Rustenburg, South Africa - The first African Nations Cup finals in an odd-numbered year in 48 years is already half-way through, producing the thrills and disappointments of Africa's biggest sports event. The setting is South Africa where 16 national teams, on 19 January, began campaigning for the trophy in four groups of four teams each. A PANA correspondent, covering the event, reports that generally upstarts were the teams that caused upsets, some big teams, though, have lived up to expectations, another barely survived and for the third time in 31 years, a defending champion had been eliminated in the group stage.
When the 16 teams began the quest for the trophy and a place for the FIFA Confederation Cup later this year in Brazil, very few would have predicted a possible dearth of goals.
The first two matches were barren. The next produced four goals, but score lines were stalemated to signal the preponderance of stalemated score lines. Perhaps, no edition has produced more drawn matches than the 2013 AFCON.
The 24 matches played in the group stage have 13 ending in draws. In comparison, the 2012 edition, co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, had only three drawn games out of the 24 at the group stage.
The preponderance of draws is further compounded by the goal drought. The 24 games produced a paltry 49 goals, an average of two per match. In 2012 at the corresponding stage, 61 goals were scored.
There was even more goal explosion at the 2008 edition when the 24 matches of the group stage produced 70 goals – 21 goals more than what has been recorded at South Africa 2013.
In spite of the paucity of goals, a third of the 49 goals recorded came in the last 15 minutes and in added time. This is even more pronounced in the three games the Super Eagles played.
Noted as masters at conceding late goals, the Super Eagles lost what could have been a win in their first match when Burkina Faso’s Alain Toure’s low drive in Nigeria’s penalty box sailed passed a sea of legs of three defenders and the outstretched body of goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama at the very last second of added time!
That goal proved decisive. It later contributed to Nigeria’s loss of group leadership to Burkina Faso, making Nigeria to face an apparent no-hope situation of a quarter-final clash with clear tournament favourites, Cote d’Ivoire.
For Burkina Faso who are in the knock-out stage only for the second time since 1998 when they hosted, it is perhaps a good omen for them having to face a less potent Togo in Sunday’s quarter final clash at the Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit.
They remain the only team apart from Cote d’Ivoire to have remained in one centre for the entire competition. They must have gotten accustomed to the bumpy pitch of the Mbombela Stadium, just as Cote d’Ivoire have almost effortlessly been scoring goals on the alluring pitch of the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg.
However, as the odds clearly favour the Ivoirians in the West Africa dominated knock-out stage, upsets are not unlikely. If past finals are anything to go by, surprises are in the offing.
On the two occasions that Nigeria won the African Nations Cup, they were able to eliminate Cote d’Ivoire. In 1980, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire played goalless draw and the Ivoirians were ousted at the group stage.
In 1994, they played another draw, 2-2, at regulation time in the semi-finals. Yet, the Super Eagles survived the early scare of Samson Siasia losing his kick in the ensuing penalty shoot-out.
The Super Eagles went ahead to win the competition. In contrast, on the instances that Cote d’Ivoire defeated Nigeria in the African Nations Cup tournament, it proved a bad omen for the Ivoirian because they ended up losing the competition.
That was the case in 2006 when they clashed in the semi-finals and in 2008 at the group stage. Cote d’Ivoire have been honour-starved for 21 years, despite been the best ranked African football team at the moment.
But as attention returns to the eight surviving teams, Cape Verde will be a major focus as they face one of Africa’s most respected sides, the Black Stars of Ghana, in the quarter finals.
The Cape Verde team’s performance is akin to the fable of Cinderella. The country of 10 tiny islands of the west coast of Africa and boasting of barely 500,000 people has proved the most successful team so far, even if they are ousted on Saturday.
The indication of their potency could first be gleaned from the physical struggle and resort to almost wild kicks that the Super Eagles have to employ to contain the subtly skilful African Nations Cup debutants in a friendly game in Portugal early this year.
Even Ghana had to struggle to beat Cape Verde, 1-0, in a friendly match in Lisbon last November. As it is, the Cape Verdeans have become the only debutants since that of Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire in 1965 to advance beyond the first round. Incidentally, that was the last odd-numbered year African Nations Cup.
Yet it was at the stroke of the last second of their last match against fellow former Portugal’s colony, Angola, Cape Verde inched themselves into the record books. A little study of the football history of the chain of islands which Geographers call archipelago will reveal that the tiny nation has for long been a producer of talents for other bigger countries and clubs.
Nani of Manchester United and Portugal national team, Henrik Larsson of Sweden, Patrick Viera of France along with others like Rolando and Silvestre Varela have their roots in Cape Verde.
Cape Verde has therefore further helped in lending credence to the fact that the pendulum of balance of power in national team football in Africa still resides in the West. All North African teams have been eliminated. It is the first time since 1992 tournament that no single North African country will make it to the knockout stage.
Also, hosts South Africa remain the only southern country still in the race - thanks to home advantage!
After two days of rest and the departure of Zambia, the defending champions, Niger DR Congo along with Angola, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Ethiopia, the competition enters the second and knock-out phase on Saturday.
At the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, four-times past winners, Ghana, take on debutants, Cape Verde, at 4pm Nigerian time while in Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium from where Nigeria crashed out of the 2010 World Cup, hosts, South Africa will take on Mali.
On Sunday, at 4pm, Super Eagles will face their most difficult game under Stephen Keshi as they meet pre-tournament’s favourites, Cote d’Ivoire, in Rustenburg. Burkina Faso will face Togo in the third all-West Africa quarter finals in Nelspruit.