The Changing Face of African Football evident over a weekend of Qualifiers
Many in Africa expected that the 2012 African Cup of Nations would be an anomaly, the World Cup 2002 of continental football, where the last came first and the first came last. Senegal would perhaps have been the Argentina of the piece; much fancied, an array of dazzling attacking options, a focused resilience and the sense of a coming of age; a collusion of effective strands merging to form an offensive powerhouse.
Their record however makes for uncomfortable reading: played 3, lost 3, scored 3, conceded 6. Things started badly as Emanuel Mayuka and Zambia took only 12 minutes to breach the Senegalese backline, they didn’t get much better. Back in 2002, Argentina weren’t afforded such a potentially straightforward group (Zambia, Equatorial Guinea, and Libya weren’t meant to trouble Senegal), but then they were meant to overcome England, Sweden, and Nigeria, before going on to claim the first World Cup hosted in Asia. Instead they were home after three games, defeat to England and a draw with Sweden sending them back to Buenos Aires in disgrace.
Often forgotten is that Holland failed to even qualify for that World Cup; riled by Roy Keane in a play-off, the side that had finished fourth in the previous tournament limped to defeat and had to watch on, muted, from Amsterdam as the Coupe de Monde unfolded. The 2012 Afcon had its own conspicuous absentees, but rather than one giant failing to make the grade, it seemed like a whole gang of them had boycotted the event, or had lost their invitations in the post. Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Algeria, Egypt, and DR Congo all failed to make it to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and they shared a combined seventeen Afcon titles between them.
For a month, fans enjoyed watching some less heralded nations enjoy the spotlight of the continental high table. The likes of Niger, Libya, and Equatorial Guinea thrived in the absence of their more-exalted African colleagues, whilst many smiled condescendingly as Zambia won their first Afcon title. ‘Let them enjoy it’, people muttered, ‘the heavyweights will be back again next year.’ You could believe it would be the case; Turkey haven’t been back to the World Cup since their impressive third place finish in 2002, whilst that glorious Senegalese team that slalomed their way to the Quarter-finals soon broke up, and the nation hasn’t been back since.
Many expected the qualifying campaign for the 2013 Afcon would signal a return to the status quo, a reasserting of power by the continent’s big dogs, and a communal waking up of Africa’s sleeping giants.
That was until the Central African Republic shacked up in Alexandria on the 15th of June.
Their opposition, Egypt, were keen to put the disappointments of the past behind them, and reclaim their place on the African throne. They weren’t banking on Hilaire Momi, his two goals in this match going a long way both to earning his nation a 3-2 win, and himself a place among the nominees for the 2012 African footballer of the year. In the second leg, back in Bangui, FC Astana striker Foxi Kéthévoama struck on 23 minutes – it was a strike the Pharaohs never rose from, and despite Emad ‘Moaty’ Moteab’s response on 72’, the Egyptians scored no more, and were sent limping back to Cairo, redemption non-forthcoming.
It seems the Pharaohs became the sacrificial lamb of the 2013 Qualifying rounds – their majesty and complacency made an example of by the plucky Central African Empire, and as the players returned to North Africa, strung out for all to see, the other ‘giants’ of the continent must have trembled with fear; that feeble quake as the guillotine blade falls on he waiting in line before you.
In a year of revolutions across Africa’s north, maybe another was taking place on the sports fields of its capitals. The first-leg of the play-offs seemed to suggest a new dynamic was emerging in the African game; the revolutionaries began to take a hold as the bloated aristocrats failed to contend. Cameroon, like Egypt, were another who failed to make the 2012 edition of the tournament; another sleeping giant keen to reassert themselves. The draw was kind to those formerly-Indomitable Lions this year, as they saw off the tiny Guinea-Bissau in the first round, before coming up against the even smaller island nation of Cape Verde in the play-offs.
Confidence abounded in Yaoundé – ‘How could a nation of 20 million come unstuck against one with a fortieth of that population?’ Yes, you read that correctly, a fortieth.
Well, it happened, and in the end, it was all fairly straightforward – goals from Ricardo and Djaniny prompted elation in the tributes of the Estádio da Várzea in Praia as the reality of defeat began to dawn on the faces of Cameroon’s stars. The return this Sunday in the Stade Ahmadou Ahijdo promises to be an intriguing affair; even with top striker Samuel Eto’o, arguably the finest the continent has ever produced, back in their ranks, those Indomitable Lions face an enormous task: to defeat Cape Verde and halt the rise of Africa’s minnows.
This dynamic, this changing face of the continent’s football, will emerge for all to see during the upcoming round of matches. Only one match, Cote d’Ivoire v. Senegal, pits two genuine heavyweights against each other, whilst many of the seemingly mismatched clashes go into the second-leg on a knife-edge. Nigeria, the sleepiest of Africa’s giants, managed a respectable 2-2 draw away in Liberia in the first leg, and whilst the country’s media are broadly optimistic about the return, the Super Eagles have previously excelled at choking at this stage of the proceedings.
Nor is it certain that the reigning champions Zambia will be returning to South Africa in 2013 to defend their crown. A 1-0 home win against Uganda in the first leg was decent enough, but it is far from certain that Chipolopolo will manage to avoid defeat in Kampala, especially with star midfielder Rainford Kalaba reportedly out of action. Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria will also all need to hit the ground running to avoid very tense outcomes against foe perceived to be weaker than they.
The colours of the world appear to be changing day by day, and this weekend, the narratives in 15 stadiums in Africa will show exactly which shades the new continent is to be painted in.
This article was written by Ed Dove. Ed is a freelance journalist who writes for Goal Nigeria and Goal Ghana, as well as being African Editor of Kingfut.com. You can find more of his work on his blog eddydove.blogspot.com or by following him on twitter @EddyDove.
Photograph: orange_sn via Flickr