I am watching AFCON 2015 remotely from my home in Nigeria. It has been a totally different experience. I am missing the electricity and atmosphere of being there live!
Here, I am distracted.
In two weeks time, Nigeria’s general elections to choose the country’s political leaders for the next four years will take place. As a result the polity is heated up.
Add to that the spate of other crisis, related to the elections or not, that have turned parts of the country into fields of human blood where brutal killings, bombings and abduction of people, particularly young girls, have turned a chunk of the country into refugee camps for Nigerians in their own country. The entire country is gripped in unimaginable tension. I am not exempt.
But then, the African Cup of Nations, the most prestigious football championship in Africa, played between the continent’s best 16 nations, is going on at the same time, without Nigeria!
So, like most Nigerians, I have also been very distracted from the championship. I often wonder why the world does not take lessons from the power of football to bring together even the worst political enemies in a friendly game of football .
That’s why even as I have followed the AFCON 2015 football matches ongoing in Equatorial Guinea, I must admit it has not been with the usual intensity that made me stick out my neck in the past.
Having said that, even through the maze of emotional distractions, I still must admit that the ongoing Championship has been a great football treat, with some riveting matches defined by the athleticism of the players and competitiveness of the teams. It is very much unlike European or South American competitions that are highly technical and tactical. This has been football with a unique African flavor – power, speed, a lot of long high balls, endless running, tight markings, fouls galore, brutish tackles, not enough creativity and surely not enough goals!
Watching AFCON 2015 without the emotional attachment to any one team (in my case, Nigeria, understandably) has been a truly new and different experience. I see the teams clearer now!
As the second set of matches at the group stage is being played, I can still only comment generally.
The matches have been extremely close. Anything can still happen to change the faintly emerging picture of the first round. So far, as an indication that there are no more minnows in African football, after the first ten matches, six have ended in draws!
Besides that, there have also been some ‘pleasant’ surprises.
Ghana’s loss in their first match to Senegal is surely a shock. Senegal, before AFCON 2015, seemed to have been in some kind of football limbo. To defeat Ghana, therefore, is no small feat!
South Africa’s tame capitulation to Algeria in a match they could have won easily was another big shock. They had the match under full control until they lost a penalty kick that could have given them a comfortable two-goal cushion.
Thereafter, they lost focus, confidence and direction, then fell yakata, and conceded three quick goals to a resurgent Algeria in the second half.
The group that had three West African and one Central African team, produced very hard but exciting thrillers. At the end of the first round of matches, all the teams were inseparably tied on same points and goals – Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali and Guinea.
Also, as I predicted last week, the host nation, Equatorial Guinea, are struggling. They did not win either of their first two matches.
Generally, considering the short time the host country had to prepare and host the championship, it is remarkable to observe a few things about AFCON 2015.
The grounds and playing surfaces are superb. Television coverage with commentaries and match analysis have been of the highest quality and standards.
Technically, my quick observations are that there is now an almost infinitesimal gap between African countries in terms of their football standards. All matches are now extremely close.
Even the little Islands of Cape Verde have not lost in their first two games, although they have also not played with the same flair and confidence that made analysts at AFCON 2013 to compare their playing style with FC Barcelona’s Tiki Taka. That flavor may be gone but Cape Verde are still playing fearlessly in the championship and cannot be written off.
There is a general relative technical shallowness about the teams. This is a general lack of inventiveness. In front of goal, creating chances and converting them clinically continue to be a problem.
Whereas, defenses have been hard, physical and better organised, attacks have been uncreative, inconsistent and rather tame.
One bright star of the championship to me has been Pierre Aubameyang of Gabon. His performances in the two matches played against Equatorial Guinea and Congo (one win and one loss respectively) has thrown up an authentic ‘new’ African star. In the two matches, he stood out like the Northern Star!
Another star performer has been Mali’s left-footed and menacing striker, Bakary Sako. He is a player to watch as one of the potential stars of this championship.
The English Club Wolverhampton Wanderers striker singlularly kept Cameroon’s defense busy all night, harassing them at will, and exposing the weakness of the right side of their defense.
Football is not mathematics.
Take Group A matches for example. Equatorial Guinea drew a blank with Congo in the opening match. Gabon defeated Burkina Faso. Equatorial Guinea drew another blank against Burkina Faso. Mathematically, one would have thought that Gabon should defeat Congo!
Instead, they ran into a brick wall of Congolese defenders, failed to organize properly in their own defense and lost a match in which they were hardly troubled for most of 90 minutes!That’s the beauty of football – its total unpredictability!
Ghana disappointed their fans in the manner they lost to Senegal. They fell to very poor tactics. Given their antecedents in football, they are likely to rebound in subsequent matches.
Cote D’Ivoire woke up from slumber only after they saw their awesome reputation go up in flames. They were a goal down and their best player on the night, Gervinho, was sent off for assaulting an opponent without the ball!
The shock of the possibility of losing what most had thought would be a walk-over for the most-star-studded team in the continent, jolted them into frenetic action.
Down to ten players against Guinea they played like wounded lions, equalized against all odds, redeemed their reputation and restored their chances of advancing beyond the group stage.
South Africa were the tamest team in the championship after the first round of matches. How could they have sloppily let go of a match they had in their pockets already? After losing a penalty kick that would have given them a comfortable two-goal cushion against Algeria that looked raggedy up to that point, the tide of the match suddenly turned. The Algerians woke up, found their rhythm, and went on a rampage, scoring three times in 45 minutes to send Bafana Bafana back to the drawing board, wondering what had hit them.
Cameroon, my wild bet to win the championship, as usual, were very athletic, hardworking and physical. At the same time they also looked very vulnerable in defense. Cameroon’s next match will show if my pre-tournament expectations have been set too high!
Otherwise, these are my further observations and analysis:
Burkina Faso, finalists in AFCON 2013, will end their 2015 journey at the group stage. Congo will qualify and be joined by either Gabon or Equatorial Guinea!
Cape Verde Islands have played robustly but not as well as they did during AFCON 2013. The surprise element that they rode on in 2013 has evaporated. Now other teams take them seriously and their road has become harder. They are likely to disembark the AFCON 2015 train at the group stage terminus.
Zambia have not surprised anyone. They are working hard but struggling. Without much firepower upfront, they are finding it difficult to convert their many created goal-scoring chances
Tunisia look like the best team in the group with DR Congo a close second. The match between them will determine the group leader!
This is too close to call even now.
The only sure thing is that South Africa will be the first to exit in the group.
Beyond that, anything can still happen in this group. Algeria and Senegal have shot up to the front, but Ghana lurk dangerously.On their good day Ghana can defeat any of the teams. Surely, there is more action here to determine the leader, more surprises await all in this group!
This is the group where the teams have refused to be separated.
Guinea have looked sharp and focused.
Mali have looked interesting under the pilot-ship of ageless Seidu Keita.
Cote D’Ivoire were shocked by the first match. They have too much talent not to come through.
I am still keeping my money on Cameroon, even though they have not played with the usual panache and confidence that create champions!
Like wine, I am hoping they will get better with every match!