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
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2006 African Nations Cup: Semifinal Reports
When we peruse the results of tournaments past, the factor which most easily escapes us is the schedule. We can see who won and who lost, who played well or poorly, who was there or missing--and yet never notice the dates of the games. But in a tournament like the World Cup, or the Nations Cup, schedule can be crucial: how many days rest did the teams have? Dates and times are an essential part of the history that ultimately gives us wins, losses, and goals.
It was schedule, perhaps more than anything, that was the key to Nigeria-Côte D’Ivoire, one of the most curious semifinals in recent memory. The confederation had seen fit to put the semifinals four days after the first pair of quarterfinals, and thus only three days after the second pair of quarterfinals. They knew that the teams in the first semifinal would be the teams from the second pair of quarterfinals, who would thus have had less than 72 hours between their fourth and fifth games of the tournament. What they couldn’t have known is that both of those teams would have gone the full 120 minutes, plus a prolonged penalty shootout, and thus came to the semifinal with little between them and exhaustion.
Côte D’Ivoire had hoped to have striker Aruna Dindane finally available, but it turned out he had a calf injury, and went back to France. Henri Michel chose to go with only Didier Drogba up front, supported by Bonaventure Kalou at withdrawn forward. He left Arouna Koné on the bench, replaced Emerse Faé with Gilles Yapi Yapo, Kanga Akalé with N’Dri Romaric, and Blaise Kouassi with Abdoulaye Meite. In other words, he started four experienced regulars who had missed most or all of the quarterfinal marathon.
Austin Eguavoen had less depth, and fewer options. With Wilson Oruma still unavailable, and Jay-Jay Okocha not quite 100%, he went again with John Obi Mikel and Obinna Nsofor in the midfield. John Utaka, ineffective all tournament, was replaced by Peter Odemwingie, and Nwankwo Kanu, who had played 60 minutes of the quarterfinal, finally got his first start. Yusuf Ayila was injured, and so there was a new man, Sani Kaita, in midfield, but he was 19 years old and a novice. In all, Nigeria started only one regular who hadn’t played a major role in the exhausting game against Tunisia.
The first half was an interesting tactical battle. Côte D’Ivoire used an attacking approach, moving the wide midfielders in so that the fullbacks, Arthur Boka on the left and Emmanuel Eboué on the right, could push up on a regular basis. Kalou was operating against the youngster Kaita, putting pressure on the most inexperienced man. As a result the Elephants managed some good passing sequences and thrusts in the wing on attack. But the pace was slow, with neither team wanting to exhaust themselves early, and so with careful defense the Super Eagles held them off. Kaita struggled a bit at the beginning, but then perfomed creditably. It also helped that, with Nigeria’s defense forced out toward the wing, the man with the most space for the Elephants turned out to be Yaya Touré. He’s a good player, but not really an attacker, and although he often had the ball in danger positions, he could never muster the necessary pass or shot.
At the other end, Nigeria did their best work on the right flank. With Romaric sliding in from his left wing spot, there was plenty of space. Kanu, in his free attacking role, drifted out toward the right to combine with Peter Odemwingie, putting pressure on Boka and Meite, the left-sided defenders. But again, the pace was slow, and with John Obi Mikel and Obinna Nsofor in a semi-trance, there wasn’t enough help elsewhere on the field.
And so for 45 minutes we had some interesting ideas, some useful movements, some good combinations--and absolutely zero chances from open play. The only threat of note came from an early free kick from Didier Drogba, parried well by Enyeama. The rest was chess.
It might have gone on for the full 120 minutes, too, had not an error caught the Super Eagles cold at the beginning of the second half. With the ball on the right wing in the attacking third, the centerbacks moved up and shifted over to the right. And Joseph Enakarhire, in the middle of the pitch, forgot about Didier Drogba. Romaric got possession, Drogba timed his run perfectly, Romaric sent him a beautiful long ball, and the big man went in all alone to score.
Good. Now we had ourselves a game. The tempo would pick up, and we’d get 45 minutes of exciting back and forth. Except the teams were just too tired. Judging from the way they played, it was still 0:0. Still slow, still pawns, bishops, and rooks maneuvering, and still no chances. Côte D’Ivoire, more rested, kept easy control. With his starters drained, Eguavoen’s only hope was the bench. In the 54th minute he yanked Mikel for Okocha, now in his last international tournament, getting his one and only chance. But he did little of note. Neither did Stephen Makinwa, in for Odemwingie, or Julius Agahowa, in for Kanu. The Super Eagles never got close, and rarely close to close. In the 63rd minute an Okocha free kick deflected a few feet wide; in the 80th a neat Makinwa move in the area led to a cross with no one to collect; in the 87th a semi-dangerous Okocha through ball for Martins was snared by Jean-Jacques Tizié. And finis. The Elephants drew the fullbacks deep, threw in a counterattack or two, and never got close themselves--but didn’t care.
This being the real world, I suppose we have no choice. The football calendar is crowded enough as it is, and major tournaments have to squeeze the most action into the least space. But games like this make you want to scream. Two talented teams, lots of potential excitement, and little more than an underwater ballet. (OK, some people like underwater ballets.) Nigeria, a side among the most enjoyable at the tournament, went out without a whimper. As for Côte D’Ivoire, over 90 minutes they played reasonably well--but without verve, swing, or urgency. And you ask yourself: what will they have left for the Final, only three days later?
As noted in an earlier column, I usually root against the home team in major tournaments. They have so many natural advantages--fan support, familiarity with the area, refereeing--that as a neutral I go with other teams. You want to see the best team win, and home teams for the most part do better than they would in a neutral setting. They achieve more than they in the abstract sense deserve.
But at the 2006 Nations Cup, I’ve been gung-ho for Egypt. They’re never ever boring. They love to attack, and have exciting players like Ahmed Hassan, Mohamed Barakat, and Mido. They have hard workers who get the most out of their natural talent, like Mohamed Aboutreika and Mohamed Abdelwahab. They have bad boys like Mido and Hossam Hassan. They have fans who think they’re worthless, and a universally derided coach who got the job only because the FA couldn’t lure a high-priced European. They have a keeper and back line that can collapse at any moment. And best of all, they’ve advanced through the competition fairly, without any undue help from the refs.
Until the 90th minute of the semifinal, of course. It was at that point that defender Ibrahim Said quite clearly brought down Diomansy Kamara of Senegal in the area, and Cameroon’s Evehe Divine refused to call the penalty. Egypt won 2:1.
(Here’s the spot for an old joke. A referee dies and goes to heaven, and St. Peter says “Look, things are pretty filled up around here, so in order to get in, you have to prove you’ve done something really special.” The referee says, “Well, once I was calling a game between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Nou Camp. The league title was at stake, and all Barcelona needed was a draw. The score was tied in second-half stoppage time, and I called a penalty against Barcelona that gave Real Madrid the win and the title. There were nearly 100,000 fans in the stadium rooting for Barcelona, but it was a genuine penalty, and I gave it.” “Wow,” says St. Peter. “Now that’s impressive. That’ll get you in for sure.” He scans through Heaven’s files for a bit, and says “Wait a minute…we don’t have any record of that. When did it happen?” The referee looks at his watch. “About two minutes ago.”)
Up until that point the Pharaohs had been all you could ask for: exciting, crazy, hopeless, on the tightrope both on and off the field. Mido, injured in the final group game, was back in the lineup, and the lads went forward with their usual brio, and left gaps with their usual carelessness. Senegal, with their pace and trickery, were proving more than a handful. In the 17th minute Amdy Faye came right down Main Street without a defender in sight, and only a desperate charge by keeper Essam El-Hadary got to the ball first. A few minutes later, Frederick Mendy got through all alone but Henri Camara’s pass was just a little too long. In the 33rd minute Camara missed a good chance off a corner. The home side kept attacking, of course; although they weren’t getting much from open play, set pieces were a threat every time.
But Senegal have been subject to weird defensive lapses all tournament, and in the 35th minute came the weirdest of all. With right back Lamine Diatta out of position, Mido got free on the left wing, and lifted a dangerous cross to the far post for Mohamed Barakat. Mendy came up with a sure-fire defensive tactic: he put his hand up and knocked the ball away. Ahmed Hassan rammed in the spot-kick, and at halftime Egypt had a 1:0 lead.
It couldn’t last, of course, not with Wael Gomaa, Ibrahim Said, and Abdelhazer El-Saqqa in the back line. These guys know how to run around, and they know how to bang bodies, but they seem to have a rudimentary knowledge of marking and positioning. The goal was going to come somehow, and it turned out to be quite simple. In the 54th minute, Diatta, left alone on the right wing, sent a beautiful cross from deep; Mamadou Niang slipped El-Saqqa with ease, then placed his header perfectly. With more than a half-hour to go, we were even again.
Certainly the momentum, and the action as a whole, favored Senegal. Pape Bouba Diop and Amdy Faye had done an excellent job holding off playmaker Hassan, who kept dropping deeper and deeper to get possession. Mido wasn’t much of a factor, and in the 64th minute missed his one chance, failing to convert a cross from Barakat. Senegal was controlling midfield, and Egypt were committing way too many fouls. In the 69th minute Abdelwahab had to clear a corner off the line.
Now well into the second half, it was striker substitution time. In the 66th minute, Abdoulaye Sarr took off Henri Camara and put on El Hadji Diouf. It was an odd choice: Diouf was coming off injury, and although Camara hadn’t done anything special, he was still contributing to the attack. He looked puzzled and none too happy coming off.
But that was only an appetizer. In the 79th minute Hassan Shehata went to the well, and came up with Amr Zaki to replace Mido. The Spurs man looked incredulous. He walked toward the bench shouting something. He stormed and raged. (Later we found out he called Shehata “a donkey,” to which the coach wittily replied, “No, it is you who are the donkey!”) He had to be physically restrained by Hossam Hassan, who stepped between them to keep the peace. That’s like Roy Keane keeping the peace. What fun!
It turned out to be even more fun when two minutes later Zaki got the go-ahead goal. Once again Diatta fell asleep at the wheel, and off a throw-in Aboutreika got into space in the left corner. His cross (coming from his weaker left foot, by the way) was a wonder to behold, and Zaki zipped between the centerbacks to head in.
The Pharaohs had done it. Through pluck and luck, with a little dose of madness thrown in, they had won a game in which they had been outplayed. But they couldn’t make it easy on themselves. In the next several minutes, with Senegal in collapse, they failed to convert the four excellent chances they had to put the game away. Rumbling, bumbling, stumbling toward the Final. OK, they were the home team, but so what? You had to love it.
Until the 90th minute, and Evehe Divine. To that point he had refereed a nearly impeccable game. And remember that Hassan PK in the first half? He had to convert it twice, because Divine had ordered the initial kick to be retaken because of encroachment. No kidding. That’s halfway to heaven right there. But with over 70,000 potentially hostile fans in the stands, and the play right in front of him, he lost religion. No whistle. The home team wins.
It was a disgrace, of course. Pick any adjectives you want. But that’s football. As long as it’s so hard to score, referee mistakes will play a huge role in the game. The list of home teams favored by doubtful calls in major tournaments is a long one: in the World Cup alone, we can count England in 1966, Argentina in 1978, Spain in 1982, Italy in 1990, South Korea in 2002. (Oh, and Japan in 2002 as well--no one mentions Kazuyuki Toda’s clear PK foul on Igor Semshov, ignored by Markus Merk.) Those who know their regional tournament histories will readily cite more examples.
But rarely has the case been more blatant. Last minute penalty, home team, no call. What can we do? Nothing. There are all sorts of video proposals, but I can’t think of one whose benefits wouldn’t be outweighed by the costs. Maybe replays on PK calls after the 80th minute? (Doesn’t thrill me either.) Of course, we can ban Evehe Divine for a very long time from international refereeing, and I hope that happens. But we’re all mortal, and who’s to say each of us wouldn’t have failed in just that way?
In any case, Egypt moves on to the Final against Côte D’Ivoire. They’re still fun to watch, they’re still wondrously crazy, they still have a donkey for a coach, they’re still as loveable as ever. They’re one of my very favorite teams. I hope they lose.
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