Take a cursory glance at the media coverage prior to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations and all the hype is about which teams are not at the tournament. Egypt, winner of the previous three tournaments is missing; as are powerhouse Nigeria, four-times champion Cameroon, South Africa, and Africa’s third-highest ranked team, Algeria. Only two of the six nations that represented the continent at the 2010 World Cup qualified and of the last nine tournament winners only Tunisia is present.
Yet for every loser there is a winner. When you highlight Egypt’s embarrassing failure to qualify you take away from the stunning achievements of Niger, which bested the seven-time champion, ‘Bafana Bafana’, and Sierra Leone to take part in its first ‘CAN’. Throw in fellow debutant Botswana, conflict-ravaged Libya and Sudan, and unfancied hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and what you do have is one of the most unpredictable, exciting and engrossing editions in recent memory.
What’s not to love about sports-obsessed Gabonese President Ali Bongo rebuilding a 35,000-seat stadium in a town with a population barely larger than that – so that his country can host the third largest football tournament on Earth?
In co-host Equatorial Guinea, you have a one-stop media circus – the ‘Miron Bleiberg’ of African football. Ranked No.151 in the world, the tiny oil-drenched nation drag-netted an Armada of foreign-born players – 10 Spaniards, five Cameroonians, a Brazilian, an Ivorian, a Liberian, a Columbian and a Nigerian (alongside two native Equatoguineans) to strengthen its campaign. Less than a month out from the tournament, however, the former France national coach Henri Michel quit his post as manager, citing ‘third party interference’, but presumably also in fear of the performances of his rag-tag crew.
Yet what have we seen so far? Upsets, some spectacular goals, and high drama to boot.
Those that had the good fortune to watch Gabon v Morocco were treated to an exhilarating game, complemented by an exuberant and colourful home crowd in the throes of jubilant hysteria. With 70 minutes gone, Morocco was a picture of composure, playing the football that saw it considered a realistic chance of lifting the trophy. Yet buoyed by the talismanic presence of Danny ‘The Panzer’ Cousin, the Gabonese began to launch forward in waves of attack. A sublime volley by the impressive Pierre Aubameyang followed by an inspired Cousin finish in the space of three minutes had the ‘Atlas Lions’ reeling.
As the ululations from the crowd rose to fever pitch, Morocco was gifted a 91st-minute lifeline via the penalty spot. Having seemingly revived its flagging tournament hopes, the 1976 champion breathed a sigh of relief. But deep into Fergie-time, with eight extra minutes played, up stepped Bruno ‘the Gabonese David Beckham’ Mbanangoye, with a sumptuous curling free-kick that made his namesake’s effort against Greece in October 2001 look like a tap-in. As pandemonium broke loose in the stands, a close-up of Morocco coach, Eric Gerets, said it all – the vastly experienced Belgian had seen almost everything in football, but he’d never witnessed this.
Watching the progress of Gabon and fellow host Equatorial Guinea reminds me of the magic of the FA Cup, where every few years a minnow captivates the imagination. In the spirit of Havant & Waterlooville v Liverpool, at this Africa Cup of Nations there’s been Equatorial Guinea v Senegal, Sudan v Ivory Coast, and Gabon v Morocco. Imagine the pre-game nerves of David Alvarez (aka ‘Kily’), who traded fourth division Spanish football to mark one of the English Premier League’s hottest marksmen, Demba Ba. The last laughs were with Kily – his 94th-minute long-range belter saw the pre-tournament favourite, Senegal, packing its bags.
Imagine the on-pitch conversations between the Sudanese defenders Najem Abdalla and Amir Kamal. Would they have ever thought they’d be asking each other ‘have you got Drogba, or have I?’
As we arrive at the business end of the tournament, it’s hard to imagine perennial heavyweights Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, with their bag-load of European-based superstars, faltering. But previous aspirants to the title such as Senegal and Morocco have crashed unceremoniously to Earth, adding to the host of big names that fell before the finals had even begun.
A semi-final with surprise packages Zambia or Sudan awaits the Black Stars (should they get by Tunisia), and with the host nation having won 11 of the previous 27 tournaments what odds for plucky Gabon or Equatorial Guinea adding their names to that list?
As the sudden-death matches loom, don’t be surprised if there’s one last twist in the already eventful 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.
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