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 Group Stage Continues



Group D


    The opener was Nigeria-Ghana, the ultimate West African matchup, a sure-fire cliché magnet. More than a result at stake…derby…old enemy…pride…struggle for supremacy...etc. But they’re all true: there’s no fiercer rivalry in the world. If you want a feel for it, check the excellent online Ghanaian and Nigerian fan forums. It’s not a football match, it’s the Hundred Years’ War. (Was that original enough?)

    Neither side was at full strength. For Nigeria, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu were injured, and John Utaka suspended. Ghana had been hit by a terrible wave of injuries, taking out midfield stars Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari plus striker Asamoah Gyan. Ratomir Dujkovic, understandably cautious, went to a 4-5-1, with defender John Mensah pushed up into midfield and Matthew Amoah the lone striker. But Austin Eguavoen, sensing blood, went for the attack, starting both Obafemi Martins and Julius Agahowa up front, and a third striker, Peter Odemwingie, at right midfield.

    With so much riding on the game, the players rose to the occasion. It was an intense, well-played match, a real treat for the hardcore fan, fairly decided on Taye Taiwo’s 85th minute thunderbolt. The teams marked tightly but still created space, and the inevitable hard fouls were natural to the action, none cynical. For the most part the passing was crisp, and there was plenty of scope for individual excellence. Chances came rarely, but out of tenacious defense rather than ineptitude in attack. The game accelerated as it went along, the first half exploratory but absorbing, the second half concentrated and passionate. It was a serious game, a game for pros, and when Nigeria copped the three points, no one could say the result was unjust.

    In fact, the Super Eagles controlled the game from the start. They’re more comfortable than Ghana at a fast pace, and took every opportunity to press the attack. At times they relied too much on the long ball, but when Wilson Oruma took over in the middle they were a constant threat. Abubakari Yakubu, Essien’s replacement, just didn’t have the pace to match him. The Black Stars mostly played defense, looking to counterattack. They got fine performances from Mensah and keeper Sammy Adjei, and a brilliant one from Sammy Kuffour; when they released up the field, Stephen Appiah and Laryea Kingston asked hard questions of the Nigerian defense. Oddly, it was captain Joseph Yobo who at times seemed shaky, while centerback partner Joseph Enakahire was the bulwark.

    As so often happens, the game turned on opportunities missed and taken. In the 69th minute a shot from Appiah deflected off Chidi Odiah, and Kingston burst in to volley from close range, but he didn’t get enough on the shot, and Vincent Enyeama saved brilliantly to his right. A minute later Kingston made amends with an inch-perfect cross for Matthew Amoah, but the striker headed wastefully wide. Then, just when it looked like a scoreless draw, Taiwo struck. An hour earlier he had driven a screaming free kick that Adjei did well to parry. Now, with another free kick looming, he lurked quietly off to the left, and the Ghanaian defense wasn’t alert enough. Yusuf Ayila rolled him the ball, no one closed him down, and he blasted a low 35-meter shot that gave Adjei no chance.

    For Nigeria it was a great victory, and a tribute to both their quality and depth. Oruma has regained his old exciting form, and with Christian Obodo helping out effectively in midfield, they may not need or even want Okocha back. Taiwo is rapidly maturing into a complete player, and will have more to contribute before the tournament is done. Martins rarely got free, but stretched Ghana’s defense to the limit. Kanu got in for the last few minutes, and Utaka will be back next game. Right now the Super Eagles are a genuine contender.

    Ghana were obviously disappointed in the result, but they can take pride in their effort. With three key players out, they stood up to a strong, determined side, and came very close to winning. The best news was the return of the long-absent Kuffour, who reintegrated himself perfectly and was their man of the match. To be honest, without Essien and Muntari, I don’t think the Black Stars can win the tournament. But they can still advance with a victory over Senegal, and if this performance is any indication, they have the heart and skill to do it. (We may know the result by the time you read this.)

    We didn’t learn much from Senegal-Zimbabwe, except maybe new and creative ways to miss the target. The Lions of the Teranga were vastly superior in every department, monopolizing possession and attacking at will, particularly on the wings. Rahmane Barry was a surprise package on the left, and Henri Camara was rampant all over the field. Except for scattered moments, the Warriors were limited to long balls on the counter, and new Portsmouth man Benjani Mwaruwari, despite his pace and effort, couldn’t do it alone.

    But at halftime the score was still somehow 0:0. It wasn’t Senegal’s fault that Zimbabwe keeper Gift Muzadzi was having a good game, nor that Camara had a perfectly legitimate goal disallowed for a nonexistent handball. But the Lions were often guilty of over-elaboration in attack. And if you’re standing practically on the line, like El Hadji Diouf and then Barry, you really ought to finish. Diouf hit the post, Barry missed the net entirely, and in the VIP boxes film executives were seen furiously negotiating with Issa Hatayou for the rights to the blooper DVD.

    Eventually Zimbabwe made the crucial mistake of winning their first corner. With the Warriors in an unfamiliar setting, i.e., up in attack, Habib Beye got to a loose ball first and poked it ahead to Barry. And no one does counterattacks like Senegal. Barry slipped it to a racing Camara, who rounded the keeper and rolled it effortlessly into the open goal. With a half-hour still to go, surely Zimbabwe would fold, and the Lions run out easy winners.

    But we had one wonder blunder still to come. In the 70th minute, Mwaruwari got behind a sleeping Souleymane Diawara in the area, and was suddenly alone against Tony Sylva with a chance for the equalizer. He did everything right: he held onto possession, watched Sylva carefully, waited for the keeper to commit. It was masterful, really. Premiership stuff. With Sylva helpless on the ground, and the net gaping from seven yards, it was time to collect his reward--and he shot over the bar. The expression on his face, a sort of “I didn’t really do that, it must have been someone else,” was priceless. Eventually Senegal substitute Issa Ba got the clincher after some spectacular approach work by Camara. Everyone exhaled.

    Zimbabwe showed why they’re the minnow of the group: lack of pace in defense, lack of enterprise in midfield. What Senegal showed isn’t clear. Diomansy Kamara had a strong first half, and might be the attacking midfielder the Lions need. Henri Camara was outstanding, different class all night. There was certainly plenty of desire. But the attack wasted an awful lot of opportunities. The back line, supposedly one of the strengths of the team, had several odd lapses. And I’m not sure how to say this, but…there’s something off-center about El Hadji Diouf. OK, you’re laughing. “Demented” might be a better word. But I mean on the pitch, not off. He’s a fabulous individual talent, and not at all a selfish player. But his game is so quirky, so unpredictable, that you never know what you’ll get, either as a fan or a teammate. Against Zimbabwe, the weaknesses hardly mattered. But Nigeria and Ghana are class outfits, and the Lions will need more precision and cohesion (and perhaps a diagram of the net) to advance.


Group A


    Côte D’Ivoire have now won two straight, and they’re the first team to make the quarterfinals--and if Henri Michel’s job isn’t gone already, it’s hanging by a thread. In the opening round they failed to convince against Morocco, winning on a penalty that many thought was bogus. But that’s OK--opening round nerves, a tough opponent, you know the drill. With Libya, though, there was no excuse. Against the minnow of the group, perhaps the minnow of the whole tournament, they took an early lead, looked ready for a rout, and barely got out alive.

    Either Michel wasn’t satisfied with the Morocco game, or he wanted to spread the squad, because he made several changes. In the back line, out went Blaise Kouassi and Emmanuel Eboué, and in came Abdoulaye Meite and Marc Zoro. In midfield, it was Gilles Yapi Yapo for Emerse Faé. Most surprising of all, Bonaventure Kalou, who had been one of the more effective attackers, was dropped for Arouna Koné. With Aruna Dindane still unavailable, Michel apparently wanted a second striker, but that left the side dangerously short of creativity in the middle.

    It shouldn’t have mattered, though. In the 9th minute, Yapi Yapo sent a through ball to Koné on the left, and he zeroed in on keeper Muftah Ghzalla. He scuffed the shot, and Ghzalla got fooled and spilled it. Koné pounced and passed back to Drogba, and the big man notched the opener. Game Over, as the computers say.

    But the Elephants wouldn’t score again until the 74th minute, and then only on another keeper error. Despite a significant advantage in possession, all their attacking deficiencies were laid bare. Koné is strong, but limited technically, and not a reliable finisher. At one point he headed high while unmarked from four yards, a miss so surprising the AP reported he’d scored the goal! Kanga Akalé is a winger who can run all day, but his crosses are laughable. Yapi Yapo, probably their best playmaker, drifts in and out.

    On defense they weren’t much to brag about either. A revitalized Libya pulled them out of shape like Silly Putty, with a stylish Tarek El Taieb combining with Marei Ramli and Nader Tarhuni to make Didier Zokora look foolish. Zoro had feet of lead, Meite uncertain judgment, and only the quality of Kolo Touré kept things together. And even he couldn’t help when in the 41st minute, Jihad Muntasir launched a simple, perfect cross and Abdelsalam Khamis headed home the equalizer. That’s how it’s done, guys.

    Ultimately Côte D’Ivoire won anyway. Libya have midfield skill and defensive grit, but no firepower up front. Their one look at a win came in the 64th minute, when a brilliant combination between Masli and El Taieb found Nader Karra in a little space in the area. He made the right choice, an instinctive striker’s choice, pivoting and one-timing the ball--but it hit the outside of the post. The Elephants hadn’t done anything half as attractive all night. The winning goal, when it came, was almost an embarrassment. A series of deflections after a corner sent the ball high toward keeper Ghzalla; he should have claimed it but instead flapped it out, and Yaya Touré’s floating header somehow found the right spot.

    So what now? The team is in the quarterfinals through two keeper mistakes and one disputed penalty. The folks back home are what you’d call antsy, whole colonies of vicious army ants antsy. With a draw against Egypt the team can secure the top spot and avoid Cameroon, but big deal. Right now this is not a championship side, and very definitely not a side to stand up to the Group of Death in Germany. I guess it’s too soon to panic, because Aruna Dindane hasn’t played yet. But if he comes back and the side still looks inadequate, then by all means panic.

    Egypt-Morocco was definitely not for the fainthearted. Morocco, needing an unlikely win, made it even more unlikely by starting five defenders instead of their usual four. Egypt, oddly, went more defensive as well, replacing Mohamed Aboutreika with Ahmed Fathi. When Morocco plays, goals aren’t plentiful anyway, and this one wasn’t going to be pretty.

    Actually, only ten seconds in an Armine Erbati mistake almost gifted Egypt a goal. But for the remaining 89 minutes and 50 seconds, plus stoppage time, no game ever looked more like 0:0. You’ve heard of the Dakar Rally? This was the Cairo Demolition Derby. The play was physical, like a Tyrannosaurus Rex is physical. Referee Codjia Coffi of Benin decided early on to keep the cards in his pocket, and that was all she wrote.

    Under the circumstances creativity gave way to survival. Until the last half-hour, Morocco had more of the play, and managed some good long-range shots. But they only once looked like scoring, when a well-placed Youssef Hadji header was denied on an outstanding leap by Essam El-Hadary. Moha Yaacoubi, a potential creative force, was shifted from the left to the middle, but disappeared early. Marouane Chamakh, their one top-class skill player, was literally beaten into submission by Egypt’s resident hard man Wael Gomaa. He left in the final few minutes, unable to continue. Hicham Aboucherouane, his replacement, immediately muffed a half-chance on a header.

    To their credit, Morocco held off a very talented Egyptian attack. It’s hard to make Mido invisible, but Noureddine Naybet and company did it. (And let’s give another tribute to the old man, in superb form for his final international tournament.) Egypt had exactly one shot on goal in the first 67 minutes of play. They had the best chance, though, when in the first half Fathi broke free on the right to take a pass from playmaker Ahmed Hassan. He controlled the ball beautifully, but shot well wide. Deep into second-half stoppage time, substitute Emad Motaeb was sent in alone, but made a hash of it. And Morocco deserved the clean sheet anyway.

    But a clean sheet wasn’t enough, and you have to question Mohamed Fakhir’s tactics. Needing to win, he played like he wanted to draw. Five defenders, Hadji substituted, no sign of Jaouad Zairi, the pointless entry of Youssef Chippo for Walid Regragui. It was Hassan Shehata, on the other bench, who wanted three points: he threw in attacking midfielder Hassan Mostafa for Fathi, and when Ahmed Hassan tired, brought in Aboutreika.

    Morocco still has a mathematical chance, but they need Egypt to lose to Côte D’Ivoire, and don’t expect that to happen. The Elephants are in already, need only a draw to top the group, and are looking anything like winners. It’s a shame for the Atlas Lions, who gave the proverbial 110% in a very tough group. Tactics might have made a difference, but at this level, sadly, you just need more talent.


Group B


    The game is called football, and you play it mostly with your foot. Perhaps that explains the hurt, innocent look on the face of DR Congo attacker Tresor Mputu, red-carded in the 19th minute by Senegalese referee Badara Diatta. “But I only used my foot,” he might have been saying. Except he used it to kick Angola defender Kali. From behind. Between the legs. Fortunately for all of us, the kick was so high it landed in Kali’s stomach, not his…well, you know.

    The Simbas had already been somewhat short of their best. Angola’s midfield plays good defense, and artistic players like Marcel Mbayo, Mbuta Mbala and Mputu himself were spinning their wheels. Now the whole game had to be rethought. Ten men, seventy minutes: keep focused, pick your spots, let your leaders lead.

    To Angola, the sending-off was a gift from the gods. The Palancas Negras don’t score much, but they had made a bright start, and with DR Congo forced out of their natural game, surely they could nick the Simbas for a few. Unfortunately, it never happened. Doubly unfortunately, the man most at fault was Akwá, their talisman and hero. The great veteran was all over the pitch, making smart runs, winning balls in every way possible. But when it came to finish, or make the killer pass, he was as helpless as a novice.

    The 0:0 draw once more drove home the limits of the side. Midfielder Edson, powerful and intelligent, was their best man in the first half, but he’s short on pace and skill. André Makanga fought off the skilled Congolese midfielders, and again proved himself a worthy anchor, but he can’t help the attack. Figuereido, the nominal playmaker, makes all the right moves, but put him next to Mbayo and he’s a third division player. We were looking forward to seeing Kali, the centerback returning from a doping suspension--he reads the game well, and tackles well, but run right at him and you leave him standing. No strength without a weakness. If they can’t make their chances count, they just won’t succeed.

    For DR Congo it was another improbable result. At times the defense was scary--Gladys Bokese is a nuclear meltdown waiting to happen--but at times it was inspired. Centerback Felicien Kabundi and converted-centerback-now-DM Tshinyama Tshiolola saved the day several times. Keeper Pascal Kalemba was marvellous: the poor Angolan finishing made his task easier, but he was always in the right spot and made every play. Even without Mputu, the lads managed more than their share of counterattacks, and Lomana Lua Lua was brilliant as a lone ranger. Perhaps he should have scored after he forced past Kali in the 64th minute, but let’s give him a break. In the last few minutes he was the coolest man in Cairo, monopolizing the ball near the corner flags, running out the clock like a master.

    There’s one game left. Angola is still alive, but they have to beat Togo, hope DR Congo loses to Cameroon, and overturn a four-goal deficit. Not impossible, but not likely. Of course, they’ll be going to Germany, and DR Congo won’t. And Mputu won’t be going anywhere when the confederation takes a look at the video. But let’s keep faith with the Simbas: they’ve been the freshest, breeziest team at the tournament, and deserve a few more games.

    Egypt-Morocco, then Angola-DR Congo. Two goalless draws in a row. Who you gonna call? Cameroon, of course. The Indomitable Lions got four against Togo, all four of them brilliant, top-class goals. Strangely, only two of them counted--but that was because only two actually went in the net. The other two were kept out by magnificent saves from Togo keeper Kossi Agassa. But although the Hawks put up much stouter resistance than against DR Congo, they were beaten just as artistically.

    It was in fact a good game for Togo. Stephen Keshi used five new starters, including reconciled striker Emmanuel Adebayor. Early on they stood up to the Lions, going on attack, pressing all over the field. It was quite a while before Cameroon got settled, and although over ninety minutes the Lions were definitely superior, their domination came and went. Among the new faces, the most impressive was midfielder Moustapha Salifou, who delivered some excellent passes and showed himself a two-way player of promise.

    At the same time, Togo are not Cameroon. Adebayor was classy, going touchline to touchline and getting more than his share of possession, but was badly isolated from his teammates. He got only intermittent help from right wing Junior Senaya up front. In defense, too, the weaknesses were evident. Centerback and captain Jean-Paul Abalo, past his sell-by date and playing in the French amateur leagues, had an excellent first half but faded badly. Ludovic Assemoassa, the replacement at left back for Zanzan Atte-Oudeyi, was out of his depth.

    Even so, Togo hung in there gamely, and might even have taken the lead in the 52nd minute. Salifou’s pinpoint long ball found Adebayor beating Raymond Kalla and going in alone. Souleymanou Hamidou came out, the ball and Adebayor went flying, and the replay suggested a PK wasn’t out of the question. But the referee said no, and the best chance went begging.

    And so to Cameroon’s goals. At the very end of the first half, a fine passing sequence culminated in a brilliant one-two between Rudolph Douala and Samuel Eto’o. Douala burst through and fired--and there was Agassa. In the 63rd minute Eto’o went solo, froze one, two, three defenders, got in the area, picked his spot--and there was Agassa. In the 68th, a cross from Jean II Makoun led to a weak clearance from Assemoassa; Eto’o came out of nowhere, met the ball, and blasted high from 20 meters--and neither Agassa nor the combined shades of Lev Yashin and Gordon Banks could have done anything about it. After power, delicacy: with five minutes left, Eto’o danced down the right, got to the byline, and found substitute Albert Myong Ze, whose oh-so-cheeky, oh-so-lovely backheel finished off the magic show.

    Togo’s failure will be dissected at length for the next four months. But for Cameroon the future is now, and they have only one object in mind. This was a notable win, because they weren’t always at their best. Inaccuracies up front and in midfield forced them to regroup several times. But when brilliance can burst out at any moment, no one can resist forever. They want the trophy. Who’s going to stop them?



 

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