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It was the Senegal forward El-Hadji Diouf who set the terms of the debate in the first week of the African Cup of Nations with his insistence that “the wrong teams” had qualified for football’s World Cup.
Some dismissed his words as sour grapes, others recognised a genuine fear that Africa might be embarrassed in Germany this summer. Either way, the 2006 African Cup of Nations in Egypt, which was won on penalties by the hosts against Ivory Coast, has been a negotiation between the traditional powers who will not be at the World Cup and four debutant qualifiers representing a supposed new order. With the exception of Ivory Coast, the new order has failed.
The Ivorians began slowly – but did have the defensive resolve to cope with their lack of fluency. Chelsea’s Didier Drogba emerged as a real leader as well as an exceptional target man, while the midfield energy of Yaya Touré, Didier Zokora and Koffi N’Dri suggests they will be no pushovers come the summer, despite being in a World Cup group with Argentina, Holland and Serbia-Montenegro.
Of the sides who will be in Germany, Togo were the greatest disappointment, the dispute between their one top-class player, Arsenal’s Emmanuel Adebayor, and coach Stephen Keshi, neutering them almost before they had started. Even if Keshi is, as seems inevitable, replaced by a coach more acceptable to Adebayor, the over-reliance on an unreliable star is hardly a recipe for success.
In the same group, Angola were slightly more impressive, but their failure to break down a Democratic Republic of Congo side reduced to 10 men for 72 minutes is indicative of a creative dearth. Their only hope is that Benfica forward Pedro Mantorras – “the new Eusebio” – will by the summer have recovered from the knee injury that has kept him out for almost two seasons, but there was little sign of the old pace in his substitute performances in Egypt.
Ghana, similarly, looked to injuries to excuse their first-round exit but at least the three players they were missing – Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan – are all short-term absentees.
Of the old guard, Nigeria, not for the first time, flattered to deceive before going out in the semi-finals, paying in the end for the lack
of attacking support for Obafemi Martins. They said farewell to Jay-Jay Okocha, who retired at the age of 32, but welcomed the emergence of John Obi Mikel, the 18-year-old showing just why Manchester United and Chelsea have fought so hard for his signature.
Cameroon were probably more impressive. The sublime talents of Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o, who scored five times in the group stage, will be missed at the World Cup but in the end Cameroon foundered against the Ivorian midfield before succumbing in a marathon penalty shoot-out.
Senegal were the Rasputin of the tournament, being beaten three times before they were finally eliminated. They may have been lucky to reach the last four, having lost two group games, but in the end their exit was doused in misfortune. One goal down in injury time against Egypt in the semi-final, Diomansy Kamara was blatantly fouled in the box by Ibrahim Said, only for the Cameroonian referee Divine Evehe to award a goal-kick. Whether he was intimidated by the crowd, or whether it was simply a misjudgment is unclear, but it was a dreadful decision.
More generally, Egypt benefited from their position as hosts, and when they played, the Cairo International Stadium, throbbing with 74,000 flag-waving fans for several hours before kick-off, was an imposing sight. Although they benefited from that support, and from the way the draw opened up to offer them a simple route to the final, it would be nonsensical to ascribe their progress to weak refereeing or skulduggery. Their success was rooted in the technical skills of their midfield – Ahmed Hassan, Mohamed Barakat and Mohamed Abou Terika.
Nevertheless, Divine’s intervention was not the only incident to leave a sour taste. No explanation was ever given as to why the second half of DR Congo’s final group game against Cameroon began eight minutes late, or why Cameroon spent the final minutes playing keep-ball when another goal would have put Angola rather than DR Congo through.
The Confederation of African Football, of course, failed to investigate but did find time to impose a ludicrous four-game ban on Ghana’s Laryea Kingston – effectively ruling him out of the World Cup – for an innocuous spat with Habib Beye of Senegal. CAF’s organisational efforts remain haphazard – the tournament deserves better.
Yet this was, by and large, a successful event. The pitches were as true as they ever have been, complaints about refereeing were limited, the Cameroonian aside, and the niggles over time-wasting and diving that have beset previous tournaments were rare.
In the performances of such unheralded sides as Guinea, DR Congo and even Zimbabwe, there was evidence to support the view that emerged from the World Cup qualifiers: that there is a greater depth to African football than ever before. The problem is that the World Cup is unlikely to see it.