Open footballLet's face it, major tournaments aren’t fun anymore; they’re often rife with pragmatism. That’s not the fault of the teams or their coaches, but more the fault of the fans and football associations who often have unrealistic expectations. Too much is at stake for the coaches; the ‘big’ teams play a game of patience and are under pressure to steamroll through ‘minnows’, whilst the ‘minnows’ don’t want to be embarrassed and park the proverbial bus. We usually see it less in continental competitions but it is becoming more common. Not at this Cup of Nations so far, though, which has been a tournament of the highest order. No side has gone into any match with the intention of sitting back and playing for the draw or keeping the score down when behind. So far we’ve had 61 goals scored, just 3 draws and no goalless matches.
The revival of attacking flair
The modern football fan wants to be entertained. Since 2006, Egypt have looked the only truly coherent side with the flair often provided by the dazzling Mohamed Aboutrika and their slick one-touch passing as a unit. As previously mentioned in my piece on Zambia’s impressive start thus far, we’ve seen the revival of the attacking flair that was synonymous with the South of the Sahara sides of yesteryear through the attacking quartet of Emmanuel Mayuka, Chris Katongo, Rainford Kalaba and Isaac Chansa, whom are all below 5’10”, deviating from the norm of the European-spectacled Papa-Bouba-Diop-esque model of a player based on power and strength.
Even Tunisia, the Germany of Africa with their ruthless efficiency, despite largely playing on the counter, have composed some of the best passing and fluid moves of the tournament, the elusive and graceful Youssef Msakni, or Youssef Messi-akni as others would rather call him, often at the heart of it.
Zambia and Tunisia are just two examples, no side has played ‘negative’ football at this year’s Cup of Nations – the likes of Ghana and Ivory Coast have been conservative due to being favourites.
The success of the Co-hosts:
In the ideal tournament, the hosts punch well above their weight and both of the co-hosts have done that.
History is made by mates. And on the basis of what we’ve seen so far the Equatorial Guinea squad comprises of very good mates. In a way, they are akin to a bunch of mates you’re likely to find on a lads’ holiday – 11 of the 23 in the squad were born outside of Equatorial Guinea, many of whom are naturalised citizens, and with one of their players called Randy…well, it doesn’t detach the ‘lads on tour’ tag from them. Pre-tournament preparations were far from ideal, the much-travelled and experienced Henri Michel resigned and his replacement was Gilson Paulo – a complete unknown, a man who looks more like a retired long-distance runner than a coach – was announced on the 2nd January. Miraculously, Paulo has galvanised the squad and the home crowd have squeezed every ounce of ability from the players and they have managed to reach the knockout stages.
It’s just like watching Brazil. Although they may not have the technical skills or samba grace of the south Americans, in Aubameyang you can’t have help but feel they have their Neymar. Morocco and Tunisia, two of their group opponents, dominated for large periods in their games against Les Panthères, forcing them to retreat and put the whole team behind the ball and play on the counter instead. A mixture of coach Gernot Rohr’s good tactical system changes and substitutions and the joie de vivre of the home crowd has made them turn it all around in each of those games and finish the group stages as group winners with a 100% winning record.
The crumbles and the fireworks
The beauty of football is that through sheer organisation, spirit, and a bit of luck any team and with the help of the home crowd (at major tournaments) can beat any team on any given day, even if there are massive disparities between the two teams. This Cup of Nations has displayed this through the two crumbles that have occured.
Widely tipped by ‘experts’, including some of this humble site’s ‘experts’, to be the eventual winners, the Lions of Teranga served crumble enough to last everyone who predicted them to win the tournament a lifetime and their families. Few could have foreseen a demise in the group stages. Certainly, no one could have predicted that they would lose all their group games. If you could, you can either see the future or you’re borderline mad. After all, they possessed a set of six strikers with 325 goals between them in the top-flight European leagues and their defence had only conceded 2 goals in qualifying – both of those conceded goals came in a single away game against DR Congo. Understandably, few would have had concerns about their credentials in this tournament, yet they lost all their group games – including shock defeats to Equatorial Guinea and Libya.
It was the defeat to Equatorial Guinea which was the first shock of the tournament. Senegal equalised in the 89th minute after the co-hosts took the lead in the 60th minute. Pinned back in their own box and making last-ditch tackles and clearances, there was uncomfortable silence as the home crowd feared Senegal would go on to score the winner. To their credit, Equatorial Guinea continued throwing men forward sporadically with several gaps appearing in the porous Senegal defence, the majority of the team going gung-ho. Out of nowhere an Equatorial Guinea winner came – a ferocious, swerving 25 yard shot from Kily, who plays his club football in the fourth division in Spain. It was one of the most emotional goals I have ever experienced in my time watching football and a moment that I will cherish forever. The fireworks were off.
Senegal’s crumble was, in a way, almost pale in comparison to what was to happen to Morocco. It seemed Equatorial Guinea had merely lit the fuse and Gabon were going to set off the fireworks. After being 1-0 down at half-time, Gabon equalised and took the lead as they scored 2 goals in 3 frantic minutes full of drama. Morocco were to equalise later on to add to the drama when Charly Moussouno was adjudged to have handled in the area, Kharja duly converted from the penalty spot. Very deep into injury time – 7 minutes into it – Gabon won a free kick and Bruno Zita wrapped his foot around the ball, unleashing it into the top corner. Was it better than EQG’s winner against Senegal? I’ve thought long and hard about this and I still don’t know.
So there we have it. Attacking football? Yes. Raw, unadulterated flair? Yes. Hosts punching above their weight? Yes. Shocks? HELL YES! Comebacks? Drama? Late goals? Yes, yes and yes! What more do you want? For me, it doesn’t matter what happens in the rest of the tournament, this is the best major tournament I have ever seen.