Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Africa Tidbits

Being this is a blog about the Road to the 2010 Finals in Africa, let's dive into some African news and see what's going on across the pond, south of the equator.

-- The UEFA Champions League is in full swing, with ties resuming next week. But it's not the only game in town, as the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League begins its annual campaign this Sunday.

The African version of the Champions League is played over a full year, from January to December and features only national champions, much like the old European Cup system. Also like the old European system, there’s a Cup Winners Cup and a CAF Cup for runners-up in national championships.

Egyptian giants Al-Ahly are the defending champions and share the spoils with Egyptian team Al-Zamalek as the club with the most CAF Champions League title wins, at 5.

Unfortunately, the Champions League doesn’t go on without its share of problems.
Many people feel the Champions League should schedule their fixtures to similar schedules as their UEFA cousins. But there is fixture confusion and organizational nightmares for national associations and the CAF. Most African domestic leagues begin their seasons in July and finish around May. But not all, and that’s where the confusion sets in. Some start in September, others end in June. There’s no wiggle room and no one competition can logistically schedule their campaigns around the others.

For instance, Al Ahly begin their defense of the title in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on Sunday against Zimbabwean champions Highlanders in the second round. (The defending champions do not have to play in the first round.)
But they play their match under an air of controversy over fixture congestion in the Egyptian league which sees them playing again just 24 hours after returning to Cairo next week.
Too many games in too little time means poor quality of games.

Also, many national associations want the competition expanded. The stronger leagues feel more of their teams competing would mean more financial success for the Champions League and their clubs. But not everyone sees it this way and national associations bicker about it.

Then there is the lack of proper pitches to play on, as many dilapidated stadiums serve as homes for national champions. Poor seating, lighting, security and playing fields plague the nations.

For now, sit back and enjoy the competition … if you can watch it at all. Some of the clubs vying for the prize include Tunisia’s Etoile Sahel, Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces and the Ivory Coast’s ASEC Abidjan.

-- Brazil’s World-Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira begins his unenviable job of coaching South Africa’s national team for the first time on March 13 when they play a friendly against Swaziland in Johannesburg.

Parreira is an anomaly, living in Brazil while coaching a team around the world that’s reported as being in shambles. The infrastructure may be coming together, but media reports state the team is not in shape, the youth systems are not in place and the strategy is lacking for a country that doesn’t want to get embarrassed on its home territory come 2010.

To his credit, the coach has been watching local league and cup matches in preparation. But is this enough? I’ve watched lots of matches the past few weeks. That doesn’t make me prepared to coach Real Madrid. (Or does it?)

Parreira did a lackluster job with Brazil in the 2006 finals. What’s to say he’ll do better in SA? The South African association was looking for a big name and got it. But it’s a questionable strategy and hopefully, come 2010, it won’t backfire.

-- The African Player of the Year award is to be presented tomorrow. The 2006 finalists are Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast, Michael Essien of Ghana, and Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon.

Conventional wisdom holds that Samuel Eto’o, winner of the UEFA Champions League with Barcelona and holder of the Pichichi award in Spain as the league’s highest scorer should win it.

He’s flashy, he scores a boatload of goals and he’s got amazingly quick feet. He may be the best striker in the world when healthy.

But my thinking is that the quiet midfielder of Chelsea, Essien, deserves the award. He’s consistently demonstrated his wealth to the club with his brilliant playmaking, his pace, his field intelligence and his purposeful dedication, playing every game for the Blues.

In the words of the Special One, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho: ‘"Essien is a great player. He can play every position in midfield. Where he is perfect [is] in choices. In football, the most difficult thing is to choose well, and in every situation he chooses well. He presses, stays in position, passes long, passes short, first touch, two touches. He controls the pace of the game, fast or slow. He is midfield-multifunctional, he is dynamic and strong. The boy has incredible physical power, he is super resistant with great speed and unending tactical abilities."

That sounds like a Player of the Year to me.

Don’t get me wrong. Didier Drogba has dazzled this season with his scoring prowess and flourishing maturity. He’s really put his package together and is quickly becoming one of the best strikers in the world. But my thinking is all-world striker Andriy Shevchenko’s presence has a lot to do with that. Shevchenko may be disappointing this campaign, but defenders respect the world-class Ukrainian’s ability and career stat sheet.

For my money, Essien is the man. Let the debate begin.

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