African Cup of Nations Focus – African game grows a backbone for global success

Statistics may suggest a poor tournament, but a closer analysis indicates that the expected festival of football in Angola was subdued thanks to a tentative, but welcome, transition in the African style of play.

All in all, the 2010 African Nations was a disappointing championships for neutrals. The dour final between Egypt and Ghana closely mirrored the three weeks as a whole – closely fought, tentative attacking play with relatively few sparks of inspiration. More methodical than mesmeric, this year has seen a definite sea change in the styles and mentalities employed by African teams. Tactical awareness and defensive discipline are increasingly becoming part of the African game. A total of 99 goals were scored in the previous African Nations tournament, this Angolan-hosted championship served up just 71. Moreover, whipping boys were notable in their absence, each of the 16 teams battled to at least a point, the vast majority went into their final group games with a legitimate chance of progression. Indeed, continental giants Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria managed a collective total of just one point after their opening games. These developments and the flashes of success from Mali, Malawi and Zambia indicate that the platitude of there being ‘no easy games at this level’ can now be rolled out for the African international scene. Africa, partly due to the influx of European head coaches, are chiselling out teams that are more competitive and robust than ever before. It is a little wonder then that an African team is tipped to reach the closing stages in South Africa.

Although it comes at the expense of individual flamboyance and some enjoyably kamikaze attacking play, this maturity is something western coaches and pundits have been calling for many years. In that sense, we can’t have our cake and eat it – we should ultimately welcome the cultivation of a more resilient style of African play. That said, it should be hoped that leading African teams don’t totally shake off their instinctive displays of flair. Seeing Nigeria and Ghana (albeit beset with injuries) navigate to the final stages with a string of 1-0 victories may suggest something worrying – the fear of losing increasingly appears to outweigh the determination to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. After all, we don’t want a glut of middling European clones flooding the international scene, we want the leading teams to retain it’s exhibitionist African core. A balance is certainly required, while the disappointing Ivory Coast remain a collection of individuals, Egypt married team ethic with scintillating skill in the final third, with 15 goals to their name, they scored a fifth of the tournament’s total goals. It is clearly a crying shame then, that the team who have found an incisive equilibrium of play will be absent from this year’s World Cup Finals.

The lack of consistent fireworks in the championships has also failed, perhaps inevitably, to disguise the loss of life suffered by the Togo National team on the eve of the tournament kick-off. It was a deeply sorrowful event that cast a shadow of fear, uncertainty and instability over the group-game stages. To their credit, players and fans alike were determined not to have their festival of football hijacked by the despicable actions of terrorists. Thankfully, the ambush in Cabinda remained the sole outbreak of violence and anxieties gave way to a momentum of excitement on the pitch. African football was starting to heal itself – a simply phenomenal 4-4 draw in the opening game between Angola and Mali was the finest rebuke the players could have hit back with. However, this resurgent positivity was ultimately crushed on Saturday by CAF (Confederation of African Football). On the eve of the final (brainless timing), the governing body released a statement on Togo’s decision to leave the tournament. Where one expected sympathetic regret for their traumatic experience, Togo were landed with a colossally misjudged punishment – a ban from the next two African Cup of Nations. In what must rank as one of the most inexplicable decisions from a sporting body in recent history, CAF has managed to agitate a wound that needed the most gentle of treatments. It appears the Togo players are victim of a political spat – it has been suggested that CAF are furious at the Togolese government’s decision to pull the team from the tournament despite an 11th hour commitment from the squad to play on.

If there was any chance of Angola 2010 being remembered for its football, it was vanquished immediately by this eight year ban. One can only hope that CAF’s big brothers UEFA and FIFA intervene quickly to dissolve this infantile judgment. As Togo’s French coach Hubert Velud aptly stated: “If they let this go, it is the gateway to completely dysfunctional football.” Emmanuelle Adebayor, who witnessed a colleague bleed to death, expressed anger at CAF’s president: “Mr Hayatou has served Africa extensively, but now he must be released [from the post.]”

Algeria’s shameful lack of discipline in their fiery clash with old foes Egypt is set to leave a far-reaching legacy. The Desert Foxes picked up three red cards in the semi-final. CAF are expected to come down particularly heavily on goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi and wing-back Nadir Belhadj. The expected three game suspensions look set to rule them out of the World Cup group phase and thereby make them unlikely squad selections for South Africa. The absence of these first-team individuals will be a boost to Fabio Capello’s England, who play Algeria in their second group game. Chaouchi’s behaviour was particularly reprehensible – furious at the referee’s refusal to have an Egyptian penalty retaken, he proceeded to head butt the Benin official, Coffi Codjia. More remarkable still was Codjia’s decision to show the irate goalkeeper just a yellow card for his severe indisgression. Codjia’s inability to reassert his authority has led to an indefinite suspension from CAF. A ban that made considerably more sense than the one it doled out the day before.

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