cape Verde is the squad that's largely composed of recruits from the
Portuguese leagues. Last time out they almost made the Nations Cup, and once
again they're in the running. They nearly snatched a draw at South Africa,
and picked up four points at home with a 1:0 win over Uganda and a 1:1 draw
with DR Congo. Their star is Carlos Morais "Calò," who plays in Qatar, and
is the man behind the strikers in the 4-3-1-2. Jimmy Modeste (Brest) and
Janicio Martins (Torreense) have also been effective in midfield, and
Claudio Aguiar "Lito" (Moreirense) is a dangerous wide man. Up front the
main threat is Arlindo Semedo "Cafù" (Boavista), who got the winner against
Uganda. But the best story comes from the one home-based player in the
starting eleven. His name is Pedro Brito, he's known as "Bubista," he's a
central defender, he's captain of the team, and he's 40 years old. He's
appeared in more than half the internationals in Cape Verde's history, and
is still going strong, so far playing every minute of the qualifiers.
Accounts suggest the team's best performance was in the opener, the loss at
South Africa. If so, that might be because their home pitch, the Estadio da
Varzèa, is in notoriously bad condition. As you might expect from a
Portuguese-league side, they rely heavily on technique, and they haven't
been able to get the passing-and-possession game going at home. They'd love
to switch to other venues, but right now the Varzèa is the only stadium that
meets FIFA specifications. Four points at home is fine so far, but if they
want to make the Nations Cup, they may have to find themselves a
Portuguese-league groundskeeper as well.
Cameroon 2 1 0 4 1 7
Ivory Coast 2 0 1 4 3 6
Egypt 1 1 1 7 5 4
Libya 1 1 1 1 2 4
Benin 0 2 1 5 6 2
Sudan 0 1 2 1 5 1
It's the group of death, and look who's on top. That's right, the
Indomitable Lions are indomitabling their way along, overlooking the rest of
the field as usual. Best of all, they just beat their toughest rival, Ivory
Coast. So it'll be 5 in a row, then?
Not so fast. Cameroon may be in first place, but they've had the schedule
advantage: two home games, only one difficult opponent. And they haven't
played terribly well. In the opener, they fell behind to Benin before
rallying to win 2:1; at Libya, they dominated play but had to settle for
0:0; and even in the big 2:0 win against Ivory Coast, they were largely
uninspired, getting two late goals to avoid what would have been a second
straight 0:0 draw.
Things aren't going smoothly in the front office, either. Winfried Schäfer
hasn't been paid in 6 months, and he was furious at the FA for failing to
handle crucial administrative details. In one notorious case, striker
Mohammed Idrissou (Hannover) was accused of misrepresenting his age, which
would have rendered him ineligible. FIFA requested the confirming documents
from the FA, but the FA simply didn't send them. So Schäfer had to leave
Idrissou off against Libya, since he had no idea whether his man was allowed
to play. Eventually the matter was settled, and Idrissou started the next
game against Ivory Coast, but it's the sort of thing no contending nation
should have to tolerate.
At the same time, the on-field problems remain. Schäfer has yet to find a
partner for Samuel Eto'O (Mallorca), having tried Idrissou, Pius Ndiefi, and
Hervé Tum (Metz) with no success. Eric Djemba-Djemba (Manchester United) has
been unconvincing in midfield, and the loss of Marc-Vivien Foe has been felt
more keenly than ever. Long-time midfield starter Geremi Njitap (Chelsea)
has been hot and cold. Even the keeper spot is uncertain now: Idriss Kameni
(Le Havre) let in an easy goal against Benin, and Souleymanou Hamidou
(Denizlispor), making his very first start, went into the nets against Ivory
Coast. He played well, and made one excellent save from Aruna Dindane, but
his inexperience may show up down the road.
And yet, Cameroon is still the favorite. Eto'O is star man, scoring twice
and disrupting defenses with his dribbling and pace. Guy Feutchine (PAOK) is
an exciting new option on the right of midfield, and Timothée Atouba (Basel)
has played well on the left. Jean-Joël Perrier Doumbé (Rennes) has been
excellent in a 3-man back line with Rigobert Song (Galatasaray) and Bill
Tchato (Kaiserslautern), or as a right back in a 4-man line. And while the
toughest tasks are ahead--trips to Cairo and Abidjan--the Lions showed
against Ivory Coast that they remain very hard to beat. For 80 minutes they
were ineffective in attack, but shut down the Elephants completely,
controlling the wings and blocking service to the strikers. With ten minutes
left, and a 0:0 draw on the horizon, Feutchine sent a perfect ball over the
defense and Eto'O finished beautifully. Two minutes later Feutchine himself
volleyed home a cross from Atouba. The game was hardly a masterpiece, but
that's how champions do it.
The lead in the morning papers? "The Cameroon-Ivory Coast match, played
Sunday July 4th at the Omnisport stadium in Yaounde, has once more confirmed
Winfried Schäfer's incompetence as coach of the Indomitable Lions." You
can't win. Still, this team has yet to convince, and competent or no,
Schäfer remains under heavy pressure. The fall opener sends them to Egypt:
a loss there, and he might be gone.
Despite the loss in Cameroon, the Elephants of Ivory Coast are a definite
threat to take the top spot. Up front, they may have the best one-two punch
on the continent, with the finesse of Aruna Dindane (Anderlecht) and the
power of Didier Drogba (Chelsea). They make a natural partnership, and each
has scored two goals in the three games. Didier "Maestro" Zokora (St.
Etienne) is the young star, a defensive midfielder, intelligent and
tireless. Guel Tchiressoa (Lorient), the veteran of the team, still only 28,
is a two-way player who complements Zokora in the middle. Bonaventure Kalou
(Auxerre) on the right and Serge Dié (Nice) on the left complete a solid
group. If there's a problem with the team right now, it's in defense.
Jean-Jacques Tizié (Esperance), the keeper, is solid, but the 4-man back
line has had some problems. There are two stars: Arsenal's centerback Kolo
Touré and exciting young left back Arthur Boka (Strasbourg), fast and
creative, powerful on free kicks. But there's a big hole at right back,
where Michel has started three different players in three games. Against
Cameroon he moved veteran centerback Cyril Domoraud (AC Milan) out to the
right, but he was ineffective. No solution is in sight there.
But this is the team that has the talent and temperament to win. This was
shown most clearly in the second game, at Egypt. After an ordinary opening
2:0 home win against Libya, they went to Paris to train. As they boarded the
plane to take them to Cairo, they were shocked by the sudden death of
assistant coach Mama Ouattara, a father figure to many of the players. They
dedicated the game to his memory. Although Egypt had the terrain advantage
for most of the match, the Elephants stayed calm throughout. In the 22nd
minute, against the run of play, a fine pass by Drogba found Dindane surging
between two defenders, and he finished clinically. Egypt evened the score
early in the second half, but on a 75th minute free kick, Boka's service was
flicked on neatly by Dindane, and this time Drogba finished. The defense
then held for a invaluable road victory.
It was too much to ask them to do it again in Cameroon, and so for the
moment they're in second place. But with their two toughest games already
behind them, the Elephants will be very hard to stop. In fact, with the next
four games against minnows (home to Sudan, at Benin, home to Benin, at
Libya), they may very well top the group coming into the big home matches
against Egypt and Cameroon. If they stay healthy, they should be in the race
until the final day.
The third of the big teams is Egypt, but the news there inspires less
confidence. First off, the striker situation is a mess. Their best man,
Ahmed Belal, who has just signed with Terek Grozny, has been out with
ligament damage. Veteran Hossem Hassan was left out of the lineup in the
opener at Sudan, and promptly quit the team. Bad boy Ahmed "Mido" Hossam of
Marseille still hasn't played: he was dropped by Marco Tardelli for not
joining the team in camp, was reinstated but left on the bench against Ivory
Coast, then dropped again. Mohamed Zidan, a youngster who's all the rage in
Denmark, declined a call-up, saying he wanted to concentrate on club duties.
Abdelhalim Ali, steady but unspectacular, has been the point man, with
Mohamed Abu Treika, normally an attacking midfielder, in support.
A second major problem is conditioning. The players were tired enough from a
long season, and the large majority of the side play for Zamalek, Al Ahly,
and Ismaili, and thus had additional responsibilities in the Arab Champions
League. (That's where Belal got his ligament injury, by the way.) The league
has caused considerable controversy--it's an extra competition which makes
money for the clubs, but wears down the players. Guess who wins out?
It's not surprising, then, that results have been spotty. Despite the
striker disaster, they've scored 7 goals in 3 games. But the team has yet to
come together. The opening 3:0 win at Sudan looks good on paper, but Sudan
missed several chances of their own, and Egypt was only intermittently in
form. In the big game, the home 1:2 loss to Ivory Coast, the Pharoahs had
the most of the play, but Ali was far too often caught offside, and both he
and Abu Treika missed good chances. On the road against Benin, the defense
fell apart, centerback Beshir El-Tabei missed a PK, and only a furious
second half rally allowed them to draw 3:3.
At the moment the uncertainty goes beyond the front line. Keeper Essam
Al-Hadary had a poor game against Ivory Coast, and fans are calling for his
replacement. The back line has struggled, particularly on the wings, where
Tardelli has tried Tarek Al-Sayed, Islam Al-Shater, and Mohamed Abdel Wahab
with varying degrees of success. Midfield has badly missed a leader; veteran
Hazem Emam probably should get more time, but he too is carrying a Champions
League injury. The best news has been the emergence of Hassan Mostafa on the
left side of midfield. A lively, twisty attacker, he was the best player on
the field against Ivory Coast, and scored on a beautiful lob for the tying
goal against Benin.
There's still time for Egypt to get it right, but not much. Cameroon comes
to town on September 3, and three points are a must. Ali will miss the game
due to suspension, and Belal may not be match fit, which means Mido may
finally have to prove himself on the big stage. Tardelli, recognizing his
players were tired, gave them a month off. If they come back rejuvenated, it
may yet be a three-team race.
In this group we drop precipitously from contenders to minnows. Benin is the
most interesting of the lot: they put up a good fight against Cameroon (1:2
on the road), and an excellent one against Egypt (3:3 at home), and if
Anicet Adjimonsi (Bordeaux) hadn't missed an 85th minute PK against Sudan,
they'd be riding high. Oh, and they'd also have a coach. After the draw with
Sudan, Cecil Jones Atturquayefio literally departed under cover of darkness,
going back to his native Ghana. He claimed the FA had reneged on contract
promises, but his head had been pretty much on the block since the Nations
Cup in Tunisia.
The interim coach is Jones' assistant Wabi Gomez, who was at the helm for
the remarkable draw with Egypt. The Squirrels jumped on top early, when new
midfield prospect Stephane Sessègnon was taken down in the area, and star
striker Omar Tchomogo (Guingamp) converted the PK. They got a second when
Sessègnon fed 18-year-old attacking midfielder Jocelyn Ahoueya (Sion). With
a 2:0 lead at halftime, they seemed poised for the upset. After Egypt pulled
one back, striker Muri Ogunbiyi from African champions Enyimba answered, and
with a half-hour to go Benin led 3:1. Alas, they couldn't hold the lead, and
Egypt's late rally left them with a point and some pride.
Not that they see it that way. For some reason the fans and press think that
Benin should have qualified for Germany already--most reactions cast the
game as a humiliation, and Gomez was attacked for his "notorious
incompetence" (Wabi, meet Winfried). Word is Benin is looking for a European
coach, if they can afford it. The team has possibilities; in next-to-last
with only two points, they're still second in goals scored in the group. A
bonus dispute with their Euro players has been resolved, and when Moussa
Latoundji (Cottbus) comes off a knee injury, they'll have a solid midfield
to go with their strong front line. Not that they'll make the Nations
Cup--the group is too tough--but at least the coach will be able to show his
face in daylight.
I'd love to give you a full rundown on Libya and Sudan--rosters, tactics,
federation politics, favorite oases--but unfortunately the main sites on the
teams are in Arabic. I can tell you that Libya has performed respectably: at
Ivory Coast they made the Elephants work for a 2:0 victory, at home they
held Cameroon 0:0, and at Sudan they got a surprise 1:0 win on an
injury-time goal. While they've been hard to break down, they've done little
to suggest they'll challenge the top three. But Tarek el-Taieb, their
captain and playmaker, has received a lot of attention for his superb right
foot and reading of the game. He's 27, and has played most of his career in
Tunisia, but next season he'll make his European debut with Gaziantepspor.
Other notables include keeper Abdalla El-Amami, who had fine games against
both Ivory Coast and Cameroon, and striker Nader Karra, whose spectacular
solo run and goal finished off Sudan.
As for Sudan, the players' names are less important, because the smart ones
are using aliases anyway. The team has only one point in three games, and
they made the mistake of getting it on the road. After losing 0:3 home to
Egypt in the opener, the players had to be protected from assault by the
fans. They got their point at Benin, and came home to face Libya. With the
score 0:0 in injury time, they were pressing hard for the win, when Nader
Karra broke free on a counterattack and got the killer goal. Whereupon a
riot broke out, with fans hurling whatever came to hand, going toe to toe
with security forces. The FA assured their Polish coach, Wojtek Wazarek,
that his job was still secure: "We need to remain calm and not fall apart
after each defeat. It's not the time for rash decisions." The next day they
fired him--for his own safety. "We had to take such a step. Wazarek was
working under tremendous pressure and we realized it was impossible for him
to stay in such a hostile environment." The current rumor is that Branco,
the former Brazilian free-kick artist, is in line to get the job. His two
main qualifications: 1) he's coached top Sudanese club team Al-Hilal; 2) he
can strike from distance.
Nigeria 2 0 1 3 1 6
Zimbabwe 1 2 0 4 2 5
Angola 1 2 0 3 2 5
Rwanda 1 0 2 3 2 3
Algeria 0 2 1 1 2 2
Gabon 0 2 1 4 6 2
Nwankwo Kanu was mad because the FA wouldn't change game dates so teammates
could attend his wedding. Fifteen different reasons were given why Jay-Jay
Okocha didn't play against Rwanda and Angola. And after a win over Algeria
which put the team in first place, one headline read: "I'm not a failure,
Chukwu screams". Just another qualifying season for Nigeria.
In fact, although the Super Eagles are on their accustomed perch, all is not
well. The group has turned out to be tougher than expected, with Angola and
Zimbabwe both showing promise. And the team as a whole has yet to impress.
Christian Chukwu may not be a "failure," but if he loses his job, as many
expect, he won't have been treated unfairly.
It'd be impossible to chronicle all Nigeria's ups, downs, and insanities so
far, so we'll stick with the highlights. Apparently miffed that Jay-Jay
Okocha (Bolton) had skipped the Unity Cup friendlies in England, Chukwu left
him off the team for the opener home to Rwanda. Christian Obodo of Perugia
took Okocha's place, performed competently, and although the Rwandans fought
hard, Nigeria picked up a 2:0 win. The star of the game was 19-year-old
Obafemi Martins (AC Milan), who scored two marvelous goals and was
immediately hailed as the ultimate Nigerian striker. Unfortunately, in the
final minutes he twisted knee ligaments, making him unavailable for the game
As for Okocha, no one really knew what was going on. Chukwu's decision to
drop him was hailed as a masterstroke of discipline--except afterwards
Chukwu said it was only to give Jay-Jay some rest. But at least he'd play
against Angola, right? Sure. Or maybe not. First we heard the FA was leaving
message after message on his answering machine in England. Then his agent
announced he'd definitely play. But when training camp came, no Okocha. On
the flight to Luanda--no, because he was coming separately. Day of the
game--no. Opening kickoff--nyet. Halftime--zip. Final whistle--never made
it. So what happened? Missed his flight? Snubbed the team? Held hostage by
the Lancashire branch of the Angolan People's Front? We never actually found
out. After the game Okocha said he'd needed time off, but why believe him?
Not that Nigeria were ready for Angola anyway. Strikers Yakuku Ayegbeni
(Portsmouth) and Julius Agahowa (Shakhtar Donetsk), either of whom might
have replaced the injured Martins, were boycotting the team. The Eagles had
to cancel a training camp in South Africa because of visa
difficulties--unless it was lack of funds. Then an anonymous FA insider
confided: "The truth of the matter is that we don't have money for the trip
to Angola and we have been busy looking for a good Samaritan or a bank that
would bankroll the trip so that we can refund when the ministry releases
funds." Only 12 players showed up to the initial camp, although as assistant
coach Austin Eguavoen pointed out, "that's a reasonable number compared to
what we have had in the past." In the end, the team somehow made it to
Luanda, fielded 11 players and 3 substitutes (not including Jay-Jay Okocha,
in case you'd forgotten), and lost 0:1.
Shock and consternation, of course; Nigeria had been "humiliated in the eyes
of the world," as one paper put it. Still, by the game home to Algeria,
everything seemed to be sorted out. Kanu was getting married, but Okocha
would be there. Martins was back from injury. Even Aiyegbeni and Agahowa
decided to show up. And joy of joys, Nigeria won--barely. It was a lifeless
performance, saved by Everton's Joseph Yobo with a header off a corner six
minutes from time. Okocha admitted he was still tired. Martins played
poorly, and stormed off the pitch when he was replaced by Agahowa.
So what can we say? Certainly the side has lots of quality. John Utaka
(Lens), only 22, has become a fixture behind the strikers, and can go out on
the wing effectively too. Martins has tremendous potential. Seyi Olafinjana,
voted best player in the Norwegian league last year (and recently signed by
Wolves), has filled the trouble spot at defensive midfield. Yobo is
developing into a top central defender. Vincent Enyeama is performing well
in the nets. Presumably Kanu will contribute soon enough. Okocha? He says
he's worn down, and will pick and choose his spots to play. When he's in
form, he's still one of the best playmakers in the world.
Whether this will be enough to save Chukwu's job is doubtful. The FA is
known to be looking for a foreign coach (remember, they almost signed Bobby
Robson), although they probably can't afford a top name. And the search is
rapidly becoming a distinctively Nigerian circus. The first report was that
five candidates had applied for the position, but none were good enough.
Then an FA official claimed Jean Tigana was the favorite, but Tigana denied
it, since he hadn't applied, and for that matter wasn't interested. To crown
it all, federation chairman Alhaji Ibrahim Galadima actually, honestly,
I-couldn't-make-this-up-if-I-tried, said: "We have to get in touch with FIFA
to inform them of our desire to hire a coach, and maybe they will recommend
to us a good coach." Oh my God. Well, I guess Sepp Blatter's brother-in-law
will enjoy his stay in Abuja.
At Zimbabwe the coaching situation has been front and center from day one. A
week before the opener at Gabon, Sunday Marimo resigned, upset that the FA
wanted to put a European coach above him in the hierarchy. A top man from
Germany or Brazil would have been OK, he said, but Valeer von Billen from
the Belgian third division was a gross insult. (Even I agree on that.)
Marimo was replaced by assistant Rahman Gumbo, which was controversial in
itself: allegations Gumbo had a drinking problem had surfaced at the Nations
Cup. Marimo had defended him at the time, and he was more or less
cleared--but then some felt that when Marimo quit, Gumbo should have
followed in solidarity. One interviewer asked Gumbo: "Do you feel like
Judas?" (Oh yeah, him, coach of FC Jerusalem, did the double in 29 A.D.)
Gumbo's contract lasted only through the first three games, and after a
lucky 1:1 at Gabon and a disappointing 1:1 home to Algeria, few would have
bet on his survival. But then the Warriors crushed Swaziland 5:0 in a COSAFA
Cup tie, and followed with their best performance of the tournament, a
convincing 2:0 road win at Rwanda. One news report said the game "sent fans
back home in ruptures of unbridled joy." (Yes, I know it's a typo, but can't
you just see it?) Now Zimbabwe's in second place, everyone's rupturing
themselves, and Mr. Iscariot has a new contract--until December, that is.
Rumor has it that as soon as he fails, he'll be replaced by Bruce
Grobbelaar, the celebrated former Liverpool keeper.
But it appears as if Gumbo has done a fine job with the Warriors. A change
from three to four at the back seems to have stabilized the defense. Young
Zvenyika Makonese has emerged as the successor to veteran Kaitano Tembo in
the center, where's he's joined by South Africa-based Dumisani Mpofu.
21-year old defensive midfielder Tinashe Nengomasha of Kaizer Chiefs has
been compared to a young Edgar Davids. Yet another SA-league player, pacy
playmaker Edzai Kasinauyo, was brilliant against both Swaziland and Rwanda.
Harlington Shereni (Guingamp) has been strong at left back, and Cyprus-based
Joel Luphala at right midfield has impressed with his pace and intelligence.
The are still some question marks. Striker and captain Peter Ndlovu
(Sheffield United) has been off and on, and needs a reliable partner. But
Benjamin "The Undertaker" Mwaruwari of Auxerre is coming back after a long
layoff, and young Newton Katanha of Arminia Bielefeld hasn't proven himself
yet. Keeper Energy Murambadoro is a vital cog, but has been battling a
succession of injuries. Right back George Mbwando of Aachen has been
unavailable due to club commitments, and it's not clear whether he'll play.
Are the Warriors real contenders? The big test comes immediately--home to
Nigeria in September. If they can pull off a win, they'll be in the thick of
the race. Last year, on their 12th try, they finally qualified for their
first Nations Cup. Right now they're thinking about something even better.
The surprise of the group--although admittedly not that big a surprise--is
Angola. Second place to Cameroon the last two cycles, on present form
they'll end up no worse than second here. Their big exploit was the 1:0 home
win against Nigeria, but a scoreless draw at Algeria in the opener was an
excellent result as well, and in the third game, despite a letdown from the
Nigeria win, they came from behind to get a 2:2 draw at Gabon. They and
Zimbabwe are the only two sides in the entire tournament to have played
three games, two of them on the road, without a loss.
The Palancas Negras have many strengths: they're good in the air, skilled
on the ball, and have lots of pace. The star of the side is young midfielder
Gilberto, who plays for Al Ahly in Egypt: he's a superb left-footed
playmaker with a powerful shot, and can run all day to boot. There's lots of
talent up front, too: grand old man Fabrice "Akwa" Maieco, who got the
winning goal against Nigeria; speedy Olympic star Maurito (Union Leiria);
centerforward Marco Paulo (Belenenses), a former Portuguese youth
international who headed in the equalizer against Gabon. Midfielder Ze
Kalanga of Petro Atletico got his first cap against Nigeria, and it was his
inch-perfect cross that set up Akwa for the goal. The defense has had its
detractors, but the back four (fullbacks Jacinto Parreira and Yamba Asha,
centerbacks Kali and Jamba) have played every minute of every game. All but
Kali play for AS Aviçao, and have a natural understanding that comes from
their club experience.
As with Zimbabwe, the jury is still out on Angola. The win over Nigeria,
however well deserved, was achieved over a depleted side. Perhaps more
impressive was the draw at Algeria, without both Akwa and Gilberto in the
lineup. Word is that coach Oliveira Gonçalves is in Europe looking for more
eligible players. When play resumes in the fall, they'll have a great chance
to go top, with home games against Rwanda and Zimbabwe. If they can take
maximum points, they'll definitely be a challenger to Nigeria.
Algeria had the misfortune to start with matches against the three toughest
opponents, and although they've improved from game to game, results have yet
to arrive. A scoreless draw at home to Angola was a big disappointment, and
although a 1:1 draw at Zimbabwe wasn't bad at all, the 0:1 loss at Nigeria
puts them deep in the standings. Their best effort was definitely the
Nigeria loss--they had winning chances, and only an 85th minute goal cost
them the point--but that's small consolation for a team that will have to
step up quickly if they want to contend.
Part of the problem has been injuries; at one time or another almost all
their key players have been out. Central defense has been particularly hard
hit, with main man Antar Yahia (Bastia) missing most of the Angola game,
potential starters Mehdi Maniri (Metz) and Samir Beloufa (Mouscron) yet to
play a minute, and local players Brahim Zafour and Salim Aribi in and out of
the lineup. Against Nigeria, with the back line decimated, UAE-based
playmaker Djamel Belmadi and top striker Abdelmalek Cherrad (fomerly Nice)
came up lame as well. Defensive midfielder Maamar Mamouni (Gent) has also
yet to play. Under the circumstances, you could say the Desert Foxes haven't
done badly at all.
On the whole, though, their play has been mediocre. The team has scored only
one goal in three games, with Cherrad, Salim Arrache (Strasbourg), and
Mansour Boutabout (Guegnon), all players with European experience, unable to
produce in front of goal. On defense, Yahia has been solid in the middle,
but with all the injuries, his young partner, Mohamed Bouguerra, has
struggled. The fullbacks, Mohamed Brahami (La Louvière) right and Nadir
Belhadj (Sedan) left, have been nothing special. Midfield has lacked a
playmaker; even when healthy, Belmadi has been unable to produce. The bright
lights have been attacking midfielder Karim "Lionheart" Ziani (Troyes) and
keeper Mohamed Benhamou (PSG), both of whom played particularly well against
As noted, Algeria has improved with each game, and in the fall they'll get
easier opponents, home to Gabon and at Rwanda. But the pressure is on.
Cherrad is unlikely to be ready in time, and they'll have to find some way
to put it in the net. They'll need at least four points to stay in the hunt;
if not, even a Nations Cup berth may be out of reach.
Rwanda, The Little Country That Could in the Nations Cup, has found the
going a bit tougher in the qualifiers. The Wasps had a creditable effort at
Nigeria 0:2, then spanked Gabon 3:1--but with a great chance to make an
impact, they fell 0:2 to Zimbabwe at home. As with Algeria, injuries have
played a role. Captain and star striker Désiré Mbonabucya went down with a
broken leg while playing for St. Truiden, and has missed all three games.
Another loss has been Jimmy Gatete, the young striker who got the goal that
qualified the team for Tunisia. Playmaker João Elias (Kortrijk) missed the
first two games as well.
Rwanda doesn't have much of a presence online, so it's hard to figure the
ins and outs of the squad. (E-mail me if you find a good Rwandan sports
site!) In the absence of Gatete and Mbonabucya, Abedi Said (Bruxelles), John
Lomami (Power Dynamos, Zimbabwe), and Jimmy Mulisa of local champions APR
have carried the attack. Fullback Elias Ntaganda (APR) and sweeper Katauti
Ndikumana (Gent) have been reliable regulars, and Olivier Karekezi, yet
another APR man, is a promising wide midfielder. The side has recently been
bolstered by midfielder Manfred Kizito (you guessed it, APR), the latest in
a line of native Ugandans who have changed their citizenship. But with
Zimbabwe and Angola playing well, and Algeria improving, even an in-form
Rwanda will find this group difficult to negotiate.
There's more information on Gabon, which is good, because some of it is
pretty juicy. It's a team which relies heavily on European pros, most of
them in the attack, and coach Jairzinho was ready to call them in for the
opener home to Zimbabwe. But strikers Eric Moulounghi (Strasbourg) and Henri
Antchouet (Belenenses) had long-term injuries, and although Daniel Cousin
(Le Mans) may very well have been healthy, no one could find him. But at
least they had Stephane Nguéma (Rennes) and Shiva Star Nzigou (Nantes) in
camp--even if they were accused of partying the night before the game.
Against Zimbabwe, the Panthers (sober or not) had most of the play, and were
headed for a 1:0 victory, but a moment of inattention let in a late
A disappointment, sure, but not a bad performance, and it was only the first
game. So it was time to get the pros together to go to Rwanda--but suddenly
Nguéma and Nzigou were injured. When had they picked up the injuries? No one
knew. The doctors couldn't figure it out. Suspicions began: were they
faking? How could you tell? Either way, they weren't playing, and Gabon got
bounced in Kigali 1:3.
Now it was home to Angola for a crucial contest. Nguéma and Nzigou went back
to France to train, and now everyone was sure they had faked it. Defender
Cedric Ambourouet (Sedan) disappeared as well. And news finally came from
Daniel Cousin: yes, he was alive and well in Strasbourg, but to be honest,
he didn't want to play for Gabon any more. So the Panthers went out and
still came within nine minutes of a win, finally settling for 2:2.
As you might guess from the results, Gabon is by no means a minnow. Had they
been able to hold on just a few minutes longer against Zimbabwe and Angola,
they'd be in great shape. With all the Euro attackers out, home-based
veteran Theodore Zué Nguéma has come to the fore, leading the front line and
scoring 3 goals. Another local boy, Thierry Issiémou, has been an effective
playmaker. The main problems have been in defense (6 goals in 3 games),
where they've moved from a 4-man line to a 5-man line to stem the tide. Key
centerback Thierry Mouyouma (Wits University, SA) has been out with injuries
(real ones!) since the first game, and no one has been able to take his
But things are looking up. Antchouet is said to be on the mend. Mouyouma
looks like he'll be back in the fall. Former France youth international
Catilina Aubameyang (AC Milan), a small, quick midfielder, has recently
received the OK to join the squad. Although a Nations Cup berth is a
longshot, the Panthers can still put together an honorable campaign. The
most satisfying news of all: Nzigou, one of the accused injury-fakers, was
recently injured for real while training with Nantes. Thigh muscle. Out for
four weeks. Quel dommage...
Guinea 1 1 0 3 2 4
Morocco 1 1 0 2 1 4
Tunisia 1 0 1 5 3 3
Botswana 1 0 2 3 5 3
Malawi 0 2 1 2 4 2
This group has been complicated by the Kenya suspension; you'll notice there
are only five teams in the standings, instead of six. That should change
soon, though, because FIFA, remarkably, has been bending over backwards to
get Kenya back in the competition. New Kenyan sports minister Ochilo Ayacko
fearlessly snubbed the first reconciliation meeting in Zürich, saying he
needed more time to study the case. He then demanded FIFA change the
membership of their appointed normalization committee. Did Sepp laugh, flick
a speck of dust off his $5000 suit, and say "tough luck, loser"? No--he
invited the minister to tea and crumpets, with a string quartet playing in
the background, and worked out the differences like a semi-civilized human
being. The betting now is that the suspension will be lifted on August 6.
Why FIFA has suddenly turned pussycat is anyone's guess--maybe Sepp thinks
the Nobel Peace Prize will look good on his mantelpiece, or has decided
sainthood is good for the bottom line. In any case, it looks very much as if
Kenya will play its regularly scheduled fall matches against Malawi and
Botswana. The three missed games should be rescheduled for the long
fall-winter hiatus, and by the time March 2005 rolls around we should be
back in sync. Good for Kenya, good for Africa, good for the World Cup.
But not so good for football analysts. As it happens, the
tri-favorites--Tunisia, Morocco, and Guinea--were scheduled to play Kenya in
the first three rounds. So the top teams have played only two games, while
minnows Malawi and Botswana have played all three. (That the favorites still
top the group shows you how far ahead of the others they are.) The race has
yet to take shape; also, there's no way of knowing how the rescheduled games
will affect the teams. But we'll forge boldly ahead--after all, that's what
they pay us for here. (I said "pay us for," Jan. Jan? Anyone there?)
Tunisia came into the group as nominal favorites, based on their
home-assisted victory in the Nations Cup in February. They've been weakened
a bit by the absence of their top two strikers, Ziad Jaziri (Gaziantepspor,
injury) and Francileudo dos Santos (Sochaux, family issues). The opener,
though, was simple enough, a 4:1 win home to Botswana. Three of the four
goals came from defenders (right back Karim Hagui two, left back Jose
Clayton one), two of the three on set pieces. Although the team as a whole
struggled to break down the Botswana defense, they were never in danger of
missing the points.
But the second game was a much tougher assignment, on the road against
Guinea, and they failed it. On a hot, humid day in Conakry, they came out to
defend, ceding the initiative to the hosts. Down 0:2 early in the second
half, they got one back from Khaled Badra, but were held in check the rest
of the way, and demonstrably outplayed on the afternoon. It was a clear
sign, as if one was needed, that qualification for a third straight World
Cup would be very difficult indeed.
Tunisia's defense is sound, with Badra and Rahdi Jaidi particularly strong
in the middle. Jaidi has just signed for Bolton, making him the first
Tunisian ever to join the Premiership. Hagui, only 20, can play in the
middle or on the right, and has himself just signed with Strasbourg. The
keeper spot may be a bit of a worry, though, with Ali Boumnijel (Rouen) now
38 years old, and no clear heir in sight.
But the real problem is the
attack, and although Tunisia performed well on that score in the Nations
Cup, they'll have to work harder in the qualifiers to keep the pace. The
difficulty is less up front, where Ali Zitouni, Mohamed Jedidi, and Najeh
Braham are capable backups for Jaziri and Dos Santos, as in the midfield.
Jacques Lemerre tends to play conservatively, with a 4-4-2 that translates
into a 4-3-1-2. If playmaker Slim Ben Achour (PSG) isn't on song, there's
not much inspiration. Adel Chedli (Sochaux) occasionally shows some
creativity on the left flank, but Riadh Bouazizi (Gaziantepspor) and Jouhar
Mnari are essentially holding men. That means a fair amount of the attack
has to come from the wings, with fullbacks like Clayton and Hagui (and
especially Hatem Trabelsi, on the rare occasions he's healthy). So unless
the team is ready to commit forward, they can struggle to create chances.
That's what happened at Guinea. Jaziri and Dos Santos are expected back in
the fall, but the midfield problem is chronic, and at this level could be
The Guineans, of course, were thrilled with their win; because the Kenya
game had been postponed, it was their very first game in the tournament.
Perhaps they were too thrilled, because in the second game they played
poorly, scraping a late 1:1 draw at Malawi when the defense fell asleep on a
long punt by keeper Kemoko Camara. They don't have the pedigree of Tunisia,
and they don't have the money either (in friendlies against Ivory Coast and
Senegal, they were training without sufficient equipment), which means
they'll need to be at peak if they want to challenge for the top spot.
There's no doubt that the talent is there, though. Striker Kaba Diawara
(once at Arsenal, now in Qatar), former French youth international, fast and
skilled, has scored all three goals. He's been joined in the attack by Fodé
Mansare (Montpellier), who usually plays on the left side: he's been a
consistently dangerous dribbler, and set up one of the goals against
Tunisia. Although he missed the game against Malawi, Pascal Feinduono
(Bordeaux) is a formidable attacker on the right side, and it was his cross
that led to the other Syli goal against Tunisia. Big central defender Dian
Bobo Baldé (Celtic) is the leader in the middle and Kanfory Sylla
(Charleroi) has performed well at left back. Regular right back Schumann Bah
(Metz) is expected to return from injury soon.
Like Tunisia, though, they have their trouble spots. Keeper Camara has a bit
of the René Higuita about him. Central midfield is the province of two
veterans, Salam Sow and Ousmane N'Gom Camara, who go all the way back to the
1994 Nations Cup, and whether they can stay in form for the long competition
is an open question. At the moment, as near as I can tell, Camara doesn't
even have a club contract. Discipline may also be a problem: just two days
before the Malawi game, coach Patrice Neveu was actually head-butted by one
of his players during training. (They didn't say who it was, but my money's
on the man who lives in Glasgow.) After the game, two more players got into
a fight at the hotel, although apparently they used more conventional
tactics. It's early days, but that sort of thing can get out of hand real
Because of the Kenya situation, Morocco has had an odd schedule: they're the
only one of the 29 teams yet to play at home. They've just met the two
minnows so far, and to be honest haven't played very well. Coach Badou Ezaki
admitted they were lucky to get a 1:1 draw at Malawi and 1:0 win at
Botswana. But no matter the opposition, 4 points on the road is pretty good.
Of course they'll have to play considerably better against Tunisia and
Guinea (and Kenya too), but in theory they're in the best position of the
At this early stage, Ezaki has yet to settle on a starting eleven. Up front,
their best man, Jawad Zairi (Sochaux), has been out injured. Against Malawi
he tried Marouane Chammakh (Bordeaux) at the point, supported by Youssouf
Hadji (Bastia); against Botswana it was Nabil Baha (Sporting Braga) and
Hadji. But none of the strikers have scored yet, and Hadji now has two
yellow cards, meaning he'll miss the game against Tunisia. Midfield has been
unsettled too. Walid Regragui (Santander), one of the most consistent of the
regulars, played right back against Malawi, but was shifted to right
midfield against Botswana. Linkman Youssef Safri (Norwich City) scored on a
cracking 30-yard shot against Malawi, but faded and had to be replaced, and
then missed the Botswana game through injury. Youssef Mokhtari (Cottbus) has
been the pick of the midfielders: he got the goal against Botswana and has
been lively in approach play.
The situation in the back is no clearer. The one certainty is Talal
El-Karkouri, the outstanding central defender who's just been signed by
Charlton. But veteran Noureddine Naybet (La Coruña) has been injured. Ezaki
has tried both Tarek Chihab (Grasshoppers) and Abdelilah Fahmi (Strasbourg)
in his place, and in both cases there have been significant communication
problems. Even the keeper has been changed, although Nadir Lamyaghri seemes
to have grabbed the spot with a strong game against Botswana.
Ezaki usually plays a 3-5-2, but on the road it's more like a 5-3-2, and
he's been criticized for going so conservative against the minnows. On
September 4th, Tunisia comes to Casablanca, and will undoubtedly be playing
for a point. The next month Morocco goes to Guinea, where Tunisia's
defensive approach failed. Zairi may be back to lead the front line, but
even so Morocco will have to be more aggressive than they've been so far.
Malawi is a small country, but they do big journalism. The Malawi Nation,
after outplaying Morocco in a 1:1 draw: "The Flames turned on the magic
without hardly breaking sweat in front of a touched and swayed 45,000
gathering. It really felt so good to be a Malawian." The Malawi Nation,
after a poor 0:2 road loss to Botswana: "$37,037 into the drain, shame!...
After being bamboozled by the Zebras, the Flames were in no mood for
pictures on arrival and instead sold dummies to desperate photojournalists
who attempted to take their shots, these were dummies that should have been
sold to the Zebras and not photographers--shame!" The Malawi Nation, after
Guinea had scored a late equalizer to force a 1:1 draw: "Taxpayers really
need an apology from these mediocre and unpatriotic men masquerading as the
Malawi national team who, apparently, forget that whenever they play, they
represent 11 million people." I know where I'm sending my CV.
Despite the handwringing, Malawi is no patsy, at least not at home. They're
a balanced side, with important contributors in all sectors. In the back
line, the key man is Peter "Mjojo" Mponda, a sweeper-type who moves forward
effectively in attack. Although so far he's chosen to stay at home with top
side Bakili Bullets, it's only a matter of time before he moves to South
Africa. His partner in the middle is Patrick "General" Mabedi, a veteran
SA-leaguer. In midfield, Fischer Kondowe is an influential attacking wide
man, with pace and a powerful shot. Up front, the star is Russia-based Essau
Kayenda, although he hasn't scored in the group stage yet. Those honors
belong to Heston Munthali and recently recalled Albert 'Kika' Mpinganjira,
who scored against Guinea after a beautiful combination with Kondowe.
The weakness in the squad is in central midfield, where they've been forced
to rely on inexperienced players. Ajax Capetown veteran Ernest "Wire"
Mtawali has recently acquired a South African passport, and since Malawi
doesn't allow dual citizenship, may no longer be able to play for the
Flames. John Maduka, another SA-based veteran, missed the opener due to club
commitments, and upset that he was left off against Botswana, he refused the
call against Guinea. New faces James Chilapondwa and Hellings Mwakasungula
have been inconsistent, and unless the old hands can be brought into the
side, midfield could be a long-term problem.
The Flames have missed two big chances for home wins, so their odds of
making the Nations Cup are probably zero. At the same time, there's no
reason they can't give the big teams another scare or two. At the moment
they're led by a three-man panel, but Clive Barker, former coach of South
Africa, is a contender to take over. He'll be a good catch--assuming they
remember to leave the Malawi Nation off the coffee table during the
My favorite African country is Botswana. While Malawians and Senegalese and
Liberians and practically everyone else are whining and hectoring and
committing assault and battery, the Botswanans just plain love their team.
Before the home game with Morocco, the Zebras Supporters' Club led a
motorcade through the streets of Gaborone. The team played hard, could have
won, should have drawn, but lost 0:1--yet instead of missiles, they got a
standing ovation and post-match celebrations. A couple of weeks later, after
they lost on penalties at Angola in a COSAFA Cup tie, they were given a
heroes' welcome at the airport. The good feeling even extends to their
opponents: after the Morocco game, the fans blew kisses to the victors as
they rode back to the hotel. Think Sven-Goran Eriksson or Marcelo Bielsa
might want a change of scenery?
The joy comes from a side that, while still a comparative minnow, is more
competitive than at any time in the past. The 2:0 win over Malawi was their
first victory over the Flames in 8 games covering 18 years. They were
outclassed 1:4 at Tunisia, but the effort against a quality team like
Morocco was outstanding. Serbian coach Veselin Jelusic is drawing raves
everywhere, and clearly deserves them.
The Zebras' top player is Diphetogo "Dipsy" Selolwane, the smooth MLS
striker who has 2 of their 3 goals. The other belongs to Nelson Gabolwelwe,
a pacy left-winger noted for his crossing ability. Regular playmaker Masego
Ntshingane, who plays small-college soccer in America, is off form at the
moment. But veteran Phazda Butale returned for an excellent performance
against Angola, and looks set to stabilize the center. Defensive midfielder
Michael Mogalade is a steady force. At the back, the top men are SA-based
centerback Pius Kolagano (his club team is named Dangerous Darkies, and I
have absolutely no comment) and two-way fullback/sweeper Tshepo
Motlhabankwe, who is also good on free kicks. Keeper has been a problem
spot, with neither Modiri Marumo nor Kagiso Tshelametse claiming the job
No one is going to mistake Botswana for a great power, and with Kenya back
in the group, anything above 5th place will be a fine achievement. And given
the way the team has been feted so far, I don't think the country could
survive a Nations Cup berth. But if you're looking for an obscure team to
follow in the qualifiers, consider Botswana. They have a good online English
newspaper (www.mmegi.bw), some wonderfully mellifluous names, and the best
spirit on the continent. In the fall they play at Guinea and then home to
Kenya--so dress in blue, white, and black, and run with the Zebras.
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