jump to navigation

African Nations Cup so far January 14, 2010

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in African soccer.
add a comment

Normally, I have no compunction about heedlessly disregarding my complete ignorance of a subject to write about it here. Football means nothing, not just in proportion to the tragedy sown when armed men opened fire on the bus containing Togolese footballers, but in absolute terms. It is an entertainment.

The death of these men does mean something. It would be a desecration of the men who died for me, with a grasp of Angolan affairs so basic as to be completely irrelevant, to attempt to pass off an opinion of the mechanations behind the incident, so I won’t. If anyone does have an informed perspective and the patience to explain it to me in great depth and breadth, please do, and if anyone knows of a writer in the English language whose work could save them the trouble, please send a name along.

It feels crass, considering what happened to the Togolese team, to write about something so trivial as the football on display. The tournament has forever been tarnished. No feats on the soccer field could ever overshadow it and, no matter how brilliant, the winning team will be forgotten as soon as it is crowned, leaving only one, indelible, painful memory.

Juxtaposed with the sorrow, though, the tournament reminds me why I fell in love with football in the first place, and also why I hate myself for loving it. In “The Road to Wigan Pier,” a work as brilliantly bitter as any of his, George Orwell wrote of Cold War England, “By the way, did you know that quite likely fish and chips and the football pools have averted revolution in England by providing ‘panem and circenses’?” Football gives hope to people with nothing in which to believe. The pure joy of a real game of football scratches an almighty itch in the human psyche. It’s an anesthetic.

There is definitely joy on the pitches in Angola. I was unable to see the tournament’s first three games, but the last four have all been endlessly engrossing. The pick of the lot was the match on Tuesday between Nigeria and Egypt. For a period, Nigeria looked too good for any team in the world to handle. A bold claim: the game has never been played so well, so fast as the Nigerians played it in stretches. John Obi Mikel was looking like a Juan Roman Riquelme mated with a bulldozer.

Egypt, though, was also playing well, but at a more relaxed tempo, and had perhaps the better system. The three-man defense often looks archaic, but not the way Hassan Shehata’s Egypt uses it. The mark of a good formation is when a team looks to have its opponents outnumbered both on defense and attack, and Egypt does that. A hallmark of the Pharaohs’ play was the late-second half attacks in which the four behind Ahmed Hassan advanced as one, and it was too much for Nigeria’s defense eventually.

Both teams play attractive styles of football that simply don’t exist in the European game. Nigeria’s ultra-high-tempo game will be a welcome addition to the World Cup. Egypt’s unorthodox movement will be missed.

But I don’t favor either of them to win the tournament. Despite Cameroon’s shock loss to Gabon, I think the Indomitable Lions will come out on top. That game was much different from the Egypt-Nigeria affair. Both teams’ French coaches have imposed more European styles on them. Gabon reminded me of Rangers in their run to the UEFA Cup final a couple of years ago, and the Panthers’ playerd did an excellent job of getting behind the ball.

Cameroon was more impressive, though. Truly magical African playmakers seem to be a rarity these days, but Cameroon has one of the few in Achille Emana. The Real Betis number 10 nearly got Cameroon’s equalizer several times with his sleek touches and slinkier running. Behind him, Alex Song and Jean Makoun are an extremely classy pair of enforcers. A common theme at this tournament seems to be players granted greater freedom than they are at club level and Samuel Eto’o also showed he is a defter passer and trickier dribbler than I personally considered him when he played for Barcelona.

Gabon and Cameroon, along with Egypt, are also exceptions to another common theme among the tournament’s teams: awful goalkeeping. A great deal of Nigeria’s attacking impetus was sapped by keeper Vincent Enyeama, who never once considered a short pass when he received the ball at his feet. But he wasn’t even the worst. Video highlights of the Angola-Mali and Malawi-Algeria games show some really awful keeping errors.

Didier Ovono, Gabon’s stopper, was not among the culprits in the shortage of goalkeeping talent. Though he did drop a cross in the second half, he was inspirational in leading his team from behind. He made some superb saves in the first half and distributed the ball well, but the thing that impressed me the most about him may sound perverse. I’ve never seen a more effective cheat.

In once second-half incident, he even fooled the commentator pretending to have been kicked in the head by an onrushing Cameroonian. It was a calculated move with Gabon in the lead. Referees know that, no matter what, they have to stop play at the merest hint of a head injury, and even though he wholly convinced nobody, Ovono still ate valuable seconds off the clock. That wasn’t the only aspect of his game by any means, just the most glaring. For me, he and Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan are the players of the tournament so far.