Peter Goldstein


 
Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Preview: 2006 African Nations Cup



    The African Nations Cup is my favorite regional tournament. It may not have the star power of the European Championship, the history of the Copa America, the crazy controversies of the Asian Cup, the alluring obscurity of the Oceania Nations Cup, or the--well, the Gold Cup doesn't have much of anything. But what the African Nations Cup has, that no other competition will ever have, is, very simply, Africa, the most breathless and exciting football region on earth.

    For those of European descent, the African game often appears through the lens of the bad old colonialist attitudes. It's easy to see African football as undeveloped and unstable--like the games of a child, delightful, innocent, yet out of control and ultimately unsatisfactory. For much of the world, the lasting image of African football is still Cameroon 1990, a team alternately brilliant and horrifying, a team that was eight minutes away from the World Cup semifinals but couldn't keep their shape or their wits when the chips were down.

    But this view makes two significant errors. First, African football is no more monolithic than European. Just as in Europe, there's a primary division between north and south, where culture and climate combine to produce two different approaches to the game. There are further nuances from region to region, and indeed within regions themselves. The traditional Nigerian style relies on power and changes of pace; the traditional Ghanaian style is more technical, more of a dance. Watch the Nations Cup and you'll see as great a variety as you'll find in any region of the world.

    That's just between the white lines, though. The deeper mistake is to see African football as inferior, and what is worse, to see it as a manifestation of an inferior culture. Just as the region's endemic social problems tempt us to view Africa as naïve and chaotic, beneath the more efficient and resourceful Europe or America, so the failure of African football at the World Cup seems to mark a raw and unruly game that, whatever virtues it may have, is simply not good enough.

    It's true that the world is by and large controlled by European races and their money. But does that make us better? Europe and America have developed more sophisticated social and political systems, in which the fundamental sins of humankind--the hunger for wealth and the thirst for power--are more controlled, more easily assimilated into an ordered society. But is the businessman who funnels his unlawful takings through fifteen unmarked bank accounts any better than the corrupt official who demands an open bribe? Is the politician who steals an election by altering an electronic vote-count any better than the strongman who holds power through arms? Is Sepp Blatter really any better than Robert Mugabe?

    It's also true that African football has had little success at the highest level. Year after year brings disappoinment at the World Cup. But when England defeated Cameroon at the death in 1990, and Italy similarly defeated Nigeria in 1994, perhaps it was our loss, not theirs. In 2002, would Germany or Cameroon have better graced the knockout rounds? We must see African football with fresh eyes. We must say that this is a game with as much to offer as any in the world. We should view it not from the heights of the Alps, near where FIFA holds court, but from ground level, from the desert, the rainforest, or the savanna, where these cultures produce their characteristic beauty and brilliance.

    And indeed there is something very beautiful about African football. It is the beauty of candor and directness. It comes from the heart. And behind it is an unashamed devotion to the game, an unaffected sense that football matters as deeply as anything in life. Go online and read the newspapers in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia. If you can read French, add on Morocco, Tunisia, Togo, Guinea, Côte D'Ivoire, Senegal, Cameroon, DR Congo. If you know Spanish, you can fake Portuguese, so look at Angola. If you can read Arabic (I sure wish I could), check out Egypt and Libya. Everywhere you'll see a fervor and authenticity that makes our European irony and subtlety seem insipid. Then turn on the television and watch the Nations Cup, and you'll see football with the same qualities, football that at times we only wish we could play. By the objective standard of wins and losses, European football is better. But who says we have to be objective? The African game is its own very special self. To follow African football is to love it.


The Nations Cup


    The African Nations Cup is held every two years. It's a 16-team tournament, just like the European Championship. Four groups of four, two teams per group advancing, with quarterfinals, semifinals, and a Final. You've seen it all before.

    But there are matters distinct to Africa which give the Nations Cup its special flavor. In Europe, 16 teams make the European Championship, and maybe 14 or 15 make the World Cup. The usual suspects are in contention for both, and there's no real difference. If you expect to make the one, you expect to make the other. If for some reason you miss the Euro, you can always make it up with interest by qualifying for the World.

    But in Africa, 16 teams play in the Nations Cup, and only 5 in the World Cup. That means that teams that may never qualify for a World Cup have a chance to make the Nations Cup. This is likely the highest level of competition they'll ever get, and as a result it means more. Zimbabwe started out fast in the WC qualifiers, then got smacked down by Nigeria and were never again in serious contention for Germany. But when they clinched a Nations Cup spot by beating Rwanda at home, they took a lap of honor, and every inch was glorious territory indeed. A former Zimbabwean international recently had this advice for coach Charles Mhlauri: "He should tell his players that the Nations Cup finals is no place for the faint-hearted and they must be prepared to die for their country."

    There's another way the World Cup gives the Nations Cup added importance. The African WC qualifying system uses a final group stage, with only the group winners qualifying. Accordingly, top teams are seeded into the groups, and rarely meet each other. Cameroon hasn't met Nigeria or Tunisia in the qualifiers in 16 years. Nigeria hasn't met Tunisia in 20. In Europe, because so many teams qualify, rivalries can get renewed in the World Cup proper. Africa doesn't have that luxury. So the Nations Cup is the only place the African heavyweights can shoot it out, and you can be sure those games have special meaning.

    The recent change in the qualifying system has to some degree changed the tournament's profile. In the past, Africa held separate Nations Cup and World Cup qualifiers. Now they've been merged, at least in World Cup years, to relieve fixture congestion. It was a good move, but had some costs as well. The former Nations Cup qualifiers were 3- and 4-team groups. Small groups mean fewer games, and more chances for an upset. For example, Rwanda and Benin, longtime minnows, both squeezed into the tournament for the first time in 2002. But the combined qualifiers were 6-team groups, and the 10-game schedule allowed more time for stronger sides to show their class. Under such a system upsets will be few. Of the 16 teams in this year's tournament, the only real surprise was Libya, and even they had a special dispensation: since host Egypt qualified automatically, the fourth-place team in their group also went through.

    Presumably, the old system will still be used in off-year tournaments, and that's good. Upsets are always a good thing for the show. But the combined system has its value too, because right now we know we have the 16 best teams in Africa.

    Which brings us to one last point before we get to the groups. We may have the best teams--but will we have the best players? For every two years the Nations Cup runs into the same problem. It's invariably played in the middle of the European season. Clubs don't want to let their players go, and every time the players face the club-country dilemma. It's a no-win situation: train and play for your country for more than a month, and you risk your place at the club, which is after all your livelihood. Stay with your club, and you miss the greatest honor a footballer can receive.

    Twenty years ago it wasn't such a problem, since relatively few African players went to European leagues. But now most of the top Africans are in Europe, and a large number of players must confront the awkward choice. One report says that Côte D'Ivoire centerback Abdoulaye Meite's potential transfer to Newcastle could depend on his renouncing the Nations Cup. As of this writing, several players are joining camp late, but of the major figures, only Yakubu Aiyegbeni of Nigeria has said no to the entire tournament. (A few stars, like Michael Essien and Shabani Nonda, are out injured, but that's a different matter.) At some point Africa will probably have to change their calendar; for the moment, let's just be thankful that almost everyone has chosen to play.


The Nations Cup 2006


    The poor showing of the traditional powers in the WC qualifiers has thrown this year's tournament wide open. Côte D'Ivoire, who didn't even qualify in 2004, are an obvious contender. Ghana have injury problems, but also plenty of momentum from their WC qualifying run. Cameroon and Nigeria are under pressure to redeem their failures. Tunisia, the defending champion, is a good choice, but then so is Egypt, the host team and a traditional power themselves. Senegal could be a dark horse, and how good are Togo and Angola really?

    I'm guessing Egypt. The home team always has a big advantage at the Nations Cup--10 out of 24 tournaments, fully 40%, have been won by the hosts. Egypt has hosted three times, and won two of them, 1959 and 1986. They're a high-scoring team, and will likely cut loose before the home folks. But more teams than ever seem to have a chance this year, and we look forward to providing reports on what promises to be an outstanding tournament. Here's a look at the groups.


Group A (Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Côte D'Ivoire)


    You know how home teams usually get an easy draw? Egypt must be wondering what went wrong. This group is second only to Group D in overall quality, and the presence of three North African teams will assure a derby atmosphere. Nothing will come easy here for the Pharoahs.

    Nevertheless, Egypt has to be a favorite to go far. Despite finishing third in their group, they were the highest-scoring team in the African qualifiers. They have a host of fine strikers, including the ever-newsworthy Mido (Tottenham), and prolific regulars Emad Motaeb (Al Ahly), Amr Zaki (ENPPI), and Ahmed Bilal (Konyaspor). In the midfield there's attacking punch from Hassan Mostafa (Al Ahly) and perhaps the key man on the side, Mohamed Barakat (Al Ahly), pacy, tireless, creative, the kind of player who can change a game all by himself.

    The big question for Egypt is whether their free-scoring ways will be enough to compensate for suspect defense and goalkeeping. They allowed 15 goals in the group stage, worse than Congo, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Gabon, and tied with Cape Verde, Uganda, and Algeria, none of whom got close to qualifying for the tournament. To make matters worse, a knee injury will keep young centerback Amir Azmy (PAOK) out of the tournament, and defensive midfielder Mohamed Shawky (Al Ahly) is doubtful as well. The best centerback pairing looks like Abdelzaher El-Saqqa (Konyaspor) and Wael Gomaa (Al Ahly). Keeper is a quandary: Abdelwahed El-Sayed (Zamalek) is probably the best of the bunch, but he's been inactive for a while due to injury. Essam Al-Hadary (Al Ahly) has the shot-stopping skills, but struggles badly with crosses.

    Another question for Egypt is coaching. When Marco Tardelli was sacked a year ago, they signed local man Hassan Shehata only as interim coach, figuring the World Cup was out of reach. But when the time came to hire a European coach for the Nations Cup, the FA came up empty, and so Shehata was kept in the job. At 55, he's an experienced coach at club level, and took the U-20's to the African Championship in 2003 and a quarterfinal place at the FIFA tournament the next summer. But he's in a different league here, and we don't know whether he's up to the pressure. Certainly the fans don't think so--go on some English-language forums and you'll get an eyeful.

    Speaking of coaching, Henri Michel of Côte D'Ivoire is another guy nobody trusts, which is just plain weird. He took the Elephants to their first World Cup berth, topping the Group of Death no less. Ordinarily when this happens, the coach gets a marble statue, or a box of gold bars, or at least a house and a luxury car. But these days Michel is lucky to get a cup of coffee. Although Côte D'Ivoire is a country literally divided by a horrible civil war, the one thing everyone agrees on is that the coach isn't as good as he thinks. When Michel announced his 23-man squad for the tournament, a leading newspaper, in headlines no less, called him a charlatan. What's a guy to do?

    Whether or not it's Michel's fault, there is something a bit unsettled in the squad. Certainly there are no problems up front, with established stars like Didier Drogba (Chelsea) and Aruna Dindane (Lens), and rising youngsters like Arouna Koné (PSV). But the midfield has yet to cohere. Didier "Maestro" Zokora (St. Etienne) is a lock at defensive midfield, and attacker Bonaventure Kalou (PSG) has to play somewhere, but the other spots are still up for grabs, and Michel has yet to settle on an effective structure. In the qualifiers it was 4-4-2, but in a recent friendly vs. Italy a 4-3-3 proved effective. And does he add a defensive type like Yaya Touré (Olympiakos), or an attacker like Gilles Yapi Yapo or Emerse Faé (both Nantes)?

    The defense has caused some problems too. Kolo Touré (Arsenal) is the main man in the middle, but the team has yet to find a consistent partner. Abdoulaye Meïte (Marseille) is probably the best bet, although he hasn't had much action at his club lately. Guy Demel (Hamburg) has had plenty of club time, but Michel prefers him as a midfielder. Goalkeeping is a question mark at the moment as well. Regular starter Jean-Jacques Tizié (Espérance) is just back from injury and might not be in form, and his deputies have been inconsistent.

    But it's easy to dwell on the weaknesses. When a team is as good as Côte D'Ivoire, problems like these seem worse than they are. The team has some of the best talent in Africa, and despite the difficult draw, they'll be aiming for nothing less than the title.

    Morocco was the revelation of the Nations Cup in 2004. A young squad figured to be among the also-rans, but former Moroccan international Badou Ezaki led them all the way to the Final. Even though they lost to host and arch-rival Tunisia, the coach and side were celebrated as heroes.

    But what a difference two years make. They fell one goal short of qualifying for the World Cup, denied by Tunisia again, and this time the country wasn't so forgiving. Ezaki was out, replaced by none other than Phillipe Troussier. He had a four-year deal, presumably designed to build the side for the 2010 World Cup. Except two months later, his contract was, in the inimitable words of the PR men, "amicably terminated" because of "profound differences in philosophy." There's a lot more to this story (rows over pre-tournament schedules, FA officials resigning in protest), but the bottom line is that with exactly three weeks to prepare for Côte D'Ivoire and Egypt, local man Mohamed Fakhir was thrown into the deep end of a very deep pool. With sharks.

    He's already swimming for his life. He started with a couple of bold moves: 1) dropping one of the heroes of 2004, striker Jaouad Zairi (Sochaux); 2) bringing back some warhorses from the France '98 generation: defender Noureddine Naybet (Tottenham), midfielders Youssef Chippo (Al-Wakra) and Gharib Amzine (Troyes). Then he thought about it a bit, and changed his mind on number 1), calling Zairi back into the squad. It's pretty obvious what caused the change: goals. In only 3 of 10 qualifiers did Morocco manage to score more than once, and that's what cost them the WC berth.

    With Zairi back in, there are four strikers fighting for places, the others being Marouane Chamakh (Bordeaux), Youssef Hadji (Rennes), and Ali Boussaboun (Feyenoord). Zairi is the best dribbler, Chamakh has the overall skills, Hadji is the battler, Boussaboun has the hardest shot. The best solution might be to play two up front with Hadji in a withdrawn role, where his energy can more effectively propel the attack. Unfortunately there's no true playmaker. Houssine Kharja (Roma), although a decent all-rounder, doesn't have the creativity. Nourredine Boukhari (Ajax), normally a left-sided player, might be a possibility there, with Moha Yaacoubi (Osasuna) in an attacking role on the left.

    At least the defense is solid. Youssef Safri (Norwich City) is a rugged defensive midfielder. The fullbacks, Badr El-Kaddouri (Dynamo Kiev) on the left and Walid Regragui (Racing Santander) on the right, are particularly strong. Centerback Talal El-Karkouri has had difficulties at Charlton this season, but is reliable for the national squad, as is partner Abdelsalam Ouaddou (Rennes). Naybet could still prove useful if either falters.

    The coaching chaos doesn't help Morocco's chances, and they're unlikely to win the tournament. But they came very close to qualifying for the World Cup, and maybe the personnel shakeup will give them fresh momentum. They're still strong enough to do some damage to the favorites, and even in a group like this, the quarterfinals aren't out of the question.

    Libya is the longshot here. The record shows that in 1982 they made the Final, but that year they were the hosts. In fact, this is the first time they've ever actually qualified for the Nations Cup. Yet they proved a very tough foe in the group stage, particularly at home, getting draws with Cameroon and Côte D'Ivoire, and a win over Egypt. They rely mostly on a packed defense, keeping the score down and hoping for the counterattack. They have a genuine star in Tarek El-Taieb (Gaziantepspor), a skilled and intelligent playmaker. Home-based Nader Kara (Al-Olomby) has proven an effective striker as well. Word is a huge contingent of Libyan fans are making the journey to support the side. Unfortunately, the team no longer has the element of surprise, especially with both Egypt and Côte D'Ivoire repeating from their qualifying group. They also may not have a coach; at last report, after a friendly loss to Qatar, the FA were ready to sack Ilija Loncarevic. So although they might manage a draw or two, they seem unlikely to advance.


Group B (Cameroon, Angola, Togo, DR Congo)


    When Pierre Womé's penalty kick hit the post, the curtain came down on the longest-running show in Africa. Cameroon had failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. It was nearly unthinkable. The sight of Samuel Eto'o on his back, wailing uncontrollably, pressing his hands to his face to smother the tears, was at once utterly compelling and much too painful to watch.

    But time marches on, and the Indomitable Lions must now find a way to recover their glory. The Nations Cup is the perfect place to start. They're still the team that beat Côte D'Ivoire twice, and they've drawn a manageable group. The bookmakers have installed them as the 9-2 favorite, and there's no reason they can't raise the cup.

    But to do it they'll have to overcome their two chronic weaknesses. The first is up front. Eto'o (Barcelona) may be the best striker in the world, but he still doesn't have sufficient help. Achille Webo (Osasuna) and Rudolph Douala (Sporting Lisbon) have had their moments--most notably Webo's remarkable hat trick against Côte D'Ivoire--but neither is consistent, and Artur Jorge's usual 4-3-3 sometimes leaves Eto'o unconnected.

    The second problem is the lack of a midfield engine. Saidou Alioum (Galatasaray), Jean Makoun (Lille), and Salomon Olembe (Al Rayyan) are all talented players, but none is a take-charge man. In the win over Côte D'Ivoire in Abidjan, the Lions effectively masked the weakness with quick passing exchanges with the strikers, but you need to be in top form for that.

    The defense is filled with familiar names: Womé (Inter Milan), Timothée Atouba (Hamburg), Raymond Kalla (Sivasspor), Rigobert Song (Galatasaray), and Geremi Njitap (Chelsea), who sometimes drops back from midfield. Keeper Souleymanou Hamidou (Denizlispor) is all right, if not up to heroes of old like Bell and Songo'o. The team shouldn't allow too many goals.

    Will it be enough? Cameroon have the players, and they should have the motivation. Unfortunately, the Lions never seem to approach a major tournament without some sort of crisis. Less than a week ago, coach Artur Jorge, unpaid for six months, threatened to boycott training camp. A compromise has apparently been reached, and one assumes the team will muddle through as always--but then they expected to muddle past Côte D'Ivoire in the qualifiers too.

    There's a side in this group that had the best record in Africa. By the end of the qualifiers they were unstoppable. They and their coach were the toast of the confederation, maybe even the world. And the Hawks of Togo are still a mystery team. Not only don't we know how good they are, we don't even know who'll take the field when the tournament starts.

    In part that's because Stephen Keshi has been traveling throughout Europe, recruiting new players in the drive to Germany. It's also because the Togolese preparations are somewhat behind the rest of the field. Keshi submitted a detailed training plan, but the FA failed to follow through, and their schedule was the last to be fixed. Players have been openly critical of the federation, and that eternal African scourge, a bonus dispute, nearly broke up the squad. Perhaps the whole WC qualifying business caught the country unawares, or maybe it's just garden-variety incompetence. Either way, Togo seem to be thinking more about Germany than Egypt. Assuming they eventually get in gear, they'll probably use the Nations Cup to refine the side for the big event this summer.

    One spot that doesn't need refinement is striker, where the unquestioned star is Emmanuel Adebayor (Monaco), big, intelligent, with excellent technique. His 10 goals in the group stage were fully half the team's total. Kader Coubadja (Sochaux) was his regular partner, although veteran Robert Malm (Brest) has now joined the side and could take his spot.

    In midfield, the most effective attacking options have come from the wings, with Sherif-Touré Maman (Metz) on the left and either Moustapha Salifou (Brest) or Yao Senaya Junior (Juventus Zurich) on the right. The more defensive players, such as Yao Aziawonou (Young Boys Bern) and Alexis Romao (CS Louhans-Cuiseaux), have patrolled the middle.

    The big questions are on defense. The centerback pairing of Daré Nibombe (Mons) and Jean-Paul Abalo (Dunkerque) was uncertain throughout the qualifiers, and had to be saved time and again by keeper Kossi Agassa (Metz). Kodjo Afanou (Bordeaux), one of Keshi's chief targets in Europe, declined to join up for the moment, and a solution isn't clear. The only sure starter appears to be Zanzan Atte-Oudeyi (Lokeren) at left back.

    Like we say, Togo are a mystery, although presumably they'll be less of one when the tournament ends. Keshi doesn't hesitate to vary his personnel, so we could see a variety of combinations. The best approach is to watch and learn, and hopefully they'll show us what all the fuss has been about.

    Angola was the other shock qualifier, but on paper they seem more of a known quantity. They're in the midst of a well-planned buildup, and although they've added a player or two since the qualifiers, it's likely to be much the same squad that beat out Nigeria. They don't score much (only 12 goals in 10 games), don't concede much (only Ghana allowed fewer goals), play within themselves, and get results. In a mid-strength group like this one they can certainly advance.

    Right now the major difficulty is the back line, where they've been hit with a one-two scandal. First, starting centerback Kali (Barreirense) was suspended for doping in the Portuguese league--he's just become eligible again, and might not be match fit. Then starting left back Yamba Asha (AS Aviaçao) tested positive from the final qualifier; he's out pending verification of the results. Coach Oliveira Gonçalves is looking at several Portuguese-based players to fill the left back spot; he's also added centerback Rui Marques (Leeds) as depth. Home-based players such as right back Jacinto (AS Aviaçao), and centerbacks Jamba (AS Aviaçao) and Lebo-Lebo (Sagrada Esperança) are the main candidates for the other spots. With starting keeper João Ricardo clubless for the moment, the defense will have to be firm.

    The midfield is a strong point, with smooth left-footer Gilberto (Al Ahly), defensive anchor André Makanga (Kuwait SC), playmaker Figueiredo and his Varzim teammate Mendonça. Edson Nobre (Paços de Ferreira) is a recruit who has impressed in recent friendlies.

    Up front is a set of contrasting stories. There's Pedro Mantorras (Benfica), the young, superbly skilled centerforward with fragile knees, and Akwá (Qatar SC), the senior citizen, the team's all-time leading scorer, and the man who got the goal that sent them to Germany. Look out also for Ze Kalanga (Petro de Luanda), an exciting winger who often comes off the bench.

    It's a shame Togo and Angola were drawn together; it would have been nice to see them both go up against more storied opponents. With Cameroon a near-lock to advance, there's only one spot left. Right now both teams have issues on defense. But if stability counts, pick Angola.

    DR Congo is a mid-level team with genuine potential. In the qualifiers they drew twice with Ghana and grabbed a win and a draw with South Africa. At the moment, though, they're scrambling to find a best eleven. Star striker Shabani Nonda (Roma) is injured and will miss the tournament. Regular centerback Serge Bageta Dikilu (Ajax Cape Town) is suspended until March for striking an official. None of the keepers has convinced. Not all the European players have committed to the team.

    Still, there's enough talent to give it a go. Lomana LuaLua (Portsmouth) is a dangerous striker, and Calvin Zola (Tranmere) is moving into the frame as his partner. Marcel Mbayo (Sakaryaspor) and joker Mbuta Mbala (Yverdon) offer quality midfield play. Herita Ilunga (St. Etienne) is a worthy left back, and the Ajax Cape Town centerback pair of Cyrille Mubiala Kitambala and Tshiolola Tshinyama have plenty of experience. If Togo and Angola are dreaming of Germany, the Simbas could sneak through.


Group C (Tunisia, Zambia, South Africa, Guinea)


    Tunisia may be defending champions, but few are predicting a repeat. Kind of surprising, when you think about it. Roger Lemerre has done all you could ask with the Carthage Eagles. He's built a stable lineup with a good mixture of youngsters and veterans. He won the Nations Cup at home in 2004. The squad performed well at the Confederations Cup last summer, and ran the gauntlet in a tough qualifying group to make it to Germany. By all rights they should be a popular pick to contend.

    But Tunisia don't quite stir the blood like Côte D'Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, or Egypt. They're solid but unspectacular. They're epitomized by their top striker, the naturalized Francileudo dos Santos (Toulouse), the least likely Brazilian in world football. No power, no pace, no flair on the ball--just hard work, clever running, and good finishing.

    The midfield has a similar profile. Riadh Bouazizi (Kayseri Erciyesspor) is a destroyer. The wide midfielders, usually Adel Chedli (Nürnberg) and Hamed Namouchi (Rangers), are technically accomplished, and Hamouchi has a creative side as well, but they're mostly slow and steady. The man who's supposed to provide the excitement, Slim Benachour (Vitoria Guimaraes), has been up and down for four years now.

    To be fair, the side has a few players that can bring the magic. There's Hatem Trabelsi (Ajax), the pacy right back who often attacks up the flank. Dos Santos' partner will be either Ziad Jaziri (Troyes), the veteran dribbling specialist, or Haykel Guemamdia (Strasbourg), the multi-talented rising star. There's also great hope for young attacker Chaouki Ben Saada (Bastia), who scored a fine goal in a recent friendly against DR Congo. On their day, these guys can lift Tunisia from the efficient to the entertaining.

    Unfortunately, defense and goalkeeping might be entertaining in the wrong way. Centerback Karim Hagui (Strasbourg) looks sound, but Radhi Jaidi (Bolton), the longtime bulwark, has been considerably off form. And still in the nets, incredibly, is Ali Boumnijel (Club Africain), who began his career about the time Hannibal crossed the Alps. The team has yet to find a successor.

    Tunisia won their title with home advantage, which as we know can cover a multitude of sins. They're in North Africa again, but to repeat they'll need a bit of l'audace, which isn't their specialty. This group shouldn't challenge them too hard, but group D awaits in the quarterfinals, and that's when the true test will come.

    South Africa is the proverbial team in transition. They have this little tournament coming up in 2010, and the failure to qualify for Germany means all their thoughts are four years ahead. Ted Dumitru (nickname "Ol' Loud Mouth"), a no-nonsense guy and one of the most successful coaches in league history, has been appointed interim head coach, and if successful will stay on either as coach or technical director. He's already taking the first steps on the road. Look at the preliminary roster: no Quinton Fortune, Bradley Carnell, Shaun Bartlett, Delron Buckley. With an unparalleled knowledge of local talent, he's just the man to rebuild.

    But even a new broom needs some old players. The preliminary roster contains several of the usual suspects: Sibusiso Zuma (Bielefeld), Siyabonga Nomvete (Djurgardens), Benni McCarthy (Porto). An unwilling absentee is playmaker Steven Pienaar (Ajax), whose ankle injury will keep him out of the tournament.

    By all reports the side was enthusiastic to get going--a remarkable 22 showed up for the first practice--but then the weirdness hit the fan. Probable first-choice keeper Emile Baron (Kaizer Chiefs) unexpectedly retired from international play after getting the call. A surprise recall was defender Pierre Issa (OFI Crete), and it was a bigger surprise when the staff unexpectedly discovered he hadn't played for his club all season. Then defender Aaron Mokoena (Blackburn) quit the squad after the players voted him out as captain.

    With Dumitru in the saddle, all bets are off. The final 23-man squad has no less than seven uncapped players. At one point he touted complete unknown Asanda Sishuba (Beringden-Heusden, which is D2 Belgium) for left midfield...then left him off the final squad entirely. So we won't try to guess how they'll line up. Best to keep an eye on training camp, if only for the latest bit of scandal. And don't count them out: it's an easy group, and if ever Bafana Bafana can glide under the radar, this is the year.

    Zambia was one of the nicer stories of the qualifiers, with former great Kalusha Bwalya keeping his team in contention almost to the end. There are no famous names here, and most of the side is based in Africa. The Chipolopolo Boys generally thrive at the Nations Cup; although they have yet to take the trophy, they've played in two Finals and five semifinals. In this group they're a clear contender.

    The man to watch is striker Collins Mbesuma (Portsmouth). He's 21 years old, player of the year in South Africa in 2004-5, and although he hasn't cracked the EPL lineup yet, he's strong, creative, and a fine finisher. Another key figure is captain Elijah Tana (Petro de Luanda), the big central defender who's a threat on free kicks. Defensive midfielder Andrew Sinkala (Köln), the side's one major European first division regular, started only twice during the qualifiers, but he'll be in the squad as well. But Bwalya is no blind respecter of pedigree: he deliberately left off two of his more talented Euro men, Moses Sichone (Aachen) and Gift Kampamba (Rostov), who had failed to show sufficient devotion to the side.

    Zambia didn't start the same lineup twice during the qualifiers, so we can't exactly be sure who'll play where. The more interesting possibilities in midfield include pocket-sized whirlwind Clifford Mulenga (Örgryte) and the fleet Katongo brothers (Felix on the left wing, Christopher on the right, both Jomo Cosmos). In defense the experienced calls are centerback Mishek Lungu (Primeiro de Agosto) and left back Joseph Musonda (Free State Stars). At keeper, Kennedy Mweene (Free State Stars) is the likely first choice, but he's just come back from six weeks injury, and his fitness will be an issue.

    Guinea is the fourth choice in this group, but the best fourth choice in the tournament. The Syli just missed out on the semifinals two years ago, and although they never challenged for a WC spot, they finished a comfortable third in their qualifying group, dealing Tunisia their only loss of the campaign. Nearly the whole squad plays in Europe, and they have talent in all the outfield areas. Their best-known players are attacking midfielder Pascal Feindouno (St. Etienne), central defender Dian Bobo Baldé (Celtic), defensive midfielder Pablo Thiam (Wolfsburg), left winger Fodé Mansare (Toulouse), and striker Kaba Diawara (Ajaccio). A surprise absence is centerforward Souleymane Youla (Besiktas), but another young Turkey-based striker, Ibrahima Yattara (Trabzonspor), could make an impact.

    The team has been through some difficult times in the past year. Several players were thrown off the squad for indiscipline. Coach Patrice Neveu has had thorny relations with the press--in a pun on his last name, they've replaced Neveu with Nerveux, which means "nervous." After the success in 2004, a lot of people thought Guinea could make it to Germany, and qualification for Egypt was met with a marked lack of enthusiasm. But on the field the quality is still there, and a second straight quarterfinal is a reasonable goal.


Group D (Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Zimbabwe)


    Only a week ago Ghana were ready to reach for the skies. The long-awaited World Cup berth had brought an unparalleled euphoria to the nation, and the Nations Cup was the chance to prove they were back in Africa's top echelon. With a settled lineup, a successful coach, and a golden midfield, the Black Stars had their eyes set firmly on the trophy.

    But in just two days the midfield got downgraded to silver, and then bronze. First Sulley Muntari (Udinese) suffered an ankle injury in training. Then Michael Essien (Chelsea) got one of his own during play. The Fab Four suddenly became the Tenacious Two, Stephen Appiah (Fenerbahce) and Laryea Kingston (Terek Grozny). But that's better than many teams have. No matter who plays around him, Appiah is the key. He takes a free attacking role, and his awareness, precision, and superb technique make the team go. Kingston, on the right, is a natural attacker, with pace, dribbling skills, and a remarkable talent for the through ball. Essien's place in the anchor spot will probably go to Abubakari Yakubu (Vitesse Arnhem), a big man with good ball skills, not quite in Essien's class but by no means a liability. Muntari's spot on the left will be harder to fill.

    The midfield injuries will put more pressure on the strikers, where yet another injury has knocked out one of the regulars, Asamoah Gyan (Modena). It's their weakest unit anyway; Gyan, Matthew Amoah (Borussia Dortmund), and Joe Tex Frimpong (Enyimba) have all done useful work, but none has shown the consistent quality necessary at this level. Someone will have to step up, but the rest of the strikers are unproven.

    The defense should definitely help the cause. Ghana allowed only four goals in the entire group stage, the best in Africa. Sammy Kuffour (Roma) and John Mensah (Cremonese) are a strong complementary central pair, tactical sharpness on the one hand, power on the other. John Paintsil (Hapoel Tel Aviv) and Emmanuel Pappoe (Ashdod Tel Aviv) are worthy fullbacks, although Pappoe may be slowed by a broken nose. Keeper Sammy Adjei (Mohadon Sports Ashdod) is an excellent shot-stopper.

    In the long run, meaning the World Cup, the injuries may help the team by giving more players high-end experience. But Ghana's chances for a fifth Nations Cup title have taken a major hit. And yet--coach Ratomir Dujkovic has a way with longshots. Two years ago at the Nations Cup he qualified complete outsiders Rwanda, and came within a whisker of making the quarterfinals. With Ghana suddenly transformed from confident favorite to plucky underdog, he might just find the mood to his liking.

    At the moment Nigeria are in disarray, with an even-crazier-than- usual FA scramble dominating the headlines. But when aren't they in disarray? After years of living on the edge, the Who's In Charge Here gang finally ran out of luck, and were passed in the stretch by Angola. But it's been 20 years since the Super Eagles failed to advance from the group stage at the Nations Cup--not counting 1996-8, when they boycotted or were suspended--and they've reached the semifinals or better their last four tries. You want to bet against them?

    Although the aforementioned Yakubu Aiyegbeni has opted out of the tournament, it looks as if everyone else is ready to go. That means strong and skilled attackers like John Utaka (Rennes) and Nwankwo Kanu (West Bromwich Albion), quick and clever ones like Stephen Makinwa (Palermo), and small and speedy ones like Obafemi Martins (Inter Milan). It means three generations of excitement in midfield, from Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton) to Wilson Oruma (Marseille) to Christian Obodo (Udinese) and Yusuf Ayila (Dynamo Kiev). It means powerful veteran centerbacks like Joseph Yobo (Everton) and daring young fullbacks like Taye Taiwo (Marseille). It means a lot of talent in a very small space, and an embarrassment of riches for coach Austin Eguavoen. (Riches on the field, not in the wallet: a week ago, while the side trained in Portugal, their hotel locked them out for non-payment of bills.)

    Let's pick two things to watch for, one young and one old. The first is keeper Vincent Enyeama (Bnei Yehuda), who at 21 excelled in Tunisia 2004 but has been in and out of form since. How well he does behind an inconsistent back line will matter a great deal. The second is Okocha, now 32, who was marvellous in 2004 but now looks to be in decline. Will Eguavoen give him the playmaker's role, and if he's not up to the task, will the coach see it soon enough?

    The opening game with Ghana will tell us a lot about both teams. It's a top-flight matchup, and a West African derby between very old enemies. Nigeria will have their qualifying failure to redress. Ghana will have to show they can excel even when depleted. The winner, if there is one, will be in pole position to top the group and avoid Tunisia in the quarterfinals. Unless the teams play it safe, which seems unlikely, it should be one of the best matches of the tournament.

    Here today, gone tomorrow is the lesson for Senegal. The golden generation made it all the way to PK's in the 2002 Nations Cup final, then thrilled the world at Korea/Japan, but now find themselves again in the second tier. It hasn't been the same since Bruno Metsu left, and although many of the names are familiar, one looks in vain for the old magic.

    The sparkle that's left is at the very front and the very back. The inimitable El Hadji Diouf (Bolton), when he's not appearing in court, can still raise a thrill now and then. Henri Camara (Wigan), fast and a great dribbler, has been on a rampage in the the EPL. Centerforward Mamadou Niang, who has been in good form for Marseille, should also see some time. At keeper, Tony Sylva (Lille) had been erratic for a while, but now looks to be flourishing again, and might be the best keeper at the tournament.

    Elsewhere there's a mixture of old and new. Korea/Japan star Pape Bouba Diop (Fulham) and big men Abdoulaye Faye (Bolton) or Amdy Faye (Newcastle) should be strong in the middle, and hopefully can get some inspiration from Frederic Mendy (St. Etienne) on the left side. At right back Habib Beye (Marseille) has emerged as a worthy successor to Ferdinand Coly, and Lamine Diatta (Lyon) and Pape Malickou Diakhate (Nancy) should form a competent central pairing.

    For those of us who fell in love with Senegal four years ago, it would be nice to see a revival. Co-coaches Abdoulaye Sarr and Amara Traoré did a good job after Guy Stephan was fired, and now get their first real chance to prove their quality. In an easier group, a quarterfinal berth would be taken as read. But with Nigeria and Ghana on the schedule, it'd be an excellent achievement. Oh, well--if they go home early, we've always got our tapes from Korea/Japan. Remember that incredible goal against Denmark?

    Zimbabwe drew the shortest straw of all. After years of near misses, they reached their first Nations Cup in 2004, and did okay, scoring in every game and notching a win over Algeria. They qualified for 2006 in style, and were all ready to step up a rung--then got Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. Forget stepping up; the problem will be staying on the ladder. The Warriors are mostly an Africa-based side, without anywhere near the pedigree of their opponents. But at least they have the best names, from star striker Benjani "The Undertaker" Mwaruwari (just signed by Portsmouth) to keeper Energy Murambadoro (CAPS United). One story to watch will be captain Peter Ndlovu (Mamelodi Sundowns), the Bulawayo Bullet, with 40 international goals, in his last hurrah at 32. He'll probably play in the midfield to give the side more punch, with Shingi Kawondera (unattached) partnering Mwaruwari up front. Other midfield keys should be Esram Nyandoro (Mamelodi Sundowns) and/or Tinashe Nengomasha (Kaizer Chiefs) at anchor and Edzai Kasinauyo (Moroka Swallows) wide. The centerback pair of Dumisani Mpofu (Bush Bucks) and Zvenyika Makonese (Santos) are the heart of the defense.

    Zimbabwe's coach is local man Charles Mhlauri, a stripling at 36, known for his dreadlocks, teetotalling, and confrontations with the press. Dick de Boer has been brought in to add some Dutch expertise. The side has received massive funding from local corporations, eager to support the Egyptian adventure. Can they beat the odds? Remember, these are the guys who are supposed to be ready to die for their country. I'm guessing they come back alive--but on the first plane home.



 

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