Monday, 15 October 2012

Upsets, upstarts and uproar: if AFCON 2013 is anything like the qualifiers, South Africa is in for a rip-roaring January

Dakar moments: an Ivory Coast fan is lifted to safety on Saturday night

SO it’s official. The Confederation of African Football lists these sixteen nations to kick-off the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa on January 19: Algeria; Angola; Burkina Faso; Cape Verde Islands; Democratic Republic of Congo; Ethiopia; Ghana; Ivory Coast (ranked 1); Mali; Morocco; Niger; Nigeria; South Africa (hosts); Togo; Tunisia and Zambia (holders).

But that simple statement of fact hides so much drama after an absorbing – and violent – weekend of AFCON final qualifiers. Every one of them comes with a story, a tale of triumph over adversity.

Just over 500km west of Africa, the Cape Verde Islands epitomise the glorious unpredictability of international football. I’ve actually been there. Now a tourist hub, the islands were uninhabited before Portugal “discovered” the archipelago of 10 volcanic lumps of rock in the 15th century.

But the world’s 51st strongest footballing nation will be among the survivors popped in to the hat when the final draw for AFCON 2013 is made in Durban on October 24.

On Sunday, playing against four-time CAF champions Cameroon boasting the world’s best-paid player Samuel Eto’o, the islanders held on to win 3-2 on aggregate in Yaounde after their shocking 2-0 first leg win in Praia.

The sold out 60,000 Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium was silenced by an early Antonio Pereira goal. The legend that is Eto’o – back after an eight-month ban for boycotting a game against Algeria in a row over bonus payments - made the equaliser for Achille Emana and then hit the woodwork as the football-mad nation of 20million attempted to overcome a group of rocky islands with a combined population of 500,000.

A late goal from Fabrice Olinga – a 16-year-old product of the Samuel Eto’o Foundation - put Cameroon 2-1 up and two goals short of qualifying, but they could not stop the delirious islanders from reaching their first EVER major tournament.

Afterwards, Eto’o threatened retirement and offered to move in to football administration in an effort to “clear up the mess” in Cameroonian football.

Though the Cape Verde Islands are unlikely to bring many fans to South Africa, the opposite applies to the Ivory Coast, Africa’s No1 nation, currently 16th in the FIFA world rankings.

Their match in Senegal was abandoned after 74 minutes with the Ivorians leading 6-2 on aggregate after two goals from former Chelsea superstar Didier Drogba.

Amid frightening scenes at the Leopold Sedar Senghor stadium in Dakar, players and fans had to be escorted from the stadium by police, who reported 10 injuries. Senegal coach Ferdinand Coly admitted: "For the players, it was traumatic, especially the young ones. We are going to face some difficult days but Senegal will accept the sanctions.”

As yet there has been no statement from CAF, though they DO list the Ivory Coast as having qualified for South Africa on their official website yesterday.

Nigeria are also expected to be well supported at AFCON – particularly after their 6-1 triumph over Liberia - but there was no joy for Zimbabwe, pipped on an away goal by Angola after a brace from former Manchester United striker Manucho Goncalves.

Mozambique, 2-0 up after the Elias Palembe-dominated first leg in Maputo, were sent packing after a 4-0 defeat against Morocco in Marrakesh, while another of our neighbours, Botswana, went out 7-1 on aggregate after a 4-1 home defeat against a useful-looking Mali.

Former Arsenal and Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor – now at Tottenham - was on target for Togo in a 2-1 win over 2012 co-hosts Gabon. The Togolese had a particular motivation behind their qualifying crusade, having originally been banned for the tournament for withdrawing from Angola 2010 when they were shot at by bandits on the way to the tournament.

South Africa’s World Cup qualifying rivals Ethiopia saw off Sudan on away goals after a 2-0 win in Adis 
Ababa made the aggregate score 5-5 but the rapidly improving Central African Republic, also in Bafana’s group fighting it out for Brazil 2014, were put out by a late Alain Traore goal for Burkina Faso.

Niger – Bafana’s nemesis in the last AFCON qualifying tournament - were going out against Guinea until late goals from Mohammed Chikoto and Issoufou Garba turned things around and made Niger, at 137, the lowest ranked team to make it in South Africa next year.

Equatorial Guinea, 4-0 down after the first leg against the Democratic Republic of Congo, went 2-0 up after 35 minutes in Malabo but the miracle recovery was not to be as Youssouf Mulumbu replied for the Congolese in a 2-1 defeat which put them through 5-2 on aggregate.

Any hope Libya had of overhauling a one-goal loss first time out against Algeria – officially the second strongest side in Africa - did not last long in Blida with El Arbi Hilal Soudani and Islam Slimani scoring within seven minutes and the home side cruised to a 2-0 victory, 3-0 on aggregate.

The 16 survivors from the original 47 who entered the tournament WILL attract fans to South Africa – the Ivory Coast’s host of superstars should help make up for the absence of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana – but the failure to show ANY of the AFCON qualifiers on local television over the weekend was a disastrous marketing move.

Mvuzo Mbebe, CEO of AFCON 2013, has his work cut out. But if the tournament itself produces half of the drama of the final round of qualifiers, we should be in for a cracker after Christmas.


FIFA WORLD AND AFRICAN RANKINGS OF THE 16 QUALIFIERS:

16           1             Côte d'Ivoire                    
24           2             Algeria               
27           3             Mali                    
31           4             Ghana                
41           6             Zambia                              
45           7             Tunisia               
51           10           Cape Verde Islands                        
63           13           Nigeria
75           18           Morocco
76           19           South Africa                     
83           20           Angola               
91           23           Burkina Faso                    
93           24           Togo                   
103        30           Congo DR                         
118        33           Ethiopia
137        42           Niger

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