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
Wrap-up: Africa - The Gang of Four (Plus One)
by Peter Goldstein
Last Saturday there was only one place for a football fan to be: in front of the computer, watching the African results come in. With at one point 8 of the 9 decisive games running simultaneously, it was a festival of the Information Age. Remember all those painful life skills your parents made you learn--balancing a checkbook, operating a mower, being nice to your annoying relatives? On Saturday all you needed to know was 1) point; 2) click. Livescore.com says goal for Nigeria! The BBC tells you it was Obafemi Martins. Goals.com says Cameroon scores first--does FIFA confirm? Rwanda and Angola still scoreless. Livescore says Congo goes ahead!…but FIFA says it’s Togo. Which is it? Which is it? Come on, BBC, where are you? The scorer was Kader Coubadja…OK, it’s Togo. Senegal’s running up the score, but will it matter? Oh my goodness, Egypt’s level! Who got the goal? How much time left? What’s happening in Kigali? Goooooooool Angola! It was overwhelming.
And so were the results. For weeks we’ve known we might get four debutantes--but how many people actually expected it to happen? I know I didn’t. Ghana and Togo were always excellent bets, but surely Angola would falter, and how could Cameroon let it get away? The teams made all sorts of wonderful history. As we mentioned in a previous column, no confederation had sent more than two debutantes since 1954. Togo, Angola, and Ghana were all fourth seeds. As near as I can tell, the only other fourth seed ever to win their WCQ group was North Korea, in the prelims this year--and they were a special case, low-seeded because they’d missed the last Asian Cup. Here’s more: Togo became the first team ever to win a final double-round group stage despite never previously finishing higher than fourth. Ivory Coast pulled off a strange accomplishment, too: they became the first team ever to qualify alone from their group despite losing twice to the runner-up.
But those are mere stats. Nothing can measure the joy of the fans whose teams have qualified for their first World Cup. They thronged the streets in Lomé, in Accra, in Abidjan, in Luanda. Different colors, different languages, different cultures, but somehow all the same, all that distinctive ecstasy only to be found in those who, against all logic, judgment, and good common sense, live for football. At Planet World Cup we share that joy, if only from a distance--and boy, it’s marvelous. Allez les Éperviers! Go Black Stars! Vive les Éléphants! Força Palancas Negras!
And now to the summaries:
Group One (Togo)
They’re known as les Éperviers, the Hawks. Their uniforms are yellow. The official name of the country is “Togolese Republic.” With a population of 5.6 million, they’re the smallest African nation ever to get to the World Cup. What did qualification mean to them? Before the match at Congo, star striker Emmanuel Adebayor put it in perspective: “If I have to kill someone to make it to Germany, I will.”
Fortunately for Adebayor, and for all of us, he didn’t have to, but the final match proved more difficult than expected. Assuming Senegal would take care of Mali (which they did, 3:0), Togo knew they needed at least a draw at Brazzaville. The Red Devils are at best an ordinary side, and were playing without much of their overseas contingent. But Togo has a weakness in central defense, and when keeper Kossi Agassa isn’t in form, they can be vulnerable to anyone. In the 26th minute Bertrand Buity was left unmarked in the middle, and when Agassi misjudged a cross from the right, Buity headed home for the lead.
The Hawks were clearly nervous, unusually disorganized in midfield. Adebayor had missed a clear chance, too. But when you’re good, you tend to get lucky: in the 40th minute the Monaco man used his pace and power to get free on the right side of the area, and from the narrowest of angles, his shot deflected off defender Patrick N’Go and in for the equalizer.
But there was still that little matter of defense and goalkeeping. Early in the second half, captain and centerback Yaovi Abalo came out for an aerial challenge, was beaten, and the ball was flicked on near the top of the area. A nervous Agassa unnecessarily came all the way out, got there late, and Armel Mamouna-Ossila poked it by him for 2:1.
So now the Hawks really had to prove themselves. But the hallmark of this team is resilience, especially on the road. At Mali, down 0:1 late, they tied the game in the 78th and won it in the 91st. At Senegal, where for a while they were barely hanging on, they got the tying goal in the 71st and held out for a draw, their most precious point of the tournament. So at a lively but outmanned Congo team, the comeback was inevitable. In the 60th minute a spectacular far post volley by Abdelkader Coubadja tied the score, and on a 70th minute counterattack Adebayor fed Coubadja for the clincher. Sure, they struggled. But needing only a draw, they got a win, and that tells you plenty.
The coach of the team is former Nigeria international Stephen Keshi, and everyone in Togo agrees he’s the key to their success. At 43 years old, he’s the advance guard of a new breed of African coaches, who have the cultural background and the European experience to make an impact. He spent most of his professional career in Belgium, served as assistant coach of the Super Eagles under Jo Bonfrere, and got his coaching degree in Holland. When he took the Togo job, the squad was in transition. A strong generation of players, who had made the Nations Cup three times running (1998, 2000, 2002), was in decline. Coach Antonio Dumas, a Brazilian, could think of nothing better than naturalizing a bunch of his countrymen to keep the side competitive. Keshi stepped in, reorganized the squad, installed a classic 4-4-2, emphasized discipline and cohesiveness.
They started slowly, to say the least: with two Brazilians still in the lineup, they managed to lose 0:1 at a not-exactly-awesome Equatorial Guinea. A month later the Kegue Stadium was less than half full for the return leg. But those who were there saw eleven Africans, zero Brazilians, and a 2:0 win, one of the goals by Adebayor. You know the rest: an opening loss to Zambia, then seven wins in nine games, crowds overflowing in the stands, millions in the streets.
Can Togo make an impact in Germany? On paper, no. Adebayor, who starts for Monaco, is their only big talent; the rest of the group bounces around on lesser teams, mostly in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. Only about half are first-teamers at their clubs. There are a few exciting prospects, like right back Emmanuel Mathias, who plays in Tunisia. But mostly it’s a bunch of guys who just play well together. Sort of like that other team from West Africa, back in 2002--what was their name, Senegal?
Group Two (Ghana)
Look out, folks, Ghana’s here. The Black Stars are one of the most storied sides in Africa--although if you’re young, you might not know what the fuss is about. But before Cameroon and Nigeria, there was Ghana. They won the Nations Cup in 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982. Time after time they were favorites in the World Cup qualifiers, and time after time they flopped. But they kept producing young talent: FIFA U-17 World Champions in 1991 and 1995, runners-up in 1993 and 1997, third place in 1999. The U-20’s also finished second in 1993 and 2001. And still they flopped. In the 1994 qualifiers, they were eliminated in the first round on an 85th minute goal by Algeria. In the 1998 qualifiers, they finished third in their group, behind even Sierra Leone. In 2002, they finished fourth, behind even Sudan. In 2003, they hit rock bottom, last in their Nations Cup qualifying group, behind Rwanda and Uganda. As fourth seed in Group 2 this time, no one would have been surprised to see them flop again.
But these guys have talent, Boy, do they have talent. Like Michael Essien, the thirty-zillion-euro man now enjoying London life at a little club called Chelsea. Like Sammy Kuffour, a Champions League winner at Bayern, now with Roma. Like Stephen Appiah, eight years in Serie A (including a stint at Juventus), now at Fenerbahce. And like the next big star, Sulley Muntari, currently a bit under the radar at Udinese, but an odds-on bet to join a big club real soon. Ghana may be debutantes, but don’t be shocked if they’re the belles of the ball.
So what was different this year? Again, coaching. The team got off to a good start under Mariano Barreto: although they lost the opener at Burkina Faso, they stomped South Africa, drew on the road at Uganda, and handled Cape Verde without much trouble. And then Barreto quit. No warning, no comment, no nothing. He just got out of Dodge and went back to his native Portugal. With a chaotic FA, and that long, long history of failure behind them, it looked as if Ghana were headed for the scrap heap again. A scoreless draw home to DR Congo under interim head coach Samuel Arday just confirmed the diagnosis.
But then Ratomir “Doya” Dujkovic stepped in. The Ghanians knew him all too well: he was the guy who had coached Rwanda to the 2004 Nations Cup, leaving the Black Stars in their wake. In the past he had coached such perennial minnows as Venezuela and Burma, to very little success. But in Africa he had found the right setting. Once in Ghana he got results immediately: a crucial draw at DR Congo, a come-from-behind win against Burkina Faso. When Kuffour became a disciplinary problem, he dropped him and held firm. Then the big one: South Africa in Johannesburg. Before 50000 hostile fans, the team held its own in the first half and swept the hosts aside 2:0 in the second. When they followed up by beating Uganda, and South Africa collapsed, a berth was nearly theirs. All they needed was a draw at Cape Verde, and even a loss would probably see them through.
Under such circumstances they could easily have lost their concentration, maybe even their nerve. Cape Verde, with a famously bad home pitch, isn’t an easy place to play. But Ghana simply took care of business. Muntari opened the scoring in only the third minute, and they waltzed 4:0. Nothing more clearly shows the new spirit in the side.
Ghana will stand up and be counted in Germany. The midfield, with Appiah, Essien, and Muntari, should be one of the best in the tournament. If Kuffour is back in the fold, he and John Mensah will make a fine central defensive pairing. The strike force looks a bit thin, though; at this point only Matthew Amoah of Vitesse Arnhem has been up to scratch. And of course a lot can happen between now and then. But come summer 2006, a lot of people should know why the Black Stars are such a big name in Africa. And it’s about time.
Group Three (Ivory Coast)
OK, so you’re a sports journalist. Your country has never qualified for the World Cup, but this year they’ve come up with a powerhouse. They steamroller through the group, they seem a cinch to make it. Except they still have to get a draw at home to the favorites, the pedigree team that’s been to the World Cup no less than five times. And your boys choke. They lose. It looks they’re out of it--and you savage them. You call the coach incompetent, the midfield a disaster, the defense a bunch of losers, and the goalkeeper hopeless. You come up with every horrible word you can think of. And then a month later, miraculously, the pedigree team chokes as well. And suddenly your team is in. The guys you slammed so viciously are now national heroes. What do you say?
Welcome to Ivory Coast. If ever a group had a dramatic turnaround, it was this one. The Elephants had failed in the big game in September in Abidjan, and went to Sudan knowing they needed a miracle, and were powerless to effect it. It had been a magnificent campaign, but they had dropped to second place, and a Cameroon win at home to Egypt would finish them off. As expected, the boys had little trouble with the desert minnows, cruising to an easy 3:1 win. But all eyes, hearts, and hopes were on Yaoundé.
It wasn’t a sure thing for Cameroon. Egypt was a tough foe. But the Pharaohs had nothing to play for, their top striker was injured, and the Indomitable Lions had two decades of indomitability on their side. They controlled the action from the kickoff, and it was no surprise at all when they took the lead in the 20th minute. Salomon Olembe sent in a nifty cross from the left, and Rudolph Douala’s cracking volley found the net. At that point you would have expected the Lions to roar the Pharoahs off the field. But it didn’t happen. Lots of attack, but no more goals, and as the game went on, Cameroon got more tentative. In the second half they more or less stopped manufacturing chances, and Egypt had more play in midfield. Still, with not much time left, the Lions looked like winners.
Then fantasy, or nightmare, depending on where you stood. In the 79th minute an Egyptian corner was cleared, and Ahmed Hassan sent in a hopeful cross from the right. Somehow it eluded everyone in the box and bounced to the far post--where Mohammed Shawky burst in for the shock equalizer. Ten minutes of regulation time still remained, and all of them belonged to Cameroon, but corner after corner produced nothing. Was that it? Could the Lions really be out?
Then tragedy, or glory, again depending on your point of view--but either way, it was farce. The Malian referee signaled for 5 minutes of extra time. And deep in, deep deep in, Olembe, dribbling in the box, went down. The ref very generously (some would say scandalously) signaled the penalty. Samuel Eto’O, perhaps the finest striker on the planet, the man who had personally offered thousands of dollars in bonuses to his teammates if they qualified, chose not to take the PK. He ceded the job to Pierre Womé, a man who had failed from the spot in the penalty shootout in the Final of the 2002 Nations Cup.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Lions were doing their part, crowding around Egyptian keeper Essam Al-Hadary. What were they saying? Maybe “Millions of euros if you’ll just lie down!” or “He’s going to hit it to your left, dive right,” or possibly “Nice Semitic nose you have there--it’d be a shame if someone were to mess it up…”
And so, finally, we were ready. Womé, a left footer, took his runup. Al-Hadary dived right. Womé shot left. And the ball hit the outside of the post. Cameroon were out. Al-Hadary threw his hands up in triumph, and to his credit looked as if he meant it. The Lions--well, you can guess. And their fans…you don’t want to know. Womé’s family is now under police protection, which maybe explains why Eto’O passed.
And so Ivory Coast are in, and we’re glad to see them. They have an oustanding front line in Didier Drogba and Aruna Dindane, midfield stars in Bonaventure Kalou and Didier “Maestro” Zokora, a backline stalwart in Kolo Touré. The defense can look a bit shaky at times, and there’s no clear playmaker, but this is a quality side. The coach is Henri Michel, who has certainly seen his share of battles. Right now the Elephants look like Africa’s leading candidate for honors in Germany.
Oh, and the Ivorian media? Euphoria, of course--but somehow they managed to avoid praising the coach and the team. It was all about Egypt’s comeback (“Shikran,” said one paper, “thank you” in Arabic), about the incredible good fortune, about the delirium in the streets, about the thrill of qualification. No “you’re wonderful, guys!” No “Henri Michel, what a genius!” But with millions celebrating their heroes, soon the press will have to change its tune. And can Elephants forget?
Group Four (Angola)
Your vocabulary word for the day is “lusophone.” It means “Portuguese-speaking,” and it celebrates that for the first time, the three largest Portuguese-speaking nations will be at the World Cup. There’s Brazil, of course, and Portugal, naturally. And then there’s Angola. Did you know they spoke Portuguese in Angola? OK, you did. But did you know Angola is actually the second-largest Portuguese-speaking nation, larger even than Portugal? Wow, you knew that too. Okay, for the big prize, try this: name a player on the Angolan football team.
Stumped you. The Palancas Negras are the biggest surprise of all, bigger even than Togo. Without a single player in any of the big five leagues in Europe, they bested Nigeria, the largest nation on the continent, one of the great powers of African football. And when we say “bested,” we mean that literally. The teams finished even on points, and in any of the previous sixteen World Cup qualifying tournaments, Nigeria, not Angola, would have gone through on goal difference. But this time, for the first time ever, the tiebreaker was head-to-head results. Angola won 1:0 at home in Luanda, and drew 1:1 on the road at Kano. They won their spot in the best possible way: by direct competition. Lusophonic!
Still, the berth was in doubt up until the very last moment. Nigeria figured to handle Zimbabawe at home (the final was 5:1), and so Angola were faced with the by-no-means trivial task of winning at Rwanda. Before the game--this being Africa--the big story was bribery. The Nigerian papers were sure Angola would try to fix the match. Reports insisted that eight Angolans were seen roaming Kigali handing out cash to everyone they could find. (Why eight? Why not five, or nine, or three? It’s like a joke--how many Angolans does it take to fix a qualifier?) The Rwandans were forced to go public to insist the game would be honest.
In the end, if the Angolans did try to fix it, they did a lousy job. In an uneven game on a hard pitch, Rwanda had the better chances, particularly in the first half, and kept the visitors at bay for much of the afternoon. And when in the 37th minute Angolan striker Fabrice Maieco “Akwa” tumbled over in the penalty area, did the ref count his money and signal the PK? Nope, he merely waved play on. A moment later Rwandan keeper Ramadhani Nkunzingoma made an excellent save to deny Flavio. In the 52nd minute he did it again, parrying Akwa’s dramatic bicycle kick. A few minutes later, Rwandan striker Honoré Kabongo hit the woodwork. With time winding down, Angola had everyone in attack, but the incorruptible Rwandans seemed ready to keep them out of Germany.
But this was D-Day, Debutante Day, in Africa, and the Palancas Negras could not be denied. In the 79th minute, winger Zé Kalanga played a neat one-two with striker Mantorras, and crossed from the right to the far post. Nkunzingoma came out uncertainly--he probably should have stayed on his line--and there was Akwa, unmarked, to head home. That he was the hero was fitting. He’s the talisman of the side, the great veteran, in his third World Cup campaign. In 1998, he got the goal that earned the team a famous draw with Cameroon. In 2002, he went one better, scoring a winner against the same Indomitable Lions. But this one, of course, was best of all.
Angola’s coach is Luis Oliveira Gonçalves, hurriedly picked to replace Ismael Kurtz after a disastrous opening 1:3 loss at minnows Chad. He rallied the team to a 2:0 win in the return leg, advancing on away goals, and was signed for the duration. If Stephen Keshi is the new breed, Gonçalves is the old guard. He has more than 20 years of coaching experience in Angola, most notably leading the U-20’s to the African title and a second-round berth in the FIFA championship in 2001. He’s said he’s tired of coaching, and would have retired had he not been chosen to head the team. Like Keshi, though, he knows the value of order and teamwork--and so Angola is in Germany, and Nigeria, with all their luminaries, is not.
The Palancas Negras will be the darkest horse among the African qualifiers. Some of their key players come from that U-20 side: playmaker Gilberto, midfielder Mendonça, striker Mantorras. For the moment, Mantorras, now with Benfica, is the only member of the squad with pretensions to stardom, and he’s hobbled with bad knees. But Gonçalves is a tireless recruiter, and you can be sure he’ll be combing Europe for men with the right ancestry. And there’s always Akwa. Still, it’s best not to worry about how they’ll do just yet. You can use the next eight months to brush up on your Portuguese. Parabéns, Angola! Eu acredito!
Group Five (Tunisia)
OK, I admit it: we’ve been unfair to Tunisia. After all, they’re going to Germany too. They got the result they needed against the toughest opponent of all. And the fans in Tunis looked every bit as delirious as those in the other capitals. They’re just as worthy of our praise and joy. Can I get an Allez les Aigles de Carthage here?
But of course we’ve been here before. Tunisia is the ripe banana in this year’s bunch, the one and only World Cup veteran side. It’s their third straight qualification, fourth overall. Back in 1978 they were the very first African side to make a genuine impact, and if you were lucky enough to see them play, you probably still hold some affection for the white-and-red. But in recent years they’ve done little to stir the blood. Ordinary in 1998, worse in 2002. Can you forgive us if we’re not overjoyed?
And then there was the decider against Morocco. It had a special meaning for me: after years of following African football, it was the very first African WC qualifier I’d ever seen. And it still has a special meaning: it’s one of the very few football games I absolutely never want to see again.
Dreadful? You would have begged for dreadful. For 90 minutes--was it only 90?--the teams threw elbows, crashed bodies, wasted time, writhed on the ground, delivered bad passes, inept dribbles, comical shots. But it was 2:2, you say? Four goals must count for something. But one came on a ridiculous defensive error, one on a penalty, one on a free-for-all in the box, and one purely by accident. If someone had actually done something right, the stadium would have collapsed.
But now we really are being unfair. It was a rotten game, but derbies like this are rarely pretty. I’ve seen a few USA-Mexico contests that weren’t much better. And make no mistake: Tunisia deserved the result. They came from behind twice, and were throughout the more enterprising and skilful team. Only three minutes in they fell behind when Hatem Trabelsi’s giveaway led to a Marouane Chamakh tap-in. But they never panicked, just went on playing, and fifteen minutes later José Clayton got the equalizer from the spot after Talal El Karkouri had taken down Riadh Bouazizi. (That Bouazizi was headed directly away from the goal was typical for this game.)
Shortly before halftime, the Eagles fell behind again. A cross from the left found Youssef Hadji unmarked in the area; he botched the chest trap, but in the ensuing melee El Karkouri stuck out a leg and found the net. And again Tunisia could have wobbled. But after the interval they attacked with urgency, and when the second and decisive equalizer came, accident or no, it was well deserved. In the 69th minute a good passing sequence found Adel Chedli free on the left wing; his cross was off the mark, but so off the mark that it became a shot. Keeper Nadir Lamyaghyri was completely fooled, and El Karkouri’s desperate clearance merely sent the ball into the goal a few milliseconds early.
It’ll make a few blooper reels--but as we say, Tunisia deserved the goal and the result. Morocco had no answer: in fact, they managed only one semi-chance the entire second half, with Hadji shooting wide from a narrow angle. In the final minutes, with Morocco pressing forward helplessly, Tunisia could easily have had several more. As it turned out, they preferred to exaggerate fouls and fake injuries, but they weren’t the first and won’t be the last. I’m no masochist; I still never want to see the game again. But the right team won--er, drew.
And so Tunisia will try to better 1998 and 2002. Both times they managed only one point, and only one goal. The tables show them with 25 goals in the qualifiers, not bad at all--but can they score against top opposition? The strike force is good, with Francileudo dos Santos, Ziad Jaziri, and new star Haykel Guemamdia, but the old old problem, midfield inspiration, has yet to be solved. Slim Ben Achour has the right profile, but is inconsistent; Hamed Namouchi is dangerous, but not really a playmaker. The first time Roger Lemerre coached in the World Cup, his team got exactly zero goals--and that was France! But you can’t deny Tunisia has the experience. And if they seem less exciting than Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Angola, it’s only because we know them so well. As lovers of African football, we hope they carry the banner as high as everyone else. And so, with a flourish, Allez les Aigles de Carthage!
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