Mali win, but DR Congo steal show
Mali claimed the first victory of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations on Sunday, but outsiders Democratic Republic of Congo stole the Group B show.
The Leopards shrugged off a troubled build-up with rows over bonuses and the poor treatment of players to cancel a two-goal second-half deficit and hold fancied Ghana 2-2 in Indian Ocean city Port Elizabeth.
It was an enjoyable reminder of what African football can provide after an awful start to the tournament in Soweto on Saturday as listless draws between South Africa and Cape Verde and Angola and Morocco failed to deliver a single goal.
Outstanding Tresor Mputu and Dieumerci Mbokani were on target for DR Congo, back at the African football showpiece for the first time since 2006, after Emmanuel Agyeman Badu and Kwadwo Asamoah had scored for the Black Stars.
West Bromwich Albion midfielder Youssef Mulumbu, one of the English Premier League stars present at the 22-day tournament, was denied a late winner by the quick reflexes of Ghana goalkeeper Fatau Dauda.
"This match was a great advertisement for African football," boasted DR Congo coach Claude Le Roy, the 64-year-old Frenchman appearing at the tournament a record seventh time having previously guided Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana.
"I'm proud of my players – they have great quality and they showed it by coming back to a high-level competition like the Africa Cup after a seven-year absence.
"We deserved this result after all the problems leading up to the tournament and I hope that this encouraging result will get the whole country behind the team."
Ghana coach and 1982 Africa Cup-winning player Kwesi Appiah said: "I knew playing DR Congo would not be easy, but it was unfortunate that we did not win our first game.
"We relaxed after taking a two-goal lead and allowed some tactical indiscipline to creep into our play, which must be corrected before facing Mali."
After the excitement of the opening match of a Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium double-header that attracted a 20 979 crowd, Mali and Niger served up 90 sleep-inducing minutes.
But the three points will be celebrated by Malians desperate for a morale boost as their troops, backed by forces from France and other African states, try to dislodge Islamist extremists from the northern desert region.
Niger were more interested in dodging defeat than winning and survived the aerial shakiness of goalkeeper Daouda Kassaly for 84 minutes before former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita brought some cheer to the crowd.
South Africa-based Kassaly failed to hold a Fousseiny Diawara cross and the ball ran loose inside the box to Keita, who made no mistake with a low, left-foot shot.
It was fitting that China-based Keita should be the match-winner as the woodwork robbed him of a goal seven minutes earlier with his drive leaving Kassaly helpless.
Kassaly was also in trouble during the first half as he failed to deal with a free kick only for Niger to escape punishment because Cheick Diarra could not control the ball with an open goal at his mercy.
A Mali team that was far less impressive than DR Congo or four-time champions Ghana top the table with three points, although much sterner tests lie ahead for French coach Patrice Carteron and his team.
"It was a difficult game against a very defensive team like Niger," said ex-Sunderland defender Carteron, "but I'm happy for the players because this win will boost confidence for the next match against Ghana."
Niger coach Gernot Rohr was proud even though his team lost: "We tried our best against a top team like Mali. My players have great fighting spirit and big hearts, so you can be happy even when they lose."
Attention switches to north-eastern city Nelspruit on Monday where defending champions Zambia face Ethiopia, returning to the tournament after a 31-year absence, before Nigeria tackle Burkina Faso in a Mbombela Stadium double-header.