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African Cup: As Unpredictable as Ever

by 04/02/2015 12:20:00 0 comments 305 Views
African Cup: As Unpredictable as Ever
African Cup: As Unpredictable as Ever

LONDON — Europe has been plundering Africa’s talents for so long now that we should no longer be taken by surprise by the African Cup of Nations. Yet here we are again, in the 30th edition of the continental tournament, astounded and mildly shocked by the way things have unfolded.

The 16 nations that started this event last month have been whittled down to four. The Democratic Republic of Congo plays Ivory Coast on Wednesday, followed by Ghana taking on the host, Equatorial Guinea, in the other semifinal on Thursday.

Ghana and Ivory Coast are longtime soccer powers in Africa. Their players are familiar faces on some of the world’s leading clubs, which isn’t that surprising given that 246 of the 368 men who began this tournament earn their fortunes with European teams.

But the other semifinalists? They do surprise.

The Democratic Republic of Congo got this far by coming from two goals down to strike four times in the final 25 minutes to eliminate its smaller neighbor, the Republic of Congo, by a score of 4-2 in the last round. The Dynamo Kiev striker Dieumerci Mbokani inspired the comeback with two goals, helped by Jeremy Bokila, who also scored. (Bokila plays for the Russian club Terek Grozny.)

The source of the other goal was Joël Kimwaki, a big central defender who headed a goal after coming in as a substitute when the score was even. Kimwaki has never played outside of Congo and currently represents the club Tout Puissant Mazembe.

So maybe there still players that have been overlooked by European clubs.

The best line coming out of that quarterfinal was from Congo Coach Florent Ibengé, who said before the kickoff: “We are the same country, separated by a river. We know our brothers — we are the same people, same lives. Everybody thought we would be eliminated, but we are still here.”

Ibengé said one other thing. He hoped that his team would not get behind and have to chase, as it had to against Tunisia in an earlier contest.

But still, it is no shock to see Congo, with its powerful players, advancing through this tournament. The host, Equatorial Guinea, is the real outsider. And a controversial one.

Equatorial Guinea, ranked 118th in the world, had not qualified to play in this cup. It was given that privilege after its government stepped in to hold the event after the original host, Morocco, dropped out due to Ebola fears.

That gave Esteban Becker, Equatorial Guinea’s Argentine coach, just over three weeks to cobble together a team some of whose players barely knew each other’s names, much less their opponents.

Becker seemed to smile enigmatically on the sideline Saturday when his makeshift side was handed a penalty kick when it stood on the brink of going out in stoppage time. This was not the first controversial penalty given to the host country, but this one, awarded by a referee from Mauritius, Rajindraparsad Seechurn, caused an uproar.

“In all my 45 years in football,” Tunisia’s Belgian coach, George Leekens, told reporters, “I’ve never see anything like it. Today’s result was forced.”

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He was quoted as alluding to feeling like he had lost a child or a member of his family.

“I hope everyone saw the two penalties we didn’t get,” the former fullback said. “We’ve worked like mad men, and we get one penalty given against us that was outside the box. It’s an injustice, it’s a shame for football.”

The penalty was scored, Equatorial Guinea knocked out Tunisia in extra time, and Wadie Jary, the head of the Tunisian soccer federation, tersely announced Sunday that he was quitting the African Cup’s organizing committee.

By Sunday, the last of the north African nations was gone from the tournament after Ivory Coast knocked out Algeria, 3-1. Algeria was in many eyes the tournament favorite, but Ivory Coast won behind Manchester’s City’s expensive new striker, Wilfried Bony, who scored with two headers, the second coming on a cross by City’s towering midfielder, Yaya Touré.

There, if ever we needed reminding, is the global route of money in soccer today, where an English club financed by Middle Eastern oil money can buy the best players that Africa can provide.

Africa, in turn, largely hires Europeans to coach its teams. And Hervé Renard, the Frenchman who coaxed Zambia to an emotional victory over Ivory Coast in the African Cup final in 2012, has now switched sides.

Renard was kind, more than kind, in praising Algeria as the best team, or at least the best collection of individuals at this year’s tournament.

But that can be another way of saying, “Look how clever we are to oust the best” as he tries to goad his players to get Congo out of the way and then win Sunday’s final in Bata, Equatorial Guinea.

There are big assumptions there. One is that Ivory Coast can brush aside the spirited Congolese, and another is that the Elephants, as Ivory Coast is known, can keep their minds on the national team and not what is happening at their clubs.

And then there is the question of who will be the other finalist. Everything points to Ghana, which after all has been Africa’s outstanding team at the last two World Cups and has a deep and talented roster, including the gifted Ayew brothers, Jordan and André, sons of the legendary Abedi Pele.

André Ayew produced a breathtaking backheel pass to set up a goal for Christian Atsu in Ghana’s 3-0 win against Guinea to advance to the semifinals. Guinea reached the quarterfinals after it won a drawing of lots after tying with Mali on every level during the group phase.

All that stands now between Ghana and the final is Equatorial Guinea, but it has to get past the host country, and whatever advantages are handed to it. We would be foolish if we believe that we know all that might happen in African soccer.

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