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Heartbreak for the African underdogs

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I find African football fascinating. I’m by no means an expert in the field but I take a keen interest in the Africa Cup of Nations and the CAF World Cup qualifying tournaments. It’s a wonderful continent for football, as while there are the established giants of African football – the likes of Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana and the Ivory Coast – there are also many nations without a history of success in football who in recent years have been punching above their weight.

The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations was especially significant as it saw three nations make their debuts in the tournament, which has been running since 1957 – Niger, Botswana and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea (ranked 151st in the world) – while Libya and Sudan made rare appearances. This was at the expense of some of the bigger names in African football – South Africa failed to build on their impressive World Cup performance as they were eliminated in confusing fashion (to the point where they thought they had qualified and had started the celebrations), while Nigeria, Cameroon and reigning champions Egypt also failed to make it.

After a tournament packed with the requisite African level of surprises, Ivory Coast faced underdogs Zambia in a dramatic final. It was a particularly poignant moment for Zambia, as the final was in Libreville close the site of the infamous plane crash in 1993 that claimed the lives of most of their international squad. Somehow, it seemed the will of the fallen stars was with them that night as they held out for a 0-0 draw in the 120 minutes of playing time, and a crucial miss in the penalty shootout from Arsenal’s Gervinho gave them an emotional first Africa Cup of Nations victory.

So after all that drama, the 2013 tournament in South Africa, the first in an odd year to avoid clashing with future World Cups, would have to go a long way to match arguably the greatest tournament in the cup’s history. But the qualifying tournament looked to be going much the same way, with many unfancied contenders on the verge of qualifying before this weekend’s final matches, the places at the tournament being decided in this final round by 15 two-legged ties.

Particularly worthy of note was Cape Verde’s 2-0 win over Cameroon in the first leg. The Blue Sharks have risen through the rankings of late but this was still a major shock due to Cameroon’s status as a leading force in African football, even with the cloud of Samuel Eto’o’s dispute with the FCF hanging over the Indomitable Lions. Elsewhere, regular qualifiers Morocco found themselves 2-0 to Mozambique, who have only previously qualified for 4 AfCONs, while another frequent qualifier, Burkina Faso, sat 1-0 down to the team of one of the poorest countries in the world, the Central African Republic. The Wild Beasts were as low as 202nd in the rankings as recently as March 2010, but have shot up during this tournament, particularly after knocking Egypt out in the previous round. They are now ranked 49th, a gain of 143 places in 19 months.

The big story on Saturday from a footballing perspective came from Kampala, however, but unfortunately it did not have an especially happy ending for an underdog nation. Uganda have been making steady progress under former Plymouth Argyle manager Bobby Williamson. But no one could have expected that they would beat reigning champions Zambia 1-0 on the day to level the aggregate score at 1-1. The match went to penalties. Zambia’s captain Christopher Katongo missed the first penalty, but it was soon levelled up. Another epic African shootout ensued until the 10th round of penalties, when Patrick Ochan missed for Uganda to send Zambia into the finals.

Elsewhere, Botswana’s slim hopes of progressing to their second ever finals were dashed by Mali, who won 7-1 on aggregate after a 4-1 win on the day. Ghana’s progress was relatively routine as well as they won 1-0 in Malawi after an earlier 2-0 win at home. Nigeria cruised to South Africa with a 6-1 win over Liberia, settling the nerves after a 2-2 draw in the country most famous for producing George Weah and Christopher Wreh. Tunisia were held to another draw by Sierra Leone, but this time it was 0-0, and having previously drawn 2-2 on the West Coast, it was enough to send the North Africans through. But there was heartbreak for Mozambique as they were crushed 4-0 by Morocco, which included a red card for conceding a penalty (later scored) at 1-0.

However, this was overshadowed by the abandoned tie between two of the big names in the draw, Senegal and Ivory Coast. The Dakar crowd did not take well to the fact that their team was 6-2 down on aggregate after Didier Drogba had scored twice for the visitors, and you would expect the CAF to severely punish the FSF after creating exactly the sort of headlines African football didn’t need.

Sunday’s focus would be on whether Cape Verde and the Central African Republic could hold on and make their very first AfCONs. In the event, it was probably asking too much for both to make it. Cape Verde went 1-0 up to increase their aggregate lead to 3-0, and despite 2 goals from Cameroon, it was the Atlantic islanders who qualified. While this was going on, Ethiopia, who had lost 5-3 in Sudan, beat their rivals 2-0 to qualify for their first AfCON for 30 years, while Angola came from 3-1 down against Zimbabwe after the first leg to win on away goals with a 2-0 win, both goals being scored by former Manchester United striker Manucho within the first 10 minutes.

The focus then shifted to Togo, who beat Gabon 2-0 (2-1 agg) to qualify for the tournament for the first time since their withdrawal in 2010 after a terrorist incident – Emmanuel Adebayor scored the second. Niger were also in the limelight as they scored 2 late goals to overturn a 1-0 first leg deficit against relative big names Guinea to qualify for only their second AfCON. The Democratic Republic of Congo also progressed to the finals for the first time since 2006 largely thanks to a 4-0 first leg win over Equatorial Guinea – despite a 2-1 defeat to the 2012 co-hosts, we will likely be seeing the likes of Lomana LuaLua, Gabriel Zakuani, Southend loan star Britt Assombalonga and Burton’s Jacques Maghoma in South Africa.

But the spotlight was firmly on the Central African Republic – could they hold on for the greatest sporting success in the nation’s history? Tragically, it would all end in tears. They went 1-0 up in Ouagoudougou, increasing their lead to 2-0 overall, but conceded 2 before half time. They held out through a nervy second half, repelling wave after wave of attack and wasting time whenever they could, until stoppage time. The 96th minute, to be exact, when a woeful piece of goalkeeping and an Alain Traore finish broke Central African hearts.

The Burkinabe fans erupted with joy – cue the clichés of hysterical commentators and an enormous pitch invasion. Despite being regular qualifiers over the last decade, this still means an enormous amount to them – it is a tournament they are yet to win. Meanwhile, CAR will have to wait to see if they can make it through the 2014 World Cup qualifying group to make it to their first major tournament.

The final match was a fierce contest between North African rivals Algeria and Libya, and it was the favourites, the Algerians, who qualified after missing out in 2010. A 2-0 win on the night secured a 3-0 aggregate victory for the Fennec Foxes.

We have been left with a very strong line-up for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, with most of the continents big names – nations and players – present in South Africa. Cape Verde’s heroics aside, this will go down as the qualification tournament where the minnows so nearly created more history but couldn’t quite match their more illustrious opponents. If 2012 was the tournament of fairy tales, this one reverts to the classic Clash of the African Titans style, giving it a very different atmosphere but making it no less intriguing. This is another wide open tournament.

The finals of the tournament will begin on 19th January, although I’m sure you will be given plenty of advanced warning by the media with their inevitable endlessly discussions of the effect losing African players (i.e. Yaya Toure, Yaya Toure and Yaya Toure) will have on Premier League teams. However, you must overlook that, for that reduces the AfCON, to a mere distraction, and doesn’t give it the respect it deserves. Value it for what it is – it promises to be another very competitive tournament. As this weekend has proven, you can always guarantee drama and excitement in African football. Be sure to leave space in your diary for 10th February – the AfCON Final, at Soccer City, has become an unmissable event on the footballing calendar.

The list of qualifiers in full
Algeria
Angola
Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
DR Congo
Ethiopia
Ghana
Ivory Coast
Mali
Morocco
Niger
Nigeria
South Africa
Togo
Tunisia
Zambia

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Written by James Bennett

October 14, 2012 at 23:13

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