Bish's Briefs - The Carnival amid the chaos
Published: 12 Jan 2010 - 07:37:36
Bill Shankly famously said "football isn't a matter of life and death, it's much more important than that".
Whilst we all know where he was coming from, Friday's atrocity in Cabinda, which killed three representatives of Togo's Football Federation and left goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale with an immovable bullet in his back, proved that the triviality of football pales into insignificance when put alongside human life.
Just as at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the show goes on against a backdrop of terror. Cancelling a tournament that estimates suggest generate up to three quarters of the Confederation of Africa's income was never an option to those ruling over African football.
The tournament that is long detested by coaches around Europe but cherished by those that participate has grown in innumerable strength since Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia contested the inaugural African Cup of Nations in 1957 - the year CAF was founded.
It should become more friendly to club managers in the next few years with FIFA President Sepp Blatter insisting the tournament be re-aligned to European summertime by 2016, although the CAF insist they should not have to pander to the demands of self-centred European clubs, who know the deal when signing African footballers.
The drama that unfolded in the tournaments opening game in Luanda was African football in a microcosm - wildly unpredictable and wholly entertaining.
Angola, hosts for the very first time, threw away a four goal lead with 11 minutes remaining to draw 4-4 against Mali.
Monday's games saw Malawi, who had never previously won a game in the African Nations, defeat Algeria, one of England's forthcoming opponents at the World Cup, by three goals to nil - a sizeable shock. The day's other game saw the Ivory Coast held to a 0-0 draw against Burkina Faso. Three games played and the favourites in each yet to win.
The African Nations is the most colourful, surprising and unpredictable of the continental Championships - a myriad of fervent terraces, spectacular goals and shock results, where fans masquerade behind a rainbow of body paint and costume. The last ten tournaments have seen seven different winners, although 2010 sees Egypt chasing history, seeking to become the first nation to win three successive Cup of Nations.
EGYPT CHASE HISTORIC HAT-TRICK
Their injury-hit squad, still recovering from missing out on a World Cup place to bitter North African rivals Algeria, may find it tough to progress through a group containing Nigeria, and one of Africa's emerging nations, Mozambique, whose football is more South American than African and who have one of the continent's rising stars, Simao Mate Junior, looking to further enhance a reputation growing with every game he plays in Greece for Panathinaikos.
The pressure is on for Nigeria coach Shuaibu Amodu who has been told he must take his side to at least the last four or face losing his job ahead of the World Cup. No pressure.
They may have been one of two unbeaten sides in qualification (World Cup qualification doubles up with qualification for the African Nations) but they were anything but convincing, relying upon a 93rd-minute winner in their penultimate group game to see off Mozambique and a late strike from Obafemi Martins to see off Kenya and finish top of Group B, ensuring their passage to South Africa. Their football is more methodical than mesmeric - the free-flowing flair of 90s Nigeria a memory consigned to the past.
Their success will be heavily dependent on the form of the country's Player of the Year, Osaze Odemwingie, and whether Amodu can inspire the best out of his country's temperamental players - notably Yakubu, Obafemi Martins and John Obi Mikel.
TIME FOR IVORY COAST TO DELIVER?
The first year of the new decade may be the final year for Didier Drogba's generation to finally land a major prize for the Ivory Coast.
The tournament favourites have got their hands on the trophy just once, back in 1992, and are in reasonable shape to bury a decade of disappointments. In Drogba and the Toure brothers they have three of the most distinguished and decorated players at the finals.
The Drogba we see in Ivorian orange is far different from the preening sulk we see in the Premier League. When representing his beloved country he becomes the mean, inspirational and aggressive warrior we do not see enough of when he wears the blue of Chelsea - a man unplayable.
Gone are the histrionics, the doctored dives and frustrating falls - for his nation he becomes the leader, a totem, and the man who bounds his proud nation into battle. International football gives us the best in Didier Drogba.
With a World Cup draw which has been unkind to the Ivory Coast, Ghana may be the continents best bet in South Africa this summer and the next three weeks may be more suited to preparation than Cup of Nations success.
GHANA HOPES REST ON YOUNG SHOULDERS
A host of injuries have ruled out John Pantsil, John Mensah, Stephan Appiah and Richard Kingston, yet it allows coach Milovan Rajevac to draft in eight of the players that won the 2009 FIFA U20 World Cup - all of whom harbour hopes of establishing themselves in the senior squad ahead of the summer trip to South Africa.
Amongst those is Dominic Adiyiah, top-scorer in that U20 World Cup with eight goals and voted the tournaments Most Valuable Player. His performances in Egypt where he showcased his searing pace, boundless energy and composure in-front of goal saw AC Milan swoop for his signature in November. He may, if not now then in forthcoming years, be the man to give the Ghanaians the cutting edge their game, based on midfield tenacity, has lacked in recent years. They are looking to land the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 28, yes 28, years.
The fitness of Michael Essien is a crucial crux to Ghana's success in Angola- he should be ready for the game of the group stage - Friday night's showdown against Ivory Coast in troubled Cabinda. Their group has been cut to three following the disqualification of Togo. Burkina Faso are looking to spring a surprise and sneak in ahead of one of the continents two best sides and feature Africa's top scorer in qualification, Moumouni Dagano, who hit 12 goals on the way to getting his country to Angola.
At 4-0 up on Sunday night the Angolans would have felt capable of making progress deep into the tournament. The host often prevail in Africa - 11 of the 26 tournaments have been won by the home side and led by Portuguese coach Manuel Jose they can still get back on track despite that incomprehensible collapse.
Jose, who discovered the talents of a certain Luis Figo, knows African football well having taken Egyptian side Al-Ahly to four African Champions League titles amongst the 16 honours he won in his two spells at the club. Malawi's shock win over Algeria has thrown the group wide open.
ETO'O TO SPEARHEAD CAMEROON CHALLENGE
In Group D, Cameroon, under the guidance of former Rangers coach Paul Le Guen, should comfortably qualify. They begin their campaign on Wednesday against one of the joint-hosts for the 2012 tournament, Gabon (co-hosting with Equatorial Guinea), and with the Golden Boot winner in the last two tournaments and its all-time leading goalscorer, Samuel Eto'o with 16 goals to his name, in their ranks.
Eto'o has set his sights on breaking Mulamba Ndaye's record of nine goals in a single tournament for Zaire in 1974 and in doing so may help the African Cup of Nations break the 100-goal barrier for the very first time.
With Alex Song in the form of his young career they can certainly contend for the title and in doing-so bring Cameroon back towards the forefront of African football but they will likely have to negate either Ivory Coast or Ghana to reach the final in Luanda on January 31.
The only thing to expect from the African Cup of Nations is the unexpected. If it's a festival of football you want, wonderfully erratic and unpredictable, full of colour and character, you shouldn't be disappointed.
Let's hope the tournament serves as a fitting memory to those who needlessly lost their lives on their way to Angola on Friday afternoon.
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- Having worked in radio, newspapers, magazines, internet and television I hope to now bring my passion for the game to your computer screens with analysis, comment and tongue-in-cheek humour on all things global in the world of football - from Barcelona to Boca and from Blatter to Berlusconi...enjoy!
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