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: Nearing the Quarterfinals

Group C

    It was a wonderful night in Alexandria (unless you were actually there, given the weather). Two wild, weird football games, open, dramatic, and relentless. Hardly the stuff for purists, admittedly, but what the heck. Sometimes you have to forget all that stuff like diagrams and tactics and analysis and sanity, and simply cut loose like they did, say, 60 years ago.

    The opener was Zambia-Guinea, a game which would go a long way toward deciding second place. Zambia had pushed Tunisia to the limit before fading; Guinea had bumbled around against South Africa before winning going away. The Chipolopolo Boys needed a win, and the Syli would probably be satisfied with a draw.

    That's how it started out, anyway. Zambia naturally went on the attack, and were clearly the better team in the first 45 minutes. Christopher Katongo was the main man, using his pace on raids up the right flank. With brother Felix pushing forward on the opposite side, and Bundesliga regular Andrew Sinkala pressing in the middle, Zambia disrupted Guinea's flow and got their neat passing game going. It was only the rugged work of Syli captain Dian Bobo Baldé on Collins Mbesuma that kept them from breaking through.

    At the other end, Guinea's usual wing attack was getting nowhere. Right back Billy Mwanza was holding Fodé Mansare to a draw, and outstanding work from left back Joseph Musonda shut down Ibrahima Bangoura completely. Pascal Feinduono, Guinea's creator in the middle, was either forced wide or denied the ball completely.

    The Zambian goal actually came on a set piece--a simple corner headed in by Elijah Tana. But no matter, because any minute they were going to score from open play as well. Shortly afterward Mbesuma beat two defenders and was only denied by a marvellous save from Daby Niarso. All Zambia had to do was to keep up the pressure, and they'd be level on points (and ahead on the tiebreaker) with one game to go.

    But inexplicably they took their foot off the pedal. When the second half started, they decided to sit back and play for the counter. And things slowly but surely went mad. Guinea attacked at will and in numbers, with plenty of passion but very little accuracy. Defensive midfielder Pablo Thiam gleefully joined the assault, but he's not a natural finisher (read "couldn't hit the broad side of a barn"), and missed two excellent chances. A real striker, Sambegou Bangoura, missed one too. But throw every rock in your backyard and you're sure to break a window somewhere. With the action growing more frenetic by the minute, Zambia's defense was dissolving. Each time upfield Mansare was outdistancing Mwanza more and more. Substitute Ibrahima Yattara was finally making inroads on the other side. Feinduono was in control in the middle of the park.

    It was Mansare who made the breakthrough. In the 74th minute he raced past Mwanza, Feinduono sent him through, and keeper George Kolala saw little choice but to bring him down. Feinduono converted the penalty, and the teams were level.

    What next? Zambia had to go for a win, and finally opened up again, but their rhythm was gone. Christopher Katongo was still the driving force, but couldn't find his teammates. Still they pressed forward. As for Guinea, they kept on attacking. Sure, why not? Any minute you expected the spectators to come down and go for goal as well. They certainly could have done better than Thiam, who in the 82nd minute volleyed memorably over an open net from only five yards.

    By now it was all desire, little skill. But one man had been growing all game, Pascal Feinduono. The most naturally gifted man on the pitch, and the one with the greatest pedigree, he was always the most likely to make the difference. In the 91st minute, Kanfory Sylla lofted a free kick into the box from the left; Isaac Chansa tried to clear, but collided with Baldé, and the ball fell to Yattara on the right. He squared it for Feinduono, in the right place at the right time. He smashed it off the underside of the bar and just over the line. Game, set, and crazy crazy match.

    It was a cruel defeat for Zambia, but they had no one to blame but themselves. What makes a team, or coach, go conservative? Fear, I suppose. We've all felt it. Even great heroes like Kalusha Bwalya are susceptible. And--let's be honest--sometimes it works. But sometimes bravery works too, and sometimes lunacy. You can't call Guinea orderly, or precise, or even sensible. But you can call them quarterfinalists.

    The second game, Tunisia-South Africa, figured to have all the suspense of a ritual sacrifice. Tunisia had been ruthless against Zambia, South Africa helpless against Guinea. Before the game the skies opened, as if to disapprove of the mismatch. The conditions were fine if you were a walrus.

    We've taken Roger Lemerre to task for his dull tactics, but to his credit he picked a creative lineup. Although he dropped Ziad Jaziri (yellow card worries) and played Francileudo Dos Santos as a lone striker, he added three attack-oriented midfielders: Hamed Namouchi, Slim Benachour, and Chaouki Ben Saada. Despite howls of protest from the press, Ted Dumitru kept 9 of the 11 that had started against Guinea, replacing right-siders Lebogang Mokoena and Jimmy Tau with Elrio van Heerden and Vuyo Mere.

    Like we said, ritual sacrifice. For a while it looked as if Bafana might not get out of their own half all night. Tunisia was pressing, forcing, playing fine one-touch football, and as early as the 10th minute had the ball in the net, Dos Santos with a perfect strike on a feed from a rampant Hatem Trabelsi. The goal was disallowed for a nonexistent offside, probably out of pity. You had to figure on at least five more before the evening was over.

    Spared the immediate humiliation, South Africa fought back. As against Guinea, the midfield wasn't helping the strikers out much, but Sibusiso Zuma and Benni McCarthy were applying what pressure they could, and in the 26th minute came their one chance. Radhi Jaidi got caught in possession, Zuma slipped the ball to McCarthy, and suddenly the most experienced and best of Bafana's players had a free shot from the top of the area. He missed, of course, hitting the base of the post. Six minutes later he missed again, with a pass this time, handing the ball right to Dos Santos in the attacking third. Dos Santos moved in, drove his shot toward the far corner; the wet ball slipped through Calvin Marlin's hands, and it was 1:0.

    The rest of the game defied description. It was quantum physics: little particles zipping around, popping in and out of existence, dodging, occasionally colliding, all at something approaching light speed. South Africa were desperate, Tunisia carried away by the moment. Maybe you stopped to breathe every five minutes. The Carthage Eagles dominated and dominated, but couldn't make the killer pass or shot. Maybe they couldn't believe they were playing such an open game. In the 56th minute South Africa somehow almost got the equalizer, but Ali Boumnijel went full stretch to his right to deny Siyabonga Nomvete. Finally, two minutes later, Trabelsi raced down the right and pulled it back for Benachour, who drove it high into the net for 2:0.

    That finished the game as a contest, but not as a spectacle. The last half-hour was even crazier. Tunisia tried to settle back, but Bafana attacked wildly, daring them to run up the score on counterattacks. If there's a record for Passes Per Minute, Both Teams, they broke it. It was great fun, unless you were a Bafana fan--but any sensible Bafana fan would have turned off the set long before. Eventually the whistle blew, with the score amazingly still 2:0. It's a wonder the players didn't continue under their own momentum for another half-hour.

    One thought emerged from the madness--two thoughts, actually. The second is that South Africa is a shambles. The first is that Francileudo Dos Santos is one heck of a striker. He can't run like Samuel Eto'o, or shoot like him, or dribble like him, or dance like him. He'll never play for Barcelona. But he never stops working, never stops thinking. He finds space, times his runs, puts the ball in the net. And if you disallow one goal, he'll just get another. He now has four goals for the tournament, the same as Eto'o. If they meet in the Final--and right now that's a distinct possibility--they'll meet as equals.

Group D

    When you think Ghana, you think midfield: Appiah, Essien, Muntari, Kingston. But when you think Ghana, you really should think defense. The Black Stars allowed only 4 goals in 10 group stage games, the best in Africa. That's not to say the back line is better than the midfield. It isn't. Players like Essien and Muntari are part of the reason Ghana allow so few goals. But the side play defense so well, that even with both of them injured, even with Sammy Kuffour injured too, you have to be at your best if you want to score. Senegal, who against Zimbabwe looked like they might hit double figures, got goose-eggs against Ghana, and now face elimination.

    How do the Black Stars do it? No secret--they keep their shape, mark closely, contest every ball, and don't take unnecessary risks. The strikers play defense as vigorously as the backs. It also helps to have John Mensah, a powerful, athletic central defender, Emmanuel Pappoe, a tidy, precise left back, John Paintsil, a spirited, aggressive right back, and Sammy Adjei, a first-rate shot-stopper in goal. Against Senegal it was a classic performance, with everyone contributing to hold the Lions out. They kept the back line deep to guard against the pace of Henri Camara, and the Wigan man, uncontainable against Zimbabwe, never got a sniff of goal. In the 23rd minute El Hadji Diouf should probably have nailed a far post header, and in the second half an all-out Senegal attack made for a few nervous moments. But over 90 minutes a quality side will always make a few chances. Ghana make sure most of your chances are half-chances, and if you're not letter-perfect, you don't score. Adjei came off his line several times to clean up, but never had to make a difficult save.

    At the other end, Ghana aren't so assured. You've probably heard about their striker problem, and JoeTex Frimpong, getting his first start of the tournament, showed he's not the solution. But sometimes they can surprise you, as Matthew Amoah did in the 13th minute. John Paintsil took a long throw-in from the right, and Lamine Diatta fell asleep. Amoah got by him and reached the byline, and from the narrowest of angles put it by Tony Sylva. The goal was so improbable you expected a whistle to call it back. The replay showed Sylva had left a tiny space at the near post, and somehow Amoah had found it. The rest was that all-field 11-man defense--only 10-man for a while, because Laryea Kingston, along with Habib Beye, got red-carded for a scuffle early in the second half.

    Which brings us full circle. When you think Ghana, think defense instead of midfield--because they don't have a midfield anymore. With Kingston suspended for several games, and Stephen Appiah battling a foot injury, it looks as if Ghana will have to play the rest of the tournament without any of their Famous Four. Reports are they've already changed their name from the Black Stars to the Purple Hearts.

    But they're still in the race, so with Group D a three-team battle, it's time for a little math. Ghana have the head-to-head tiebreaker on Senegal, so if Senegal draw with Nigeria, Ghana need only draw with Zimbabwe. If Ghana lose to Zimbabwe, Senegal need only draw with Nigeria. If Ghana beat Zimbabwe, Senegal will have to beat Nigeria to force a three-way tie. Since the top three will have split their head-to-head games, the next two tiebreakers will be goal difference in head-to-head games, followed by goals scored in head-to-head games. Here's a table of the possibilities:

Senegal lose --> Nigeria first, Ghana second
Senegal draw, Ghana draw or win --> Nigeria first, Ghana second
Senegal draw, Ghana lose --> Nigeria first, Senegal second
Senegal win, Ghana lose or draw --> Senegal first, Nigeria second

If Ghana beat Zimbabwe:

Senegal win by 2 goals or more --> Senegal first, Ghana second
Senegal win by 1 goal, 2:1 or higher --> Senegal first, Nigeria second
Senegal win 1:0 --> all three teams still even

    If all three teams are still even, the scores against Zimbabwe decide. So far we have

Nigeria 2:0 Zimbabwe
Senegal 2:0 Zimbabwe

    So if Senegal beat Nigeria 1:0 to set up the three-way deadlock, the Ghana-Zimbabwe score decides:

Ghana win by 3 goals or more --> Ghana first, Senegal second
Ghana win by 2 goals, 3:1 or higher --> Ghana first, Senegal second
Ghana win 2:0 --> all three teams still even
Ghana win by 1 goal, draw, or lose --> Senegal first, Nigeria second

    If all three teams are STILL even, it goes to fair play. Even I have a life to live, so let's pass for the moment and hope it doesn't go that far.

    By the way, Nigeria and Zimbabwe played too. If your eyes didn't glaze over at the tiebreaker tables, you know the score was 2:0 to Nigeria. But the game hardly went as expected. Charles Mhlauri shifted left back Cephas Chimedze to midfield, midfielder Edelbert Dinha to right back, and started two new midfielders, Joel Lupahla and Tinashe Nengomasha, and the Warriors were transformed. Playing a short passing game reminiscent of Zambia, they pushed upfield without the slightest hesitation, controlling the tempo as often as not. At the other end they got outstanding work from centerbacks Zvenyika Makonese and defensive midfielder Esrom Nyandoro, keeping the Super Eagles well away from goal.

    Clearly Nigeria hadn't expected this kind of resistance (they had outscored Zimbabwe 8:1 in the qualfiers), and took quite a while to get out of the blocks. In the first half they were no better than even. Jay Jay Okocha hadn't been missed against Ghana, but here the team could have used a controller in midfield. Wilson Oruma, one nice move and shot excepted, never found his game, and was replaced by John Obi Mikel (yes, that John Obi Mikel) in the 54th minute.

    Seven minutes later Nigeria were up 2:0. The first goal was a corner kick, in which Christian Obodo lost his marker and headed in. The second goal was scored by Mikel; as one wire service described it, "he gathered the ball coolly on the edge of the box and fired a superb shot past Zimbabwean goalkeeper Gift Muzadzi." Maybe, but if half the defense came to a dead halt to watch me I could probably do it too.

    For Zimbabwe it was the old, old story: it's one thing to keep possession, another to create chances and take them. A patient buildup is impressive in its own way, but to score goals you need a cutting edge. Benjani Mwaruwari was off rhythm all evening, and the Warriors didn't seriously threaten until they were down two goals. Shingi Kawondera moved off the left wing and into a more conventional striker spot, and they finally put the goal under siege. But Vincent Enyeama came up with one good save and one great one, and Zimbabwe went home empty-handed.

    Nigeria were less impressive than against Ghana, but everyone has an off game. Their biggest worry is that they've been unable to spring Obafemi Martins. If any striker in the tournament has so far failed to live up to his reputation, it's the man from Milan. He's very quick, very technically accomplished, but has been unable to shake his markers. Nwankwo Kanu may yet make a difference, but with Julius Agahowa in mediocre form, and Yakubu Aiyigbeni opting for an English winter, Martins will have to break out for Nigeria to go far.

Group A

    Egypt were going to make the quarterfinals--the only question is whether they'd do so honestly. (Don't pretend you weren't thinking the same thing.) When Henri Michel announced his lineup, you had to wonder: no Drogba, no Zokora, no Boka, no Kolo Touré. And when in the 8th minute a corner led to successive unmarked headers in the box by Abdelzaher El-Saqqa and Emad Motaeb, and a goal for Egypt, your wonder meter was in the red and rising.

    But with a loss pairing them against the Indomitable Lions, the Elephants had in fact come to play. Emerse Faé was finding lots of room on the right, N'Dri Romaric was looking like a potential first-teamer at left midfield, and striker Arouna Koné was having easily his best performance in the national colors. This was the Côte D'Ivoire of the qualfiers. Only excellent work from Essam El-Hadary kept the ball out of the net, and with his defense cracking all around him, he couldn't do it forever. In the 43rd minute slack marking left Koné free at the top of the area; he turned, rifled, and rippled the cords. Maybe there was something in this rest-your-starters bit.

    It was doubly ironic, then, that one of the starters who had remained, the least likely man on the field to get injured, got injured. Keeper Jean-Jacques Tizié was slammed by Hossam Hassan in the first half, and lasted only 15 minutes of the second. Hassan, you might know, is the combination old man/bad boy of the squad, at 39 playing in his seventh Nations Cup, in every one of which he got into a major dustup. What was he doing in the lineup? Replacing his successor controversialist, Mido, who limped off with a groin pull after less than half an hour.

    So Tizié, the undisputed first choice, had to leave, and Boubacar Barry came on. And wouldn't you know it, the first shot he faced went in. Could he have stopped it? Probably not. A lovely little flick from Hassan sent Mohamed Aboutreika through on the left, and his nifty volley was perfectly placed, caroming off the base of the far post and in. As a zillion Egypt fans went berserk, Aboutreika got a yellow card for celebrating, meaning he'll miss the quarterfinal. It seemed unfair, especially since defender Wael Gomaa spent the night trying to destroy all life on planet Earth, and never got into the book.

    So now we'd see exactly what Côte D'Ivoire were made of. Here's a hint: it wasn't iron. Confused and rudderless, they went forward quickly and got nowhere fast. Inevitably the next goal was Egypt's again. In the 69th minute Mohamed Barakat crossed from the right, and Motaeb looped it high over Barry toward the net. He reacted well, tipping it off the crossbar, but his defense was somewhere in another stadium. An unmarked Hassan tried to head into the open goal, but put it wide--which was right into the path of an equally unmarked Motaeb, who finished. The rest was just more desperate, uncoordinated attack, and an inspired El-Hadary parried whatever got through.

    We'll have more to say about the two sides in our quarterfinal preview later in the week. For now, let's just say Egypt deserved to win the group. They got no untoward help from the refs: although they could have drawn a few more yellow cards, they had several bad offside decisions go against them. They were lucky to face a depleted Côte D'Ivoire, but after a nervous spell in the first half they won going away. I generally root against home teams, because they have such a huge natural advantage. But it's nice to see the Pharoahs moving on--and if the other results go as expected, what a game it'll be against DR Congo!

    The Libya-Morocco game was rendered moot by Egypt's win; for the record, it ended 0:0, a depressingly fitting conclusion for the Atlas Lions. They have to rank as the tournament's biggest disappointment. Two years ago they were in the Final; less than three months ago they fell just short of the World Cup. Now they exit without scoring a goal. Certainly the pre-tournament coaching chaos, with Phillipe Troussier entering and leaving within two months, couldn't have helped. But, as we've suggested before, the side lacked genuine quality. Over 90 minutes they had more of the play in all three games, even against Côte D'Ivoire and Egypt. They didn't score because they didn't have scorers, or for that matter creators. They were high-energy, hard-working, and relentlessly ordinary. Zero goals in three games was a harsh judgment, but a place in the quarterfinals would have been even harsher on the tournament.



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