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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The Three Faces of Africa

    We're five days into the tournament, and Africa has played four games and lost them all. By any standard it's a disappointment. But it's also a fascinating set of results, both misleading and revealing. Misleading, because it suggests Africa is extremely weak, which it is not. But revealing, because the kinds of losses they've suffered, and the faces the teams have shown, tell us much about a confederation still struggling for respect.

    Consider the first face of Africa, Côte D'Ivoire and Ghana. These were considered to be the two strongest representatives, and strong indeed they showed themselves to be. But when you play Argentina or Italy, you not only have to be strong, you have to be ruthless. The Elephants and Black Stars played some superb football, at times even breathtaking. They showed all the power and grace of which African footballers are capable. But if you can't finish, you can't win, and their opponents, so much more experienced at World Cup level, showed them no mercy.

    This was particularly evident in the Ghana-Italy game. The Black Stars came in with an outstanding midfield, but with a reputation more as defenders than attackers. And so no one expected the way they went for the throat. They poured forward from the start, playing both Matthew Amoah and Asamoah Gyan as strikers, sending fullbacks John Paintsil and Emmanuel Pappoe into the attack. Michael Essien, freed from his anchor duties by the presence of Eric Addo, drove hard in the middle. Ghana relied on their fine centerbacks, Sammy Kuffour and John Mensah, to hold off the Italian counters. This was a team with no fear, a team conscious of its talent, a team expecting to win.

    And the strategy was working. Italy were shocked by the onslaught, overcome in midfield, off-balance in attack. They couldn't even take advantage of high-wire Ghana keeper Richard Kingston, a great shot-stopper but scarily inept on crosses. As the Black Stars powered upfield time and again, football's balance of power was visibly shifting from Europe to Africa.

    But you have to finish. You always have to finish. And Ghana, as we knew, didn't have the strikers. And the Essiens and the Sulley Muntaris and the Stephen Appiahs, for all their excellence of vision and technique, couldn't put it in the net either. So one moment of inattention did them in. Andrea Pirlo was left alone on a corner; a blast, and Europe was king again. By the end Ghana were throwing 15 men forward, and Iaquinta's clinching goal came as no surprise.

    With two games to go, Ratomir Dujkovic has to keep the Black Stars on an even keel. Next is another European power, the Czech Republic, who were even more ruthless than Italy in dismantling the USA. No need for any tactical alterations, as far as I can see, although perhaps Ghana will conserve their energy, counterattack a bit more. If they can take the loss to Italy as a learning experience, a result is certainly within reach.

    Cote D'Ivoire had a very similar learning experience with Argentina. They weren't quite as spectacular in attack as Ghana, but they were every bit as talented and focused, and every bit as ready to win. As expected, Henri Michel started his defensive midfielders, Didier Zokora and Yaya Touré, in the middle, relying on the pace of Kanga Akale on the left and the dribbling of Kader Keita on the right. For Didier Drogba's partner he chose Bonaventure Kalou in a withdrawn role instead of all-out striker Aruna Dindane. The idea was to get the ball upfield quickly through the wings, then cut inside and use Kalou as the central attacking fulcrum.

    And things worked fine. Argentina were playing well, but it didn't seem to matter: although there were few chances, the Elephants were comfortable and had plenty of possession. Drogba was a horse, shrugging off markers, coming back hard to help set up play. Zokora charged forward on occasion to help out, and Arthur Boka at left back was more aggressive than he'd been in a long time. Only Emmanuel Eboué failed to join the party, held back by the sallies of Juan P. Sorin.

    It looked like a productive night for Africa's best. But, as with Ghana, they let down on a set piece. And a few minutes later, their one weakness, the left side of the back line, fell asleep and let Saviola through. And that was that. When Argentina is in form, there's no way back from two goals down. The Elephants kept up the pressure in the second half, and got a well-deserved goal from Drogba, but zero points are zero points.

    And so, like Ghana, it's time for a deep breath and the next challenge. It's their fellow men in orange, the Netherlands, vibrant and composed against Serbia & Montenegro. Once again, the talent is there for a result, and once again, it'll require precision and pacing. We might see Dindane from the start this time, in the hope of more reliable finishing. But either way the team will have to assimilate the Argentina experience quickly.

    So that's the first face of Africa, Côte D'Ivoire and Ghana, brilliant but inexperienced. The second face is Angola, plucky but undermanned. Unlike their more illustrious West African brethren, not much was expected of the Palancas Negras. Indeed, after five minutes against Portugal, "not much" seemed wildly optimistic. First Pauleta came with inches of breaking Hakan Sukur's 11-second record; then he finished easily into an open goal. As you've undoubtedly learned, Palancas are a kind of antelope, and Angola's best bet seemed to be to bound off the field as fast as possible and lope back to Luanda.

    But a funny thing happened on the way to disaster. The lads put their feet on the ground and played to their strengths. They're a high-energy team, scrappers with ordinary skills but plenty of vigor. Their poster boy is Mendonça, who played left midfield in the initial 4-1-4-1. He's an all-rounder, in no way flashy, but he makes a good pass here and there, breaks up an attack or two, and never stops moving. A rougher edition is defensive midfielder Andre Makanga, who throws body checks and hammers shots from distance. The there's little playmaker Figueiredo, who appears to be studying for his dervish degree. Portugal, a finesse side, already overconfident from the early goal, was upset by the vigorous response, and never found their rhythm.

    At the same time, Angola never looked like winning, or even equalizing. Their midfield is hyperactive but undercreative, and the back line is unstable. But they do have good strikers, and it seems a shame to put only one man up front. Akwá was so lonely he resorted to bicycle kick practice just to get some camera time. The next opponent, Mexico, have a top-class back line, and Angola will absolutely need to put on the pressure. I say gamble, maybe move Mateus out of midfield and pair him with Akwá, or add big man Love against the smaller Mexican defense. The Palancas may never pass this way again, and they might as well bound and lope as high as possible.

    And now for the third face of Africa--utter chaos. The past week in Togoworld has been called a soap opera, but that's an insult to soap. "Dirt opera" is more like it. A bonus dispute in Africa is hardly news, nor is an incompetent and corrupt federation. But when you've already fired the coach who got you to the World Cup, and your new imported coach quits in disgust on the eve of the competition, and your last-second grab for another import comes to nothing, and your assistant coach claims he doesn't get enough respect and is perfectly capable of running the team himself, thank you, and then finally the guy who quit comes back saying all isn't forgiven but I'll coach the team anyway, AND is a 67-year old man who wears a gold chain and seems to think the world wants to see his bare chest (if that isn't an automatic red card, it should be), what happens on the field is hardly worth mentioning.

    And indeed it wasn't. The organizers must have had an inkling when they closed the roof in Frankfurt--this was one you didn't want the football gods to see. Although Togo occasionally looked dangerous on the counterattack, for most of the day they had no idea how to construct a scoring move, and when by chance they somehow ventured within range, someone either lost the ball or shot horribly wide. Kader Coubadja, easily the Hawks' best man, scored a beauty of a goal in the first half--but that seemed to come from another game entirely. Emmanuel Adebayor saw lots of the ball but did little with it. Overall the team showed a lot of courage down to 10 men, but in the end were beaten by an ordinary team that didn't play particularly well themselves--and remember, this was South Korea's first World Cup win ever away from home.

    The Togo players and fans were pretty satisfied with the effort; at least no one stopped the game and demanded to be paid for taking a throw-in. Still, even in the weakest of the groups (did you see France-Switzerland?), a point would be a great achievement. I assume if the team actually gets on the practice field they'll be a bit better organized--but as of this writing they haven't even decided if Pfister will stay. Save that 50-euro Hawks jersey you bought in the pre-tournament euphoria; it'll be a collector's item someday.

    Three faces, zero wins, four losses, with Tunisia up next. No excuses: all four losses were on merit. But is it fair to remind everyone that this year's draw, the most scandalously unbalanced in World Cup history, was a killer for Africa? The two best teams, Côte D'Ivoire and Ghana, got put into the two best groups. Imagine them in Togo's group, Group G. On the first round showings, both teams would have hammered France, Switzerland, and South Korea. Now put them in Group D, Angola's group. Iran and Portugal? Swallowed whole. Maybe even Mexico, too. Well, at least Tunisia have a mangeable group, starting with Saudi Arabia. Let's hope they can show us a fourth face: that of a deserving winner.



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