Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Global Scope: Africa Cup of Nations 2013

For those of you who were unaware, the Africa Cup of Nations has been going on in South Africa since the 19th of January, with two semifinals to be played tomorrow (Mali vs Nigeria and Burkina Faso vs Ghana) and the grand finale on Sunday. Coming into South Africa every nation was aware of the implications that this year's event would have on the champion: a berth to the FIFA Confederations Cup hosted by Brazil and with a start date of June 15th. Naturally the importance of the competition was greater than usual, and this led to some interesting story lines to be played out in South Africa's magnificent stadia, the same ones used for hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

The African style of play usually resembles the South American style, a lot more offensive and entertaining than the European style of play. However, unlike the South Americans, the African squads never made it as far as they seemingly should have in international competitions. Cameroon broke through to the quarter final stages of the 1990 World Cup behind football icon Roger Milla, and when it seemed as if African football was on the rise, they did not see another team make it that far until Senegal in 2002 and then Ghana in 2010. The continent, and the world, has yet to see an African team advance to the semifinals. Now, something those three teams have in common is that they made it as far as they did playing the way they know how to, offensive, entertaining, joyful football. 

However, in this year's Cup of Nations we have seen a more robotic Africa, mechanized by mediocre coaches coming in from all over the world with the promise to develop African football. The promise to give the offensive and entertaining style strategies and tactics to fall back on, the promise of bringing them to the long awaited, and past due, World Cup glory. Don't get me wrong, I am not against coaches coming in from Europe or South America and helping with the development of African football, but I do believe the overflow of poor coaching has anchored that development, leaving teams with a lack of real identity. This year there are 9 teams (out of 16) who are coached by foreigners: 5 French managers (Mali, Zambia, DR Congo, Ivory Coast, Togo), 1 Uruguayan (Angola), 1 German (Niger), 1 Bosnian (Algeria), and 1 Belgian (Burkina Faso). 

I'm not saying that the numbers are what bother me, especially because some of these coaches are already proven in the international stage such as Vahid Halilhodzic, the Bosnian manager of the Algerian squad. He has achieved a lot of success in France, taking LOSC Lille to a Champions League Appearance, and giving PSG a French Cup title in what was the French capital's team most successful season in years. The problem is when federations think bringing any coach from overseas is the answer, giving them the green-light to make any decisions that they want, which at times interferes with the true long-term development of the teams. What was witnessed in the first round and quarter final round of the Cup of Nations was a much more dull, robotic game than we were used to seeing, with some few exceptions of course.

Exceptions such as the fairytale story of Cape Verde, a 10-island archipelago off the West African coast, who played fantastic attacking football throughout the competition. This was Cape Verde's first time in the Cup of Nations and they are the smallest nation to ever compete in the tournament, with a population of less than 600,000 people. The "fairytale" begins and ends with their head coach, Lucio Antunes, a "former" air traffic controller, who in December spent a week shadowing Jose Mourinho in Madrid before the Cup of Nations. Well, it seemed to have worked because in their first ever participation in the continental competition Cape Verde drew with the hosts South Africa and Morocco (0v0 and 1v1 respectively) and beat Angola by a score of 2-1, giving them the opportunity to play Ghana in the quarter finals. 

The historic feat made the nation extremely proud, and Antunes' cell phone would not stop ringing with calls of congratulations coming from Cape Verde's President, Prime Minister, and even from his colleague Mr. Mourinho. Cape Verde went on to being unfairly defeated by Ghana in the quarterfinals, 2-0, after outplaying the Black Stars for most of the game, being betrayed by their innocence in such a huge stage. However, Cape Verde wowed football fans worldwide with their bold and creative play, leaving what was definitely the most significant mark in this year's Cup of Nations (so far!). Another exception has been Burkina Faso, with the speed and technique of Alain Traore (FC Lorient), Kabore (Olympique Marseille), and the leadership of Bakary Kone (O. Lyon).
Cape Verde's Heldon (Maritimo) celebrates goal vs Angola

On the opposite side of the spectrum we have the "former" favorites to win the Cup of Nations, the almighty Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast of such stars as Yaya Toure (Manchester City), Didier Drogba (Galatasaray), and Gervinho (Arsenal). They have been defeated in the quarterfinals by a young, yet promising Nigerian side by a score of 2-1. Probably the biggest disappointment in this (and past) competitions, the Elephants haven't won a major international title since 1992 when they won the Cup of Nations for the first (and only) time.


From the two matches to be played today I pick Nigeria and Ghana to qualify to the Cup of Nations final on February 10th. Even though I have highlighted a few of the traits Burkina Faso has, which has been a pleasant surprise for many people, it will be tough for them to beat the Black Stars who have a solid (albeit almost dull) identity and style of play. Backed by their experienced captain Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain), some young players have been emerging when needed the most, which is the case of Wakaso Mubarak (Espanyol), and Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus). Mubarak having scored both goals against Cape Verde, which qualified Ghana to the semifinals.

The other match between Mali and Nigeria will also be an interesting one, but I still favor the Nigerians, who have been following the leadership of Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow). Emenike is one of the three top goal scorers in the tournament with 3 goals (together with Burkina Faso's Alain Traore and Ghana's Wakaso Mubarak). They haven't played any particularly spectacular matches, but despite having a very young team seem to grow in the most important moments, like the quarterfinal match against the Ivory Coast. Mali on the other hand have played very well below their capabilities, being bailed out twice by former FC Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita (Dalian Aerbin). The likes of Modibo Maiga (West Ham), Cheick Diabate (Bordeaux), and Mohamed Sissoko (Fiorentina) have not showed up on top of their games, leaving Keita to carry the team onto these semifinals. Keita, which given the ongoing situation in Mali, has offered a supplemental cash prize to his fellow players if the team makes it to the long awaited final match.

Tournament Statistics (Before Semifinal matches):
Matches Played - 28
Goals scored - 57 (2.04 per game)
Attendance - 554,000 (19,786 per game)