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Now the real battles begin


Afcon 2013 has been a wonderful spectacle. For the opening ceremony South Africa put up a great show that must have been the pride of all South Africans.

Unfortunately, the start of the football championship is another story.

Generally, the start of every such championship is anxiety-laden, with many countries unable to find their feet and quickly settle down until they are hit by the shock of a poor performance.

This was the case with South Africa. The team disappointed everyone. Cape Verde Islands, on the other hand, lived up to the pre-tournament description of them as the ‘dark horse’ of the championship. They matched Bafana Bafana in every respect on the night. Both teams were bad in terms of the quality of football played.

The second match between Zambia and Ethiopia was supposed to be different.

For the entire duration of the match the Chipolopolo neither found their rhythm nor lifted their game beyond truly pedestrian level. Instead, it was the less favoured Antelopes who came and gave Africa a lesson on the modern game – a good but much slower imitation of Tiki Taka, the style of play created, mastered and now ‘marketed’ to the world by the greatest football team in the history of the game – Barcelona of Spain. The Ethiopians have played the most attractive football of Afcon 2013 so far (I am writing this on Thursday night).

Although they were a great delight to watch, with their short, crisp passing, darting triangular movements on the ball and immaculate confidence on the ball, Ethiopia still did not look anything like the strongest team or the team to beat at the championship. That distinction must go to Ivory Coast and Ghana, joint favourites to win the trophy from before the championship started.

Ivory Coast were one of only three teams to win their first round matches. They played well enough for a first game and convincingly defeated Togo, who had their own chances too but failed to convert them. They played confidently, like potential champions.

The Super Eagles of Nigeria should never have drawn their first match against Burkina Faso. They had the match firmly in their control for the duration of match and never looked like conceding any goal, even when Ambrose Efe, the right back, was harshly sent off for an offence that looked worse than it really was.

The inexperience and tactical naivety of the Eagles showed through the match, crowned by this failure to keep their lead.

As expected, the three North African teams played beautifully at a fast and furious pace. Only a goal in the very last minute of added time separated Algeria and Tunisia in their El Clasico-style encounter. Until Tunisia scored the lone goal both teams had effectively cancelled each other out.

Morocco played some of the best football in the first round. They entertained very well against a very physical Angola, a team that has failed to rekindle any of the magic they unleashed at Afcon 2012. Their drawn first match was characterised by endless running and a lots of movement on and off the ball.

Ghana have been very strong all round. They drew their first match, which they could have won easily (with two goals up at a time) but were also lucky not to have lost when Democratic Republic of Congo came back to draw level and almost snatched victory at the very last minute of the game. Even then, Ghana looked very organised and more tactically savvy than DRC.

First round matches are wake –up calls for most teams. It is after the first round matches that teams start to find their levels and start to play to their full strengths. Without totally disregarding the results of all the first round matches that mostly ended in drawn games, it is clear that it is the second round of matches that will start to reveal the true state and strength of the teams.

Already the second round of the group matches is making it clear that the stronger teams are shaking off their initial blues and have started to emerge at the top half of their respective group tables.

South Africa showed tremendous resilience by overcoming their anxiety, following too high expectations. They settled down to play some proper football and defeated Angola by 2-0. After this, mark my words, Bafana Bafana will improve from match to match and will become very dangerous customers from now onwards.

Ghana also won their second match with a slim 1-0 score but looked very strong and confident, with increasingly improving organisation and discipline in the team’s play.

Niger and DRC played each other this evening to a standstill, with no victor, no vanquished. The DRC had looked good when they played Ghana in the first match but failure to defeat Niger when they had all the chances to do so may have exposed the underbelly of this highly-rated team. Mali is likely to gain from DRC’s loss. A draw against DRC will see Mali move up with Ghana.

By the time you are reading this Nigeria will be getting ready to tussle with Zambia. The match has ‘draw’ written all over it but, with the powerful and athletic front line and a shaky defense paraded by Nigeria, anything is possible on the night….except a defeat of the Super Eagles.

The finishing line for many of the teams looms ahead. Now, the real thing begins. I urge all to be closely gauging all my initial predictions against the unfolding drama of reality.


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