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African Nations Cup preview December 16, 2009

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in African soccer.

Pfft. Africa. Why must it play its football at a time so oppressive to European schedulers? Why does this continent continue its reign of tyranny over European leagues that just want to be left to spin obscene amounts of money in peace? The nerve of a continent that thinks it can use its imperial powers to strip countries such as Belgium, France and the Portugal of footballing resources such as Joseph Akpala, Stephane Sessegnon and Marc Zoro!

But I suppose it’s football. I suppose we are obliged to give it some sort of mention. So let’s get it over with. Here’s the preview in the form of six of that most contemptuous journalistic construct: lists.

African-based players: As more and more teams begin looking to Europe’s lower leagues ahead of their own championships for talent, the native-based player is becoming more and more of a rarity at the ACN. But they’re not extinct yet. These three are looking to use the tournament as a springboard for European employment or at least recognition.

  1. Mohammed Aboutreika (Egypt and al-Ahly). Widely acclaimed as the best player still based on the continent, Egypt’s key man would have hoped the World Cup would provide him the opportunity to prove his talent to a wider audience. The Pharaohs’ inability to make the tournament, though, mean the subtle playmaker’s gifts will probably always be confined to his native continent. But his vision and precision will make Egypt a pretty good bet for their third continental championship in a row.
  2. Chiukepo Msowoya (Malawi and ESCOM). The 21-year-old striker was Malawi’s topscorer in qualifying, with six in eight games, including this impressive goal against Egypt. And he wasn’t even a starter. While Aboutreika will be out to prove he was good all along, Msowoya will be looking to convince Europe’s clubs he’s good enough to warrant an exciting continental career. It would appear he has the talent to do it. First, though, he must dislodge the more experienced Essau Kanyenda from the starting lineup. European clubs might also be interested in South Africa-based Moses Chavula, a left-back with potential.
  3. Loco (Angola and Primeiro Agosto). Most of the home side’s stars are based off of the continent, but the 24-year-old defender is notable for more than football’s most interesting hairstyle. He and fellow Africa-based fullback Gilberto (Egypt’s al-Ahly) are both critical to their team’s chances and, at 24, he might be about to put himself up for a big Euro move.

The missing countries. This nations cup is notable for the big casualties in the qualifiers: quality teams who won’t be at the cup because of unsatisfactory performances in the qualifiers. It will still be a rich competition, but maybe a bit the poorer for the absence of these three.

  1. South Africa. The Bafana Bafana have their problems. The widely held belief is they will be the first hosts to miss out on the second round of the World Cup. All the more reason for them to be disappointed at their failure to make it beyond the first round of qualifiers for this cup. Teams are always fearful of going into the World Cup without competetive matches. The ANC provided South Africa with the perfect opportunity. Nevertheless, if a team views the competition as a stepping stone, maybe it’s just as well they’re not around.
  2. Morocco. You wouldn’t have picked the Atlas Lions to finish winless in a qualifying group that also included Gabon and Togo, but they did. Too bad, because with the talent they had all through the side, I would have made them among the favorites not just for the ANC but to do well in the World Cup: Marouane Chamakh, Mounir El Hamdaoui, Jaouad Zairi, Houssine Kharja, Mbark Boussoufa, Badr El Kaddouri, Karim Zaza and perhaps Younes Kaboul.
  3. Senegal. Another massive absence. The Senegalese have already trimmed talented players too old to play for their 2012 side from their national team, meaning Africa has lost forever the chance to see El-Hadji Diouf, Tony Sylva, Souleymane Diawara, Papa Bouba Diop, Mamadou Niang and Khalilou Fadiga in the flesh.

Stars we’re disappointed not to see. Aside from these big teams, there are also stars for smaller African nations who won’t be making the cup because of their nations’ performances. Here are three of the best.

  1. Dieumerci Mbokani (DR Congo and Belgium’s Standard Liege). The Congolese marksman averages a goal every other game for Liege and far, far more than that for his country. The Leopards have a habit of producing prodigious goalscorers and Mbokani is just the latest in the line.
  2. Pascal Feindouno (Guinea and Qatar’s al-Rayyan). Feindouno was once the continent’s preeminent playmaker, a gifted passer and a taker of audacious goals who has since jetted off for a lucrative spell in Arab football. Without his subtlety, the responsibility for being the tournament’s West African creative genius will likely fall to Benin’s Stephane Sessegnon.
  3. Tinashe Nengomasha (Zimbabwe and South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs). Zimbabwe is a welcome presence at any tournament, and the Warriors appeared to be doing well until Robert Mugabe made the nation an international pariah. In Nengomasha, they have a crunching midfielder as good as any in the South African league. But he won’t be at the cup.

Coaches who could make their names. The best coaches don’t go to Africa. But some horrible ones do. For all but the luckiest, the voyage to Africa is one-way: once you move there, it takes a hell of a lot to get back out. Here are three coaches who stand a chance of, if not doing just that, then at least enhancing their stock.

  1. Hassan Shehata (Egypt). If Shehata wins his third African Nations Cup, some European club is bound to take a punt on him. He has an interesting, endemic, distinct and rather effective style of play and knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em when dealing with difficult characters. He’s gotten the best out of Amr Zaki and Mohamed Zidan and justifiably jettisoned Mido.
  2. Alain Giresse (Gabon). I’m normally skeptical of European coaches in Africa, but Giresse, the former French international, ran Cameroon close for World Cup qualification using a team of French league journeymen and Gabonese league players. It would take a lot to get Giresse back into Europe, but progress to the Nations Cup’s next round would be quite impressive.
  3. Stephen Keshi (Mali). The Nigerian pulled off a momentous achievement by taking Togo to the 2006 World Cup, only to have his chance at the big time revoked after a poor performance at that year’s Nations Cup. Now he has a much better squad of players under him. Mali’s Eagles have made the semifinals in all but one of the Nations Cups they’ve played in and they have the best group of players they ever have. If his native country does poorly and Keshi’s team does well, he could yet get a chance at the World Cup.

European teams with coaches likely to blame the ACN. Not that these will be the only ones. But the African tournament leaves many clubs without some of their best men and their coaches with a ready made excuse.

  1. Chelsea. Not that it’s Carlo Ancelotti’s perrogative to wantonly cast blame, but Chelsea will lose England’s star of the season so far, Didier Drogba, as well as Sal Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel at a time when the Blues’ championship charge is faltering. If Chelsea’s slump continues through January and Drogba comes back tired, you might see Arsene Wenger (it can’t be a coincidence that he jettisoned Adebayor and Toure this year) or Sir Alex Ferguson doing something uncharacteristic of European managers: thanking God for the Nations Cup.
  2. Nice. However, Chelsea will only lose four players. French club Nice stands to lose as many as 13! If one were a goalkeeper, you could make an entire team out of the Nice players African nations could call up. Nice coach Didier Olle-Nicolle can console himself, though, that the Democratic Republic of the Congo didn’t qualify, which means he won’t also have to lose defender Larrys Mabiala. Here’s an outfield of Nicois players who may be in Angola in January: Onyekachi Apam (Nigeria), Drissa Diakite (Mali), Jonathan Quartley (Ghana), Eric Mouloungui (Gabon);  Mahamane Traore (Mali), Kafoumba Coulibaly (Ivory Coast), Emerse Fae (Ivory Coast), Chaoukhi Ben Saada (Tunisia); Mamadou Bakayoko (Mali), Habib Bamogo (Burkina Faso). Of those players, only Bakayoko, Fae, Diakite and Apam can call themselves nailed-on starters, but with Nice only sixteenth in the division, you’d have to say Nice will be in trouble.
  3. Portsmouth. Though their lineup might not be quite as decimated as Nice’s, Avram Grant’s boys will still be hurting, specifically in attack, where the loss of Nwankwo Kanu, Aruna Dindane, Hassan Yebda, Nadir Belhadj and perhaps John Utaka will probably force Portsmouth to play Tommy Smith or Danny Webber. Gulp. Nevertheless, South Africa and Senegal’s failures mean they’ll at least retain the defensive midfielders Aaron Mokoena and Papa Bouba Diop.

Men not looking forward to the ACN. The tournament is a showcase for the entire continet’s soccer, but some people are probably dreading it. Here are a few.

  1. Shaibu Amodu. The Nigeria coach is not popular. If Nigeria doesn’t do well, his head could roll.
  2. Alexandre Song. Though Arsenal’s Cameroonian midfielder always looks more composed when he’s playing for his national team, he’s also the only defensive midfielder Arsenal have. With Song out of the picture, Arsene Wenger might bring in another defensive midfielder to displace him.
  3. Issa Hayatou. The Confederation of African Football chief will likely face renewed calls for the tournament to be moved to the summer. No fun.


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