All to play for in Nelspruit
It has been an absolute honour to be in Nelspruit to watch this edition of the Africa Cup of Nations.
On the opening match day, the Ethiopian fans filled every part of the city. It was incredible – the colours, the delirious fans, the noise, the dancing and all before a ball was kicked in anger.
The defending champions Zambia will consider themselves unlucky, even if a tad careless, that they did not press home their numerical advantage and make a winning start. It has to be said that, for their confidence, their refusal to panic and their resort to rash play while playing their passing game, even when a goal and a man down, the Ethiopians deserve their draw.
Zambia are probably the best-placed defending champions in the Afcon ever and by that I mean the team is still basically the same from 12 months ago and the fire from winning has not been dimmed by NOT qualifying for a World Cup as usually is the case.
Their goal was a great example of third-man running that saw Chansa get ahead of the striker and deftly head the ball into the path of the rampaging Mbesuma. Mbesuma's control and finish were exemplary. One feared the worst for the Ethiopians as it concluded a calamitous 15 minutes where they had missed a penalty and had their keeper sent off for a mindless lunge at the ever breaking midfielder.
However, they regrouped and scored a brilliant equaliser from Adani. The first touch from the striker Sanhid to kill the ball and the timing to make sure his skipper was onside for the pass, were just brilliant. The manner in which the Ethiopians celebrated the draw was lovely to see. Their fans were fantastic, dancing all over the stadium grounds well after the final whistle as the fans of Nigeria and Burkina Faso arrived for their match.
Nigeria, as usual, come into the competition with high expectations not actually based in reality. The reality is that Nigeria did not make the previous tournament. Another reality that is amazingly overlooked by Nigerians is that the squad here is vastly inexperienced with as many as 15 of the 23-man squad appearing at the Afcon for the first time. These factors are never to be sniffed at.
Against Burkina Faso, though, the Nigerians took an early lead, played some delightful football and created many other chances that were inexplicably missed. The turning point of the match involved Pitroipa moving wide left and starting to torment Efe Ambrose at right-back.
It was proving to be a good contest as the Glasgow Celtic defender stood his ground most of the time. However, the ref, who was not having the best of games overall, found a reason to issue a second yellow card to Efe for an innocuous challenge. Nigeria were reduced to ten men. Even with the numerical advantage, the Burkinabe side managed to give up chances on the counter to Nigeria, with Ike Uche missing two chances.
In the last seconds, as if to confirm the inexperience of the Nigerian side, with the ball deep into the Burkinabe half, instead of running down the clock ,with coach Keshi screaming for the ball to go to the corner flag, Onazi passed inside to Musa. Possession was turned.
Within seconds, Burkina Faso, with Pitroipa, were in on the Nigerian goal. His cut back found an amazingly cool Traore, who finished past the despairing lunges of Oboabona and Yobo into the bottom corner. Great drama.
So the group is fantastically poised and anything is still possible. Having visited the Nigerian camp often in the days since the game I can report that their mood is fine. I have also interacted with the Burkina Faso players and they are buzzing.
According to reports it seems that Zambia are looking beyond the Nigerian match, if quotes attributed to the manager are to believed. The Ethiopian fans have told me they believe they will go through, along with Nigeria. You have to admire their confidence.
Nelspruit is an absolutely beautiful city in which to watch football and the locals make you welcome. After hosting the Fifa World Cup and now a second Afcon, it will be Olympics next in this beautiful country.