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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2006 African Nations Cup: The First Three Days

Group A

    The 25th African Nations Cup opened with one of those classic cultural extravaganzas that give new meaning to the word "silly." Fake pharoah masks to make archaeologists shudder, a huge boat that symbolized death and life and the future and the past and lots and lots of money, and a world record for large portable obelisks (I checked my Guinness to be sure). But the crowd was definitely in the mood; although a few sections of the Cairo International Stadium were less than full, 60,000 strong were making enough noise to rattle the pyramids.

    Not that Egypt needed the support much. They were expected to be nervous before the home crowd, but it's easy to relax when you're the only team on the field. It's one thing to be a minnow; it's another to play like plankton. We'd heard much about Libya's defensive cohesion, but those must have been some other guys. They were beaten on the wings, in the middle, and in the air. They showed a little skill in midfield, but had no attacking thrust whatsoever. Injured star Tarek El-Taieb came on for the final half hour, and showed his quality, but by that time the home side were defending, and there was never a chance of a goal. Hard to believe this was the team that had drawn with Cameroon and Côte D'Ivoire.

    Meanwhile Egypt did pretty much what they wanted. They hit the dead-ball trifecta, with goals from a corner (Mido with a monster header), a free kick (splendid strike from Mohamed Aboutreika), and a penalty (Mido's shot was saved, but Ahmed Hassan knocked in the rebound). OK, they didn't score from open play, and to be honest Hassan was well inside the penalty area when the PK was taken. But consider that the assistant referees signaled them wrongly for offside no less than seven times. If the men with the flags hadn't left their contact lenses at home, Egypt might have doubled their total.

    Mido inevitably got the headlines, and Al Ahly star Mohamed Barakat was quite the danger man on the right wing. The man of the match was Hassan, the clever playmaker who put on a clinic for aspiring number 10's. Egypt has a wealth of attacking talent, and showed it, but Libya was no test. The Pharoahs lack pace, and their defense will be far more seriously challenged as the tournament goes on. Delirious fans may have visions of the trophy, but I'd keep a few obelisks in reserve just to be sure.

    The next day, in the same stadium, the atmosphere was a little more solemn. The crowd was about one-eighth the size, and Côte D'Ivoire and Morocco were battling for survival. Over the game hung the sudden death of the baby daughter of Aruna Dindane, who had returned to France to be with his family.

    The tactics were grim, too. Henri Michel, missing one of his strikers, started only Didier Drogba up front. Mohamed Fakhir went with a 4-5-1, Marouane Chamakh as the lone striker, with no less than three defensive midfielders. For about 25 minutes the teams fenced--and then the game broke open. It was Ivoirien quality vs. Moroccan grit, with chances at both ends, saves from the keepers, and the contest furiously in the balance.

    In the end the quality won. In the 37th minute Emerse Faé blew down the right wing and sent a cross for a charging Drogba, who was pulled back by Walid Regragui at the very edge of the area. No doubt about the foul, but it was literally a borderline call, and it went Drogba's way. He stepped up and powered a world-class penalty low past a diving Tarek El-Jarmouni, and the Elephants were ahead.

    It would be the only goal of the game. Morocco threw in the kitchen sink in the second half, had a substantial majority of possession, and every time down looked like they might create a chance. But Hadji missed two great opportunities (he missed one in the first half, too), and Jean-Jacques Tizié was commanding in the area. It was a tremendous effort from the Atlas Lions--special commendations to Marouane Chamakh, Moha Yaccoubi and old-timer Noureddine Naybet--but ultimately they just didn't have the skill. Fakhir also waited too long to bring in extra attackers, and when they finally arrived, the team was winded. Now they have to beat Egypt to have a realistic chance of advancing.

    Côte D'Ivoire look on course for the quarterfinals, and Henri Michel has a few things to be happy about. Tizié was in fine form, Kanga Akale was a blur on the left wing (although his crosses left something to be desired), and best of all, Bonaventure Kalou was a creative fulcrum in attack. But there are worries, too. Blaise Kouassi didn't quite convince as Kolo Touré's partner, and the team still have difficulties building through midfield. Drogba left the game early with a nagging knee injury, and might miss a game or two. They allowed way too much pressure in the second half, and were fortunate not to concede a tying goal. Talented, but hardly invincible. Are they ready to win the cup? On this showing, no. But there's plenty of time to put things in order, and we can still expect them around when the last few games are played.

Group B

    It was a great occasion. Worldwide for the first time, on a TV set near you, one of Africa's most remarkable stories. A team from nowhere, a team largely of obscurities, a team that had mown down their adversaries without fear, a team that had qualified for the World Cup. The planet settled down to watch the coming-out party for the Hawks of Togo. What they got instead was the Kids from Kinshasa, the amazing Simbas of DR Congo. Coached by that warhorse of warhorses, Claude LeRoy, the white-and-blue showed pace and tricks, exuberance and joy, and scattered stars all over the pitch for 90 minutes. Oh yes, they got a piece of luck here and there, but they were worth their victory and more. And now the world has a new marvel, and the Nations Cup may even have a new contender.

    DR Congo's first piece of luck was Togo's nightmare buildup, in which a bonus dispute nearly kept them off the plane to Cairo. Their second was a shocking row between coach Stephen Keshi and star Emmanuel Adebayor, with the striker at first refusing to play, then coming on only for the last half-hour. Their third was a astonishing miss from Kader Coubadja, who in the 13th minute, thoroughly unmarked at the far post, somehow shot wide from three yards.

    But before Coubadja's miss the Simbas had shown what they were made of. Despite staying up past 5 AM in a bonus dispute of their own (that's Africa), they came out wide awake and eager. In the seventh minute, dazzling winger Mbuta Mbala stung keeper Kossi Agassa with a vicious shot from the left. Four minutes later it was midfield dynamo Matumano Zola bursting through to force another save. From the corner Lomana Lua Lua headed just over the bar. This was a team ready not only to win, but to entertain.

    And entertain they did. Zola and Marcel Mbayo gyrating in the middle, Mbala and Tresor Mputu racing up the wings, Lua Lua leading the line with remarkable skill and tactical intelligence. Solo moves, quick shifts in attack, style, expression, abandon. The first goal came at the end of the first half, Lua Lua sending in Mputu, who stayed cool and beat Agassa with a pretty chip. The second came in the 64th minute, on a smash from Lua Lua that Agassa couldn't hold. Up 2:0, they continued to go forward. They're not exactly natural defenders, but who cares? As a rapturous correspondent for Radio France International exclaimed, "Quel bonheur, quel plaisir de football, simple, limpide, technique, intelligent et efficace!" (You can Babelfish it if you want, but it sounds better in French.)

    As for Togo, it's all gone pearshaped very quickly. Their back-line weakness, a worry throughout the qualifiers, was ruthlessly exposed. Adebayor is still in camp, but he and Keshi have yet to reconcile, and there are no other reliable finishers. With Cameroon in form (see below), chances of advancing are slim. Back home the press are sharpening the knives, and you don't want to hear what the fans are saying. France, Switzerland, and South Korea are suddenly looking very much forward to the World Cup.

    Let's not be negative, though. The Hawks never hung their heads, and showed plenty of potential. Adekambi Olufade is a disruptive winger, and only a fine save from Pascal Kilemba denied his scissors kick that would have put Togo ahead. Alexis Romao is a solid, hard defensive midfielder. Cherif-Toure Maman showed useful technique on the left side. Togo weren't exactly outclassed, just caught unawares. If Keshi can get the Adebayor flap settled, we can expect better in the future. But oh, those Simbas!

    Angola, the other surprise qualifier, came in with much less fanfare than Togo, but were just as surely put to the sword. The executioners were a most indomitable set of lions from Cameroon, paced by a simply magnificent hat trick from the imperial Samuel Eto'o. First he delivered a stunning free kick, curling it high from the outside in. Then he made a late run, beat his marker, and headed home a cross from Rudolph Douala. Finally he crashed an unstoppable 20-meter cross-shot into the far corner. Is there any doubt he's the best in the world?

    It was much more than a one-man show. Cameroon took control and stayed there, with exceptional performances from Douala on the right of attack, Jean II Makoun in the middle of the park, and Geremi Njitap at right back. Their only weakness was in the middle of defense, where Rigobert Song looked shaky. His worst mistake came in the first half, when, up 1:0, he let Akwá through, leading to a dubious penalty call against keeper Souylemanou Hamidou. Equalizer, but no matter: Eto'o put them up again a few minutes later. In the second half Angola briefly threatened to make a game of it, but there was only one possible outcome. Welcome back, Indomitables--we'll miss you this summer.

    (By the way, we get the games here on ART America, with commentary in Arabic. The announcers are very exciting; it's a shame I haven't a clue what they're saying. But football is football: when Eto'o got his superb third goal, the announcer went into hysterics, quite clearly screaming "Hat trick! Hat trick! Hat trick!" Now that we have a common language, how about some peace in the Middle East?)

    Angola did little to enhance their modest reputation. They were unfortunate to be without influential midfielder Gilberto, but they're a limited side, with a weak back line. There was nothing to suggest they'll make an impact in Germany, or for that matter in Egypt. André Makanga is a mobile, rugged anchorman (although his foul led to the Eto'o free kick), and Flavio looks like he'll be a pest up front. The midfield bustles about. With a little service, Akwá could trouble some defenses. But if I'm Oliveira Gonçalves, I've already booked another European recruiting tour.

Group C

    Tunisia opened their title defense by beating Zambia 4:1, but don't be fooled: it was far from a rout. Roger Lemerre started a remarkably pedestrian lineup, preferring Kais Ghodbane and Sofiane Militi to Hamed Namouchi and Slim Benachour, and hunkered down for 90 minutes of boring but effective football. Even when an Ali Boumnijel error gifted James Chamanga an early opener for Zambia, they kept calm, and let their superior physical strength and tactical nous take over. Despite the early goal, the Chipolopolo Boys, also known as the Copper Bullets, seemed overawed by the occasion. Collins Mbesuma could get nothing done against Rahdi Jaidi, the Zambian midfield ceded control, and every set piece looked like a goal opportunity. It was no surprise at all when in the 36th minute Francileudo Dos Santos found a little space in the area and headed in Adel Chedli's cross for the equalizer. Although the teams headed to the locker room still tied, 4:1 to Tunisia looked a distinct possibility.

    But not the way it happened. Zambia came out transformed, allying superb technical skill to intelligent movement, and the champions were on their heels from the start. They answered in championship fashion, scoring against the run of play. Hatem Trabelsi's shot forced a spectacular save from George Kolala, a short corner led to a Ghodbane cross, and Riadh Bouazizi headed home for the lead. But against all odds, that was the signal for Zambia to bust loose. It was a remarkable team effort: Chamanga, right winger Christopher Katongo, midfielders Numba Mumamba and Lameck Njobvu nearly danced the Tunisians off the field. Mbesuma finally got free, distributing beautifully to his teammates and getting in two chances himself. In the 75th minute, Chamanga blasted a 25-meter beauty that required a gigantic leap from Boumnijel to keep out.

    It was some of the most skillful and exciting football you'll see anywhere--like DR Congo, with less pace and more precision. But the final pass, move, or shot was always lacking, and Tunisia know better than anyone how to make you pay. In the 83rd minute a quickly-taken free kick found Dos Santos rushing unmarked into the area, he poked it by Kolala, and the game was over. Deep in injury time he added another, his third, beating the tired Zambians' offside trap. (A Dos Santos hat trick is something very different from an Eto'o hat trick, but they all count the same.)

    The real shame for Zambia wasn't the loss--results never come easy against Tunisia--but the three-goal margin. The battle for second place may come down to goal difference, and they're already at a big disadvantage. But the side were nothing short of a revelation, and Kalusha Bwalya has to like his prospects. With attacker Clifford Mulenga hopefully back from injury next game, they'll have a bit more firepower, and two more displays like this could have them in the quarterfinals with room to spare.

    For the Carthage Eagles, it was another day at the office. They'll almost certainly top the group, but they're here to defend a title, and they can't dink their way past the better teams. Maybe Lemerre is a genius, saving his more creative players for the crunch games. Or maybe he's just conservative, and will keep up the boredom till his luck runs out. Either way, Tunisia need to show more if they want a second trophy.

    And so to South Africa-Guinea, the least edifying match of the weekend. Lots of action, but about 99 percent to no purpose. Bafana never really had a plan: the midfield was woefully unconnected to the strikers, long balls sailed through the night harmlessly, and Benni McCarthy played way too deep to be effective. Although the lines of communication improved a bit in the second half, nothing suggested they knew how to construct a scoring move. For their part, Guinea looked like a talented collection of individuals, not a team. Pascal Feinduono drove the attack, but rarely found anyone where he needed them to be. Fodé Mansare on the left and Ismael Bangoura on the right were beating defenders in their sleep, but cross after cross found empty space.

    The best chances seemed to come by accident, as when Feinduono mishit a shot and nearly looped it over Calvin Marlin, or when his free kick led to a mad pinball sequence, or when Sibusiso Zuma's overhead kick was nearly fumbled into his own net by Naby Diarso. Even with 20 minutes still to go, you would have bet the farm on a scoreless draw.

    But Patrice Neveu, reviled by Guinean fans for months, found the right strategy. He put in Sambegou Bangoura, a centerforward with a head so big it had to find the ball somewhere. In the 78th minute Feinduono found a third Bangoura (did they settle the area or something?), Ibrahim by name, in space on the right. His cross was a little behind Sambegou, and right back Jimmy Tau came flying in to defend, but the big man made just enough contact to carom the ball off Tau's leg and in. An accidental goal to win an accidental game. Ten minutes later Guinea added insult to injury when Ousmane Guess My Last Name drove in a knockdown from Pablo Thiam.

    The Syli were deserving winners, I guess, if only because Bafana so clearly weren't. South Africa has a young squad, and maybe they'll improve in the next two games, but Tunisia's up next. Guinea now goes for second place against Zambia, in a do-or-die match no one can figure. One team played beautifully and lost; the other played erratically and won. A great scenario for a movie. So is it Dr. Bwalya's Magic Bullets, or Bring Me The Head Of Sambegou Bangoura?



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