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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African Nations Cup Qualifiers - Round One

    Last week the Nations Cup got started on the long road to Ghana 2008--except it’s not such a long road. With qualifying groups of 4 teams, and in some cases only 3, there’s a maximum of 6 games per side. The pressure is severe--one or two bad results and that’s that. And in Africa, as we’ll see, a loss sometimes has unusual repercussions. Here’s the rundown on the first round:

Group 1
(Côte D’Ivoire, Gabon, Madagascar)

    With Djibouti having withdrawn, the only game of the day was Gabon-Madagascar, and Gabon won it in style, breezing 4:0. Lens striker Daniel Cousin, playing his first competitive match for the team in six years, notched a goal, and fellow Euro pros Henri Antchouet and Shiva Nzigou (twice) also found the net. All the more reason to regret Djibouti’s withdrawal, which means the Panthers can’t take a best second-place berth, and will have to finish on top of Côte D’Ivoire to qualify. On the other hand, they won’t have to worry about qualifying for 2012--they’ve been named co-hosts with Equatorial Guinea, the first time for both countries.

    Speaking of Cote D’Ivoire, the Elephants had Jürgen Kohler all lined up as their new coach, whereupon he backed out, citing family reasons. (Maybe he got a look at the way the local press treated Henri Michel.) So it’s Plan B now, and suddenly a team that looked a lock to qualify has to get going real soon. The home tie vs. Gabon is next month, and presumably it would help to have a coaching staff in place. Best guess now is Franco Baresi.

Group 2
(Egypt, Botswana, Burundi, Mauritania)

    Big favorites Egypt opened with a routine 4:1 win at home to Burundi, but the win was overshadowed by the sudden death of defender Mohamed Abdelwahab, who had succumbed to a heart attack only a few days before. Still, there was important news on the field: after a couple of years of controversial dilly-dallying on both sides, young Werder Bremen striker Mohamed Zidan had agreed to cast his lot with the Pharoahs, and scored only five minutes in to get the rout started.

    But Egypt’s not the team in first place--that would be Mauritania. In one of the two biggest surprises of the weekend, the Mourabitounes smashed visiting Botswana 4:0. OK, they were at home, but Mauritania usually doesn’t win anywhere. There had been some warning: the U-17s had upset Algeria in the first round of the regional qualifiers, and the senior side had beaten the Senegalese Olympic team 1:0 in a friendly. Plus, Botswana were without two of their best players, striker Diphetogo “Dipsy” Selolwane and midfielder Mogogi Gabonamong, boycotting because of unpaid bonuses and equipment shortages. But no one could have expected two goals in the first ten minutes, two more before the interval, and complete domination. (“This is an unacceptable humiliation,” Botswana’s Mmegi intoned.) The 4:0 was the biggest win in Mauritania’s history, and a major success for new technical director Ali Fergani, who played for Algeria at the 1982 World Cup. It’s a bit too early to suggest they’ll qualify, but if they really have jumped up in class, second place in this group is by no means out of the question.

Group 3
(Nigeria, Uganda, Lesotho, Niger)

    Another easy win for the favorites, although Nigeria labored a bit in their 2:0 home win against Niger. Yakubu Aiyegbeni, who had boycotted the Nations Cup in 2006, is now back in the fold, and scored the opening goal for the Super Eagles. Otherwise, as usual, there’s more action in the boardrooms. The FA is committed to signing a European coach, which probably doesn’t make Austin Eguavoen feel too good, especially because he hasn’t been paid in nine months. His comment: “I am not saying they should not hire a foreign coach but if they must do, let them go for a high profile coach like Scolari or Wenger.” Think those guys would work for free?

    Uganda got off to their usual fast start by pasting Lesotho at home 3:0. The star was Egypt-based striker Geoffrey Massa, who scored two goals and won the penalty that led to the third. The Cranes’ Achilles heel has always been a lack of scoring power, and with the decline of Hassan Mbiru they have to hope Massa can be the man for a while. In top form Uganda can challenge for a best-second-place berth, but they always win their opener, so it’s best to reserve judgment. In the stands the sensation was the ceremonious entry of a high dignitary: Rio Ferdinand’s father. Don’t laugh--in Premiership-crazy Uganda, that’s much better than the President.

Group 4
(Tunisia, Sudan, Seychelles, Mauritius)

    From bad to worse for the Carthage Eagles. Knocked out in the quarterfinals at Egypt 2006, embarrassed at the World Cup, and held to a 0:0 draw at Mauritius. Yes, they were missing half their starters, and Hamed Namouchi blew a first-half penalty which might have changed the game, but on the whole they were once again listless and unimaginative. I suppose coaching will drive you crazy no matter what, but Roger Lemerre’s comment after the game--"Mauritius showed that football is played with intelligence. I am happy that we grabbed a point”--suggests that a mental institution isn’t far away. (And perhaps neither is the sack.) The home side (known as “Club M,” which sounds more like a singles’ organization) were naturally overjoyed, with top marks going to keeper Orwin Castel, who saved the PK and stopped Salama Kasdaoui one-on-one in the second half.

    In the other game of the group, Sudan beat Seychelles 3:0, and that’s about all I know. No game report from either country. But I can tell you that Pirates striker Wilnes Brutus didn’t make the trip because he wasn’t released from work. (They didn’t tell us his job, but it’s more fun to guess.) Oh, and on September 6, Valerie Adam of Seychelles gave birth to quadruplets, the first such birth on the island in 53 years.

Group 5
(Cameroon, Rwanda, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea)

    Cameroon opened by stomping Rwanda 3:0 on the road. But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds; the Wasps had most of the play in the first half, and although the Lions racked up three second-half goals, they were rarely at their best. New coach Arie Haan shook things up a bit, trying Geremi Njitap at centerback alongside Rigobert Song, and adding youngster Landry Nguemo in midfield, but reviews were mixed. Samuel Eto’O had two good chances saved, and the strikers were frequently caught offside. But all that counts is the result, and with their toughest fixture out of the way, the Lions should breeze.

    Huge news in Equatorial Guinea. As expected, their joint bid with Gabon to host the 2010 tournament lost out to Angola, but the confederation pulled a surprise by awarding the two countries the 2012 tournament without further ado. I only hope they improve their media channels. Forget match reports--you’re lucky to get the score right. During the World Cup qualifiers their opener home to Togo was reported both as a 1:0 win and a 0:1 loss, and it took two days to find out the result. It happened again last week, with sources variously reporting the game with Liberia as 1:2 and 2:1. The true result? Drum roll, please…2:1!! Of course, beating Liberia isn’t much to brag about these days: before the match several pros walked out over compensation issues, and after the match the FA claimed the Ministry of Sport hadn’t informed them about travel arrangements. And let’s give the Lone Star media equal stick: the capital of Equatorial Guinea is Malabo, but news releases insisted on calling it “Malibu.” Dude!

Group 6
(Angola, Kenya, Swaziland, Eritrea)

    The Palancas Negras keep plugging ahead, opening with an unimpressive 2:0 victory at Swaziland. The Sihlangu (featuring players with nicknames “Dunga,” “Street,” “Wawa,” and “Toyota”) didn’t play badly, creating a few good chances in the first half, and although Angola controlled midfield, both their goals came on set pieces. Mantorras, once the superstar striker of the future, continued his slide into mediocrity, and was yanked in the second half. On the positive side, regular left back Yamba Asha is back from his long doping suspension. There’s not a lot of excitement with the Palancas, but they get the job done, and right now it looks like they’ll come through this group.

    And that’s because of the shocker of the weekend: Kenya 1:2 Eritrea. Now Kenya aren’t exactly Cameroon, but before the match Eritrea had 1) won only 5 of 43 matches all-time; 2) had never beaten Kenya; 3) had never won on the road. Add in a comical own goal (keeper Arnold Origi misplayed a backpass) and a blown potential equalizer PK (the call itself was so doubtful that Eritrea coach Dorian Marin was sent off for protesting, but Dennis Oliech shot wide anyway), and it was embarrassment all around for the Harambee Stars. Kudos to Yednekachew Shimangus, Eritrea’s captain, a veteran of their debut international in 1998, who got the winner in the 62nd minute. After leading the team to this unprecedented humiliation, Kenya coach Bernard Lama left the country, threatening to quit unless they finalized his contract. Am I the only one who sees a problem here?

[A correction from the preview article regarding Swaziland; I wrote that coach Jan Van Winckel had been sacked after poor results in a tournament at Mozambique. In fact, he left voluntarily, and in Mozambique the team was under interim coaches. Mr. Van Winckel himself graciously wrote with the correction, so as recompense here’s a link to his website.]

Group 7
(Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Tanzania)

    No problem for the Lions of the Teranga, who coasted to a 2:0 home victory against Mozambique. A wet pitch made the going unsteady, and the lads had some trouble against a packed Black Mamba defense, but the result was never in doubt. An own goal opened the score in the 33rd minute, and in the second half left back Guirane Ndaw rammed home a free kick for his first international goal. Big names like Mamadou Niang and El Hadji Diouf were uninspired, but new face Papa Malick Ba excelled at defensive midfield. More or less what you’d expect from an opener. Given Burkina Faso’s troubles, Senegal remain clear favorites to go through, and given that they drew 50,000 fans for this one, they deserve it.

    And speaking of Burkina Faso, they went down 1:2 at an ecstatic Tanzania. The Taifa Stars have only one European pro on the side (Renatus Njohole, from the Swiss second division), but on a bad pitch with a high wind attacked fearlessly, and outplayed the more pedigreed Stallions. An early own goal helped out, but after a Burkinabe equalizer the hosts stayed calm, and substitute Nizar Khalfan got the 64th minute winner on a pass from man of the match Said Maulid. Now that they’re in with a shout, Tanzania may take the inevitable next step: changing their citizenship laws. Since they don’t allow dual citizenship, some otherwise eligible players are unavailable, notably striker Kali Ongala, who plays in Sweden. Come on, guys, get going--everyone knows you spell patriotism F-O-O-T-B-A-L-L.

Group 8
(Guinea, Cape Verde, Algeria, Gambia)

    The most balanced of the groups is already wide open. Guinea, the favorite, were held at home by Algeria 0:0. The Syli were missing their top man, Pascal Feindouno, but no excuse: the Desert Foxes were missing their two best, Karim Ziani and Rafik Saifi. The pitch was saturated, and although Guinea had the majority of possession, they showed few indications of the superb attack they had unleashed at Egypt 2006. Led by centerbacks Antar Yahia and Mehdi Meniri, Algeria played solid defense, looked for counters, and had the better chances. Kemoko Camara, the veteran Guinean keeper, made several good stops (and, according to one report, promptly announced his international retirement after the game). A scoreless draw was the logical result.

    That means first place currently goes to bottom seed Gambia, who defeated Cape Verde 2:0 at home. The Scorpions had some troubles in the buildup: they’re a foreign-based side, and it took a long time to get all the players into camp. The surefire cure? An 8th minute penalty, won and converted by one of the last to arrive, Cyprus-based Jatto Ceesay. The Cape Verdeans fielded mostly the same squad that had challenged for a berth in 2006 (plus a guy named Pele--the Southampton version) and threatened several times. But the home side held them off and got the clincher at the death. Quote of the weekend goes to Gambia coach Peter Bonu Johnson: “We thank God that we have professionals and we are here to facilitate and not to coach them because they already know how to play without any pressure.” Didn’t know it was that easy, did you, Sven?

Group 9
(Togo, Mali, Benin, Sierra Leone)

    Togo, the gift that keeps on giving. They’re out of the international spotlight now, but continue the antics that kept the world in stitches in Germany. Not only did several pros boycott the opener against Benin, but a few days after the match, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t coach Otto Pfister finally got out of Dodge, signing with El Merreikh, one of the top clubs in Sudan. The punch line: the Hawks are in first place. They labored heavily against the Squirrels, but in the end put up two goals to their opponents’ one, and that’s good for three points. So Pfister goes out a winner, and for the moment the man in charge of the asylum is assistant Kodjo Mawuena. La République Togolaise reports they’ll get another “sélectionneur étranger,” but he’d have to be étrange indeed to take the job.

    Co-favorites Mali found themselves in a cauldron at Sierra Leone--40,000 possessed fans lining up for hours before the game, roaring for the lads, battling police in the stadium--and couldn’t cope, fizzling to a 0:0 draw despite playing 11 on 10 for the last 40 minutes. The Eagles were without Mohamed Sissoko and Mahmadou Diarra, but still had plenty of capable European pros on the pitch, and failed to convince. True, Frederic Kanouté might have been unjustly denied a penalty at the end of the first half, but the Eagles couldn’t muster a single good chance with the man advantage. It’s still early, and Togo can vaporize at any moment, but as yet Mali haven’t shaken off the memory of the dreadful 2006 qualifiers. The players could only watch as the delirious Sierra Leone fans celebrated the draw as a victory, bearing off star Mohamed Kallon and captain Lamine Conteh to the locker rooms. How can you not love Africa?

Group 10
(DR Congo, Libya, Ethiopia, Namibia)

    With injuries and suspensions, DR Congo had fewer than half their first team available, and struggled to subdue a brave Brave Warriors side from Namibia. With 10 shots to 2 in the first half, they were still only tied 1:1, and when Namibia took the lead on the hour it looked like yet another weird result from two of the most unpredictable teams on the continent. But two minutes earlier a second yellow had reduced the Warriors to 10 men, and the Leopards wore them down. Eventually Fuanda Kinkela, one of the regulars, got an 82nd minute winner on a freakish cross that fooled the keeper. Still, both sides walked away happy. DR Congo drew their usual 80,000+ fans, rallied under pressure, and got the three points at home; Namibia, now under Zambian Ben Bamfuchile, showed they could play with the big boys. With Libya falling at Ethiopia, the Leopards are now prohibitive favorites, and the Brave Warriors might yet make an impact of their own.

    Like we said, Libya fell at Ethiopia (0:1), and if I could read Arabic, I’d tell you more. The English-language Ethiopian Herald, breaking new ground in football reportage, noted “Both teams made numerous goal attempts at the 9th, 28th, 39th, 40th, 45th, 68th, 76th and 78th minutes.” (I can’t even imagine.) It was a good result for the Walyas, who had originally asked the confederation to play the game at Libya due to widespread flooding.

Group 11
(South Africa, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad)

    Oh, boy, the next four years are going to be fun. Only about 8,000 fans showed up to watch South Africa get off to a predictably dreary start, drawing 0:0 at home to Congo-Brazzaville. For the ten-thousandth time, Benni McCarthy and Quinton Fortune found ways not to participate--but the continuing story promises to be Carlos Alberto Parreira. He doesn’t officially take over until January, but he’s already strutting around Johannesburg with his bodyguards, fending off complaints about his high salary, warning the notoriously meddlesome FA not to interfere. He’s off to a good start in the Silly Metaphor Sweepstakes, too: “[I am here] to polish soccer diamonds…but if the diamonds remain underground, if the machinery is not in place to mine them, they are of no value and there is no way the objective can be achieved.” Unfortunately, his problems are more than metaphorical: right now Bafana Bafana are flatly mediocre, and could easily miss out in the qualifiers. Parreira says he’s planning for 2010, which makes sense, but a loss next month at Zambia and that may be all they can plan for.

    Meanwhile the Chipolopolo Boys did their thing in a 2:0 win at minnows Chad. The Chadian fans took the defeat well, erupting in a full-scale riot that kept the Zambian players locked in the dressing room for over an hour after the game. Now that they’re home safe and in first place, they have to figure out what to do about the coach. For a while the FA has promised they’d get a foreigner, and apparently at least ten candidates have applied, but as yet the funds haven’t been allocated for the signing. In the meantime caretaker coach Patrick Phiri has led the team to four straight wins, and the local coaches’ association is lobbying to keep him on. It seems clear he’ll be in charge for the big game next month against South Africa, and if he wins that too, who’s going to get rid of him?

Group 12
(Morocco, Zimbabwe, Malawi)

    No surprise in the opener, with hosts Morocco winning 2:0 over Malawi. But the game was anything but easy: the Flames, led by 21-year-old midfielder Joseph Kamwendo, had the better of the first half, and the fans booed the team off the pitch at the interval. Morocco didn’t break through until Marouane Chammakh’s header off a set piece in the 50th minute. The Atlas Lions have repeatedly failed to live up to expectations lately, and dissension has reared its proverbial ugly head, with regulars Abdelsalam Ouaddou and Houssine Kharja walking off the side in a dispute with coach Mohamed Fakhir. Fakhir is only there at all because the team couldn’t land a foreign coach, and as yet has given no sign of being up to the task. On the positive side, it looks as if Ajax attacking midfielder Noureddine Boukhari, man of the match, is finally getting the chance he deserves. Morocco are still the favorites, but Zimbabwe should challenge them to the limit. The teams meet back-to-back in March and June.



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