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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African Nations Cup Qualifiers - Round Two
Shame--we’ve just got started in the Nations Cup qualifiers, and now we have to take a break. I suppose there are club schedules and weather problems and all those other logical reasons, but it’s still a disappointment. Who can wait for the next protest, or riot, or coaching controversy, or other bit of insanity? Who can wait for the marvelous football? Actually, if you scan the results, it looks like there’ll be plenty of teams happy to take a break…
(Côte D’Ivoire 3, Gabon 3, Madagascar 0)
This was the moment of truth for Gabon. Under the guidance of Alain Giresse, the Panthers had all their top pros in the fold, had thumped Madagascar in the opener, and were ready to take on the toughest team in the draw, Côte D’Ivoire. After the early elimination in Germany, the Elephants had had trouble securing a new coach, and Uli Stielike and staff had arrived only a few weeks ago. A win for Gabon might be too much to expect, but with all the signs positive, they’d never get a better chance to nick a vital point in Abidjan.
Nice try. The final score was 5:0, and it could have been far worse. Stielike started three strikers, Didier Drogba, Aruna Dindane, and Arouna Koné, and sat back to watch the stampede. Koné got three, Dindane one, and all five were in the bag by the 68th minute. Conclusion: Côte D’Ivoire are still one of the two best teams in Africa, and Gabon are still in the middle of the pack. With goal difference off the scale, this group may already be decided. Giresse’s comment: “We could have done better.” Yeah.
(Egypt 4, Mauritania 3, Burundi 3, Botswana 1)
It’s hard to be a minnow, and even harder to be just a little bit better than a minnow. Exhibit A: Botswana. Up until very recently, the Zebras had been a prize doormat, losing to all and sundry: Swaziland, Mozambique, Niger, Namibia, you name it. But in 2003 they hit the big time: a two-leg victory over Lesotho, which catapulted them into the group stage of the combined World/Nations Cup qualifiers. And they did OK, with a win over Kenya and two over Malawi, results that couldn’t have been dreamed of only a few years previously. Which made it all the more traumatic when they opened the 2008 qualifiers with a 0:4 loss at Mauritania, a team historically even worse than Botswana in their worst days. Had they come so far only to find themselves back where they started? Not quite. Because in round two they responded with the greatest result in their history, a home 0:0 draw with mighty Egypt. The Pharaohs came in nearly at full strength, and had plenty of chances, but were frustrated all day by keeper and captain Modiri “Carlos” Marumo. Yes, Egypt will win the group, and no, Botswana won’t qualify for Ghana, but it was a magnificent result nonetheless. Of course, in March they play Burundi, another minnow, and they can only hope it won’t be snakes and ladders once more.
Which brings us to exhibit B, Mauritania, the side that had shocked everyone with their dominating win over Botswana. Firmly convinced they had finally stepped up a level, they traveled confidently to Burundi--where they were dumped 3:1. Perhaps things might have been different if Moussa Karamogho hadn’t missed a first-half penalty, but probably not. Burundi scored in the 3rd minute, and with playmaker Abdallaa Nduwmana in fine form, controlled the action most of the way. Ali Fergani, hailed as a wonderworker after the win over Botswana, came in for severe criticism for his 3-5-2 formation, not to mention his substitutions, and probably his meal plan as well. And so it goes. Like we said, hard to be a minnow, even harder when you get better.
[Stop the presses, folks. A few days ago it was revealed that Botswana have protested the loss to Mauritania because of passport irregularities. Details are sparse, but the report on rsssf.com says one of the passports had a Zimbabwe entry stamp and others had pages missing. Maybe it’s not that hard to be more than a minnow…]
(Nigeria 6, Uganda 4, Niger 1, Lesotho 0)
The scoreline read Niger 0:0 Uganda, but that’s nowhere near the whole story, at least if you ask the Cranes. Where to start? Out of money, the FA were ready to forfeit the game outright, until a late private donation got the lads on the plane to Niamey. There they were kicked out of the stadium by local officials during a practice. Star defender Ibrahim Sekagya didn’t show up at all, choosing instead to play for his club team in Argentina. And when the whistle blew, they were confronted by a referee that they claimed was…well, biased. (That’s a euphemism for “paid off by Nigerians.”) Four yellow cards to zero, attacks derailed for nonexistent offsides, penalties overlooked, the usual complaints. No proof, of course, but the federation has appealed to CAF, hoping at least to get striker Geoffrey Massa’s yellow card overturned so he can play against Nigeria in March--where no doubt the accusations will fly once more.
The Super Eagles themselves were down south in Lesotho, where they ground out an unimpressive 1:0 win on a second-half goal by Yakubu Ayigbeni. Austin Eguavoen showed he’s as good as any European coach by blaming the bad pitch and the high altitude. The game was more notable for who didn’t play: John Utaka (passport mixup), Nwankwo Kanu (injury), John Obi Mikel (visa problems claimed, but no one’s buying it), and Jay-Jay Okocha (who cares anymore?). Remember, the big game is home to Uganda in the spring, so check your e-mail for those sure-thing Nigerian money offers.
(Tunisia 4, Sudan 3, Seychelles 3, Mauritius 1)
So your team, who have qualified for the World Cup three straight times, are playing at home. They go up against a side that hasn’t qualified for the Nations Cup in a millennium. You win 1:0 on an own goal in the 79th minute. Outrage? Riots? Nope, satisfaction--and that tells you all you need to know about Tunisia right now. After months of sterile play from a bunch of jaded regulars, the Carthage Eagles revamped the squad against Sudan and watched the boys go for it. Issam Jomaa, the young striker from Lens, was the star, wreaking havoc up front and delivering the diving header that lead to the goal. Karim Nafti, midfielder for surprise Champions League finalists CS Sfaxien, got his first cap in a competitive match, and impressed with technique and commitment. Another local midfielder, Kamel Zaïem of Esperance, showed plenty of potential as well. Sure, the team missed about a zillion scoring chances, but they showed more energy and enthusiasm than the fans had seen in a very long time. This is an easy group, so Roger Lemerre would be wise to use the qualifiers as a development project. When they get to Ghana in 2008, own goals won’t be enough.
In the other game, host Seychelles beat Mauritius 2:1 in an Indian Ocean derby. Striker Wilnes Brutus showed he was the noblest Pirate of them all, scoring both goals, including the 81st minute winner on a header off a free kick. It’s an interesting series. Mauritius started playing internationals more than 20 years before Seychelles, and won most of the early encounters; recently the Pirates have caught up, and haven’t lost a competitive match against Club M in 10 years. But the return fixture should be a challenge: Seychelles’ all-time record in Mauritius is zero wins, five losses, one draw.
(Cameroon 6, Liberia 3, Equatorial Guinea 3, Rwanda 0)
There was never any doubt in this group. Cameroon notched their second straight routine 3:0 win, this time at home to the Nzalang Nacional, also known as Equatorial Guinea. Once again the Lions looked ordinary, and once again didn’t open the score until the second half. But since the visitors had everyone including the team bus driver back on defense, it was understandable. Mohamadou Idrissou got a brace and Achille Webo the third, and now Cameroon can rest up until Samuel Eto’O gets back. Actually, Arie Haan, who’s been blooding the youngsters here and there, probably won’t bother to call him in until next fall. And even then only if he wants to go for all 18 points.
Down in the lower reaches, there was finally some good news for Liberia, who knocked off Rwanda 3:2 at home to snap a nine-game losing streak. So what did the press have to say about the team? “Disappointing performance.” And the coach, Frank Jericho Nagbe? “Tactically maladroit and arrogant.” (Perhaps he shouldn’t have named his teenage son to the team ahead of several more-qualified players.) But at least they got most of their overseas pros in, which hasn’t always been the case. Man of the match was Greece-based striker Francis “Grandpa” Doe, who dazzled all day and got the opening goal. Oh, and in other Lone Star fun name news, centerback Omega Roberts got his second cap. I’ll spare you the string of puns, but let’s hope there’s a guy named Alpha out there to partner him someday.
(Angola 6, Eritrea 4, Swaziland 1, Kenya 0)
Somewhere along the line when we weren’t looking, Angola became a steamroller. They squashed Kenya 3:1, making them one of only three teams with two victories out of two--and the others are Nigeria and Cameroon. To be sure, with the Harambee Stars in yet another amusing collapse (coach Bernard Lama left after the opener, never to return), the Palancas Negras don’t have much opposition in this group. But rain or shine, they go out and get the job done. Despite missing captain Figueiredo and left back Yamba Asha, they breezed to a win with two goals from Flavio and one from Mateus. It’s not all sweetness and light in Palancaville: the press didn’t think much of the performance, and ripped coach Oliveira Gonçalves for starting midfielder Miloy, on the bench with his club, ahead of more in-form players. You get the sense they’re a bit spoiled after the World Cup run. Perhaps they should remember that Angola didn’t even qualify for the Nations Cup until 1996, and this will be the first time they’ve topped their qualifying group twice in a row. With the country scheduled to host in 2010, it’s the Golden Age, so enjoy it while you can.
The other game matched Swaziland at Eritrea, and not surprisingly there wasn’t a lot of news coverage. The Swazi Observer didn’t bother to send a reporter, and FA president Frederick Mngomezulu “persistently did not answer his cellphone” when they called him for comment. But second vice president Welile Mabuza assured the home folks that the team played well “under very stressful conditions.” (In a later article this was upgraded to “a high level of ill-treatment,” and I’m not sure I want to know more.) The result? 0:0. A day later Mngomezulu checked in, in case you’re worried. As for Eritrea, they’re back to earth after the road victory over Kenya, and will do well to take second place.
[Note: with the impending FIFA suspension of Kenya, all bets are off here. Actually, it won’t make any difference, because Angola will still qualify. But Kenya’s results may be purged from the record, which will change the standings somewhat. Poor Eritrea--the greatest win in their history, and it may not count.]
(Tanzania 4, Senegal 3, Burkina Faso 3, Mozambique 1)
Burkina Faso were home to Senegal, and after the shock opening loss at Tanzania, this was pretty much the Stallions’ last shot. And the man who took the shot was Narcisse Yaméogo, drilling a penalty on the hour for the only goal of the game. The Senegalese protested the PK bitterly--the referee had initially waved play on, and only whistled when the assistant signaled the foul--but all it got them was a second yellow for Pape Malickou Diakhate. They had little to complain about, though: pressing early and often, Burkina Faso controlled midfield, and had the more pedigreed Lions on their back paws most of the game. The star was 20-year-old midfielder Jonathan Pitroipa of Freiburg, who raided all day on the left side and drew the PK. By common consent it was one of the Stallions’ best performances in ages, and with Senegal floundering they’re certainly in with a shout.
And what about Tanzania? They’re in first place, thank you, after grabbing a point in a scoreless draw at Mozambique. It wasn’t exactly a masterpiece; the Mambas dominated from start to finish, and keeper Ivo Mapunda was forced into several good saves to keep the Taifa Stars afloat. Before the game there was controversy, as it looked like Tanzania’s star midfielder Renatus Njohole wouldn’t be released by his Swiss club side. Eventually they pried him loose, and maybe regretted it, because he had a poor performance. But that didn’t stop the throngs from cheering the lads when they arrived at the airport. And why not? It’s been 26 years since they made their only appearance at the Nations Cup. Coach Marcio Maximo plans a camp in his native Brazil over the break, where presumably he’ll show the locals why he should get Dunga’s job. As for Artur Semedo, the non-Brazilian coach of Mozambique, he got the sack.
(Algeria 4, Gambia 3, Cape Verde 3, Guinea 1)
Eight months ago, Patrice Neveu led Guinea to a stunning group-stage sweep at the Nations Cup in Egypt, and was the toast of Africa. Now he’s just toast. After the Syli dropped a 0:1 decision at Cape Verde, sinking the top seed into last place, the FA said goodbye. The press release said the parties separated “amicably,” which isn’t all that surprising; Neveu’s been reviled there for years, and I’m sure he’s happy to leave town. With four games still to go, Guinea have too much talent to be counted out. Plus, they finally get top man Pascal Feindouno back after suspension. But whoever takes over for Neveu better bring his armor plating. (Incidentally, the game got almost no coverage in Cape Verde, where all eyes were on the Lusophone Games in Macau. The U-21’s took bronze, if you’re counting.)
Meanwhile Algeria went top with a solid performance home to Gambia. The Scorpions were missing three starters, including key man Jatto Ceesay, so new coach Tony Huy sent them out to defend. And when Abou Jammeh got sent off in the 33rd minute, they had to defend even more. Still, the Desert Foxes didn’t break through until the 77th minute, and then on a PK that even the Algerian press thought was doubtful. That was the only goal, but there was no doubt Algeria were the superior side. The midfield, with Euroleaguers stalwarts such as Nadir Belhadj (Sedan), Yazid Mansouri (Lorient), Karim Ziani (Sochaux), and Chadli Amri (Mainz), is rounding into shape nicely, and the side looks ready for the challenge in this toughest of groups.
(Mali 4, Benin 3, Togo 3, Sierra Leone 1)
What’s more important, the coach or the players? When we last left the madhouse known as Togo, the Hawks, led by Otto Pfister, had beaten Benin despite a widespread player boycott. Pfister left (this time for real), and the FA promised they’d replace him soon. Well, they didn’t get a coach, but they did get the players back: all the big names, even Emmanuel Adebayor, showed up for the game at Mali. And they lost. OK, let’s be fair: Mali on the road is a lot tougher than Benin at home. And in an uncharacteristically strong defensive performance, they held the Eagles off for 93 minutes. But in the 94th, a combination between Momo Sissoko, Mahamadou Diallo, and Dramane “Rivaldo” Traoré got the ball in the net for a 1:0 win. It was an absolutely crucial victory for Mali, who had bombed in last cycle’s qualifiers and were beginning to think they’d never get back to form. It was also perfect revenge for Togo’s stoppage-time victory the last time the teams had met in Bamako. Fortunately, the Hawks now have until March to find that coach (and convince him to stay, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it).
Benin faced a must-win match home to Sierra Leone, and coach Edme Codjo raised eyebrows several feet when he left off the Squirrels’ best man, playmaker Stephane Sessegnon. He got the result, but it was hardly vindication. Even granted a 20th minute penalty (converted by keeper Chitou Rachad), they made heavy weather against a Leone Stars side missing injured striker Mohamed Kallon. Benin offered plenty of attack, but plenty of imprecision as well, and the 2:0 clincher didn’t come until near the end. Three points are nice, and goal difference puts them in second place, but at the moment the Squirrels don’t look ready to contend.
(DR Congo 4, Namibia 3, Ethiopia 3, Libya 1)
Group leaders DR Congo went north to Libya for their toughest fixture, hoping for a point--and that’s what they got. A first-half penalty gave them the lead, and although Libya equalized on the hour, the Leopards maintained easy control the rest of the way. Their toughest moments came before and after the game: before, when striker Lomana Lua Lua was refused entry to the country on visa matters, and after, when the Tripoli fans bombarded them with projectiles. It was a cool performance under pressure, and DR Congo now look odds-on favorites to take first place. After qualifying for the first time ever in 2006 (they hosted in 1982), Libya has dropped back to their traditional minnowhood, with only one point in two games. Coach Mohsen Salah got axed after the match, yet another victim of unreasonably high expectations--but you don’t lose to Ethiopia and expect hearts and flowers.
So Namibia, of all teams, now have the inside track to second place. Before the game against Ethiopia, Brave Warriors coach Ben Bamfuchile offered a remarkably candid scouting report: “I don’t know much about Ethiopian soccer, but I asked a friend of mine who is with the Zambian embassy in Ethiopia to send me a video of one of their matches. All I know is that they are used to playing at high altitude.” Given that Windhoek is more than 1600 meters above sea level, that looked like trouble. And with the president of the country in the stands, there was more than a little pressure. But early on (variously described as in the 18th, 20th, and 25th minute--don’t clocks work at high altitude?), their German connection came through: Collin Benjamin (Hamburg) drew a penalty, and Quinton Jacobs (OK, he used to play for Duisburg) converted. It was enough to win an even match, which one news report described as “not entertaining.” Tell that to the ticketless fans who tried to crash the gate and had to be tear-gassed by the police.
(Congo-Brazzaville 4, South Africa 4, Zambia 3, Chad 0)
You could see this one coming. South Africa hadn’t had a good game in what seemed like a century; Zambia, playing at home, hadn’t lost in their last seven matches and had all their pros available. So of course Bafana Bafana won--the big surprise was that they did so deservedly. They were stronger in midfield, with Steven Pienaar and Siyabonga Nkosi the standouts, and overall had the better chances. Aaron Mokoena, wearing the captain’s armband, got the only goal on a header off a free kick, and Rowen Fernandez saved the day with a last-minute stop from Collins Mbesuma. Carlos Alberto Parreira was in the stands, and now is ready to take over the team--assuming he got out of Lusaka alive. The Zambian fans, having been promised a victory, rioted after the game, although nowhere near as badly as the week before, when the cause was only election results. Just call it progress.
And speaking of progress, a tip of the cap to first-place Congo-Brazzaville, who despite missing a PK, mopped up 3:1 at home against weaklings Chad. They got off to a fast start in the 2006 qualifiers, too, so we’ll hold our applause, but it’s good to see the Red Devils making a good fist of it. Their squad is pretty anonymous, with the possible exception of midfielder Christopher Samba, on the rolls at Hertha Berlin. Barel Mouko, at Dijon in the French second division, is a solid keeper. The coach is Frenchman Noel Tosi, former head man of Mauritania, known for trying to sneak in players of doubtful eligibility (FIFA said no to a couple of U-21 French stars this time around). Last month he was quoted as saying that travel in Congo “is organized a bit like Walt Disney's 'Fantasia'.” So there’s, what, classical music playing while alligators juggle hippos?
(Morocco 3, Malawi 3, Zimbabwe 0)
It’s always best to end with Malawi, a side scaling heights of bizarreness rarely seen even in Africa. It all started with a dispute between the FA and coach Burkhard Ziese, over--well, over everything, really. According to the Malawi Nation, the charges against him were “insubordination and open defiance; lack of respect for authority; absconding duties without satisfactory reasons; fraud and corruption; lack of submission of match reports and use of abusive language to officials and players.” The federation called a disciplinary hearing, and Ziese simply refused to attend. Of course, they fired him. But he refused to go, showing up the next day for practice with the team--whereupon he was physically attacked by supporters. To which he replied: "They must count themselves lucky because I didn't want to fight back. They would have known how powerful I am." (He’s 62 years old.) Meanwhile there was a football game to be played. The opponent was Zimbabwe, two-time qualifiers for the Nations Cup, heavy favorites in the match, and bemused onlookers as all the drama unfolded. Surely there could be only one result.
Right. A Malawi victory. The Flames won 1:0, dominating the action, sending their most-of-the-time-on-the-edge-anyway press into barking hysterics. You can check the archives of the Nation for the full dose of madness, but how about this description of left back Moses Chavula’s winning goal: “[W]ith the cunning of a black mamba, he tapped it with such elegant economy of movement that he seemed casual and unhurried…The ball soared into the air and, as if decoyed by some magical wand, it surged away from the jealously guarded goal posts only to retrace its designated path where it politely avoided the begging hands of keeper Tapuwa Kapini and eventually perched at the back of the net.” And what about Ziese? The FA had banned him from the stadium, but he had claimed he was going to attend the game, accompanied by bodyguards. But we never found out whether he made it through the gates. Just as well--what’s African football without a mystery?
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