A Cup of Nations: Africa 2008
Cigars of the Pharaohs
Lightning was to strike twice, the Pharaohs of Egypt at the 26th edition of the finals, had cemented its position as the dominant team on the continent and become the most successful nation in African history, a sixth in total. They were Kings of Africa, again, even exceeding their own expectations, this in a hemisphere, south of the sahara, where North African sides traditionally played poorly.
The Defending champions, far from being the most spectacular side, retained the crown won 2 years previous on home soil, with a depth of quality, adapting tactics from game to game. They played with a combination of resolute determined defending with the pace and the flair of its effective strikers that possessed a ruthless streak in front of goal. Mohammed Zidan was the jewel in the crown and stand-out player of a star trio; Mohamed Aboutraika was scorer of 77th minute winner in the final against Cameroon, while Ahmed Hassan became the first player to win three Nations Cup titles.
Combined with the tactical astuteness of its manager Hassan Shehata made them invincible.
It would be Egypt’s third success in the last 10 years quashing any hopes of the dream final between Ghana and neighbours Ivory Coast; instead left to contest the third-fourth placed game won 4-2 by Ghana.
The feat achieved was more amazing considering the poor form shown since winning in 2006 with doubts raised about their credentials, especially having made hard work of a far-from-tough qualifying group against Burundi, Botswana, and Mauritania; embarrassingly not sealing their finals place until the final round of games. They had looked a side in transition and by their own admission had not set their sights beyond the semi-final, certainly overlooked by most pundits as eventual champions.
The mixed colours of supporting uniforms made this the world’s most colourful tournament just as would the nicknames of its participants – from the boastful Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, Benin’s Squirrels, the Desert Hawks of Sudan, the Elephants of Ivory Coast, to the Black Stars from Ghana.
The bi-annual festival, a three-week extravaganza, witnessed by a million travelling fans, had seen a remarkable evolution and rise into a true world event with a growing world focus, importance and significance; also sadly an inconvenience to the European game. The showcase – international football’s third biggest event – now attracted a big TV worldwide audience as more and more internationally recognised players from Europe’s leading clubs participated at this event…more than ever, to the growing discontent of the European giants who pay their wages. Thirty-five had come from the Premier League alone with many bemoaning and voicing the concerns at the timing of the event and how it clashed through the midway period of its own leagues. Teams were angered by the prospect of losing its men for possibly as long as six weeks at a crucial time of the season. Many star players actually wanted a switch to the European summer.
However, it meant so much to the continent for these players to represent their respected countries; players such as Drogba, Essien, Martins, Yakubu, Toure, and Diouf. The strength in depth was a reflection of the rising importance. Traditional continental superpowers (Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon) and the North African triumvirate were joined by Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Mali as serious contenders. An array of high profiled coaches, German Berti Vogts, Henri Michel, Frenchman Roger Lemerre, and Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira.
The Confederations African Football (CAF) had consistently ignored calls, pleas for a crescendo of complaints from Europe to change to a summer schedule which in itself would have its problems, such as scorching high temperatures. It perhaps showed a little disrespect that the Europeans would have for the African game by asking a top-quality international tournament (held three years before the first Euro finals in 1957) to be moved in favour of their domestic leagues. Ghana invested in four new stadiums in what was generally regarded as a poorly run disorganised Tournament.
Cameroon was to be the final cog in this remarkable sweeping run to victory for Egypt. The Indomitable Lions had also been the opening day opponents of the Pharaoh and were emphatically crushed, stunned by the sheer incisiveness of Egypt in Kumasi; who fielded an uncharacteristic 3-man attack and had raced into a comprehensive half-time lead. Zidan scored arguably the best of 99 goals at the finals; Cameroon seemingly a spent force.
The final in Ghana’s capital Accra was to be kind of anti-climactic, the Pharaohs in total control, in a second gear, never in danger of losing its grip of its crown. Victory was fully deserved, having most of chances on goal and should have wrapped up the contest earlier. Cameroon’s 31-year-old captain Rigobert Song, the most experienced and capped player – not missing one of 33 games spanning seven tournaments – was an accident waiting to happen and gifted Egypt the goal with a sloppy error. He panicked then slipped and got caught in possession by Zidan, whose pass invitingly in the path across goal gave Aboutrika the chance to shot accurately past keeper Kameni. Cameroon’s five-goal star man and goalscorer Samuel Eto’o – tally at 16 goals – had been dogged by a hamstring strain that rendered him ineffective. Angola had proved sterner opposition in a quarter-final contest for Egypt.
A semi-final duel with the highly talented and fancied Ivory Coast had brought about a stunning 4-1 triumph; the Elephants had crushed and trampled all rivals before them previously, reigning supreme in the so-called Group of Death, qualification secured after only two matches, looking pretty imperious and unstoppable in the process. The Elephants, totally outplayed, overrun and outfought by their intelligent North African opponents were expertly picked off seemingly with every attack. It was yet another tactical triumph after a five-man midfield throttled the Ivory Coast’s supply line to its danger men. No revenge for its 2006 final penalty shoot-out lost to host nation Egypt.
Ivory Coast on paper had the most complete team of all competing nations, a tremendous strength in depth and balanced squad. Most of the focus had been on the star-studded renowned star players plying their trade at some of Europe’s top clubs; the iconic inspirational leader Didier Drogba, now possibly the continents top striker. Only Barcelona’s 3-time African footballer of the year, twice Nations Cup winner Samuel Eto’o stood in his way or could rival him. Cameroon’s best footballing export had eclipsed his boyhood hero Roger Milla.
The tournament quickly burst into light with a fiercely contested Group B victory in Sekondi over Nigeria which set the Elephants on the way to the leadership – Salomon Kalou scoring a brilliant individual goal with a mazy run that took him past three defenders. A bundle and avalanche of goals followed in the matches against Benin (4) and Mali (3) as Ivory sounded out they would be the team to beat. It did not end there as it was followed with a 5-0 demolition of plucky Guinea, who collapsed during the last quarter of the game. The team had overcome a blow less than a fortnight before the finals, with the decision of German coach Uli Stielike to step aside due to personnel reasons; Gerardi Gili an assistant to Henri Michel in 2006 took over the reins.
As for Egypt, the group leadership had been secured successfully following a deft display in the outstanding dismantation of Cameroon, Mohammed Zidan, a focal-point and the shining armour in a virtuoso display capped with two stunning goals. Sudan would also be no match and were easily crushed 3-0, however, a relaxed display allowed Zambia to escape with a 1-1 scoring draw. They then profited from two defensive errors to beat Angola, but were still well worth the 2-1 victory.
Perennial candidates for success at the Nations Cup, Cameroon, were a team in transition, a new generation to replace the stalwarts and had a much younger side than at previous tournaments. As always, a bizarre and erratic air surrounded the team as they had taken an unconventional path to success with preparation characteristically chaotic, a failure to organise warm-up matches and a last minute change of training camp, plus customary hitches with luggage and hotels.
A change of coach two months before the finals did nothing for cohesion; veteran globe-trotting German Otto Pfister took over the reins (10th national team – took Ghana to 1992 finals) from caretaker coach Jules Nyongha.
The crushing loss to Egypt gave an over-confident Cameroon, a kind of reality check and they fixed up for the Zambia clash four days later and hauled themselves back into contention with a crushing 5-1 win, easing pressure on coach Pfister who completely reshuffled his line-up. The opportunity did not slip them by against the minnows of Sudan in Tamale (3-0) before an extra-time defeat of Tunisia 3-2 – serving up a feast for the crowd in a bruising battle. Journeyman Alain Nkong, with only one previous substitute appearance at the finals – in fact a surprise inclusion to the squad – replaced Joseph-Desire Job on the hour before scoring the winner on 72 minutes in the semi-final clash with the hosts.
Backed by an enthusiastic home following Ghana, heavily fancied, had high hopes of a successful African Nations campaign. They had won the tournament in 1963 and 1978 by virtue of home advantage, but performed miserably in 2000 as joint-host – won three of five times hosted the event. Traditionally the home nation had performed well recently – Egypt 20006, Tunisia 2004. Under French coach Claude Le Roy (who led Cameroon to cup in 1988 and runner-up up 2 years earlier) Ghana had progressed as the winner of Group A, but despite this 100% record one felt more was to come. In an eagerly and tightly contested opening day match, Guinea were overcome 2-1, only just, slight good fortune to shine on the host. Qualification was secured in the Accra duel with Namibia and battled to beat the minnows. Morocco would be the final nail in the topping of a relatively easy group; its best performance saved until last as Michael Essien, its talisman and star, created one goal and scored the other in a virtuoso display. He was a focal-point in everything engineered by the team. Midfield as normal was their strongest department, despite absence of injured captain Stephen Appiah, a blow that robbed them of a key component. Its attack was somewhat devoid of the greatest quality as Nottingham Forest’s Junior Agogo was the man the nation looked to for goals, and he provided three of them, importantly one against Nigeria. His winner eight minutes from time sparked ecstatic street celebrations nationwide.
Though they did not the reach final, there was compensation in ousting arch-rivals Nigeria in the first quarter-final, coming from behind to win 2-1 – remarkably with 10-men, after Captain John Mensah’s dismissal on the hour for a professional foul. Cameroon then ended Ghana’s dreams of a home soil success.