Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Continuty Helps: LeRoy to stay with Ghana

Continuity is a good thing, whether it be in life or in football.

Look at the most successful clubs in world football. Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United. You'll see one of their main hallmarks as continuity, the ability to keep their top stars, add small pieces here and there and win trophies. Money aside, of course ...

That's why today's news that Claude LeRoy wants to lead Ghana's Black Stars to the 2010 World Cup is great news for the country.

Ghana's failure to win the 2008 African Cup of Nations on their home soil prompted many to think LeRoy's time in charge of the nation's footballing interests was up.

But the Ghana Football Association (GFA) has already asked him to stay, and the Frenchman has agreed.

"I think we are building a very good team; there are lots of things to do in the next two years", he told the BBC.

"We know we didn't achieve what we wanted to achieve," the coach said.

"But I think the image we left after the African Cup of Nations was a beautiful image. The quality of the team, the way we were playing, a very strong relationship between the players, myself and my staff - that seems to me the reasons the GFA decides this way."

Thanks to their strong performance in the Cup of Nations, Ghana is now 14th in FIFA's world rankings of footballing nations. Not too shabby.

LeRoy acknowledged that other coaches in a similar position would have lost their jobs, but pointed out that he has a strong track-record of commitment.

"I spent four years in Cameroon, four years in Senegal - this isn't the first time I have stayed a long time with a team in Africa," he said.

LeRoy is currently back home in France, following the Cup.

He plans to return to Accra next month, when he and the GFA will formalize their agreement, and start serious planning for the next two years.

"I am very very happy," he said, "but first we have to qualify for the World Cup and for the African Cup of Nations in Angola."

The start of that road will be a friendly international against Mexico in London on March 26th.

The match will be played at the home of Premier League club Fulham, Craven Cottage.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Egyptian's Transfer Causing Problems in Europe

Success has a way of causing lots of joy and by virtue, lots of trouble.

It happens all the time in sports. The moment a team or player becomes successful, the opportunity for more riches or more glory is seen. It's almost as if success breeds trouble.

This is now being experienced by Egyptian club Al Ahly and Egyptian goal keeper Essam El-Hadary. He won the African Cup of Nations with Egypt a few weeks ago and immediately looked to cash in on his success, signing with Swiss club FC Sion on February 14th.

But Sion admit he's still a player for Egyptian club giants Al Ahly and they hope the 5-time African champions will let him play for them.

Al Ahly don't want him to leave. They've written to FIFA and to the Swiss Football Federation in a bid to block El-Hadary's attempts to join Sion.

They are demanding that football's world governing body protect their rights.

The goalkeeper is under contract with Ahly until 2010.

El-Hadary believes he's entitled to move under a FIFA article which lets players who are over 28 years old and have been with a club for two years to buy out the remainder of their contract.

Al Ahly board member Khaled Mortagy says that they will not let El-Hadary leave.

"There is no way the club has agreed to sell the player, because we have only three goalkeepers registered," Mortagy told BBC Sport.

"El-Hadary has an existing contract until 2010, he's already played in the second round of the league, and he's registered for the Champions League. To my knowledge there's nothing in his contract that allows him to terminate it unilaterally."

This could get dicey.

The five-time African club champions had already rejected a $400,000 offer from the Swiss Super League side in the wake of El-Hadary's thrilling play at the recent Cup of Nations.

Ahly rejected the offer on the basis that it was not good enough for the man regarded by many as the best goalkeeper in Africa.

El-Hadary is currently in Switzerland and the club is not happy over the attempts to engineer the move on his own.

"We sent a very clear letter to FIFA and the Swiss federation, refusing to send the international transfer certificate for the player," said Mortagy.

"We urged the Swiss federation to send the player back as soon as possible. Al Ahly will reserve all its rights to take all appropriate legal action against the player, the club and any other party that deprives Al Ahly from its rights."

The Egyptian goalkeeper is not expected to stay in Switzerland for long.

He will be using his stay there to put himself in the shop window for a bigger European club.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Where Do Nigeria Go Now?

While I struggle with the direction of my blog, I'll keep doing what I've always done: try to generate some debate.

So yesterday, Nigeria lost their head coach Berti Vogts. Now some may say this isn't such a bad thing, considering their lackluster, disappointing display in the African Cup of Nations.

But it's sort of sad too, no? The experiment just didn't work out.

"Too much happened during and after the African Cup. Most of all I don't have any faith in the president of the Nigerian federation anymore," Vogts said.

"Working together is no longer possible."

The 61-year-old Vogts, whose biggest triumph was leading Germany to the 1996 European Championship title, did not elaborate on his differences with Nigerian Football Association president Sanni Lulu.

"Working with the players was a lot of fun for me,"Vogts said.

"It gave me back my joy in football."

So where does Nigeria go now?

There's talk that former Nigeria striker Daniel Amokachi or former Nigerian midfielder Sunday Oliseh may take the job.

The hot rumor has former Togo coach and Nigeria captain Stephen Keshi taking up Vogt's spot.

Time will tell.

Whomever is chosen has a tough job at hand.

Nigeria is a country full of footballing talent. Various theories exists as to why the Super Eagles can't get their act together.

From a lack of tactical guile in big tournaments to a locker room full of egotistical big-name stars, what's obvious is that Nigeria have talent and haven't lived up to their potential.

Hopefully this can change soon. The 2010 World Cup is right around the corner.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Refocus and Some Personal Musings

I've been away from the blog since the African Cup of Nations ended, tending to some personal business.

But I'm back, thinking of ways to take this particular blog in new directions.

I love the fact I've become somewhat knowledgeable about the African game thanks to this website. I've gained an intimate appreciation of the quality of African football and seen the grandeur and spectacle the continent's football can bring.

But I believe I'd do a disservice to make this an African football blog. First of all, I don't know much about the African game. I'd love to learn more. But for now, copying and pasting Mark Gleeson's articles from Reuters news service doesn't cut it.

Second, without being in Africa, how can I honestly report on the state of the African game? Sure, the Internet and technology have brought the game closer to home. But until I get myself there, I'd be foolish to say I'm providing any real service.

The entire medium of a blog is wonderful. Someone like myself, some guy in New York who fancies football, can write my musings and thoughts about events I've not even seen. And for that, I get people all over the world coming on my page, reading my posts, reading my thoughts. It's wonderful.

So how can I make this better? How can I be of value to the people that read this site?

Basically, how can I grow this thing into something more than copying articles?

I could go to Africa. I WILL go to Africa. One day. I simply can't afford it now.

I could write about European soccer or the USA's Major League Soccer.

But lots of people do that. I already do that on my other website. So that's a negative.

I guess I need to come up with another angle.

Let's reiterate the focal point of this blog: It's about me, a crazy American football fan in New York City, trying to get himself to South Africa in 2010 to watch one game, the Final of the World Cup.

Now, I could buy a ticket and just go. But where's the challenge in that?

No, I need to find a way there through some other route. It could be through sponsorship, it could be through press credentials, it could be as South African president Thabo Mbeki's guest!

But I want to get there based on something other than my wallet. Personal connections, etc.

Also, I'd like to write a book about my experience. And on top of that, I'd like to assist some people involved with the game of football along the way. Meaning, I'd like to shine a light on people doing good work through the game of soccer, trying to uplift people using football as their voice.

Maybe that's the angle I should take. I don't know ...

Until then, I'm learning a great deal about the African game, watching lots of great UEFA Champions League games and getting ready for another season of David Beckham's Major League Soccer.

I'll end this now, but I'll say this ... expect to read things here you won't read anywhere else.

As long as I keep that edict in mind, the blog and the writing will take care of itself ...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My Cup of Nations Final

So the Cup's been over for a few days now and I'm left wondering, 'When's the next Cup?'

I know it's in 2010, when I'll most DEFINITELY be in Angola for the matches. What I'm getting at is that I'm missing the tournament.

I only saw two matches live. But I came away with a sincere appreciation of the African game, the passion of the fans and the style of the attacking play on exhibit.

I managed to watch the final between Egypt and Cameroon at two locations in Harlem, New York City.

The first place was a small, nondescript restaurant on 116th St. They had a huge, widescreen TV with a blurry signal, some delicious smelling food in the back kitchen and a room full of people from all corners of Africa watching the match. I only imagine they were all from Africa, because I couldn't understand what they were saying and they were deeply involved in the match.

People yelled at the TV, people threw their hands into the air. But beyond that, they smiled. They offered us seats. They kept looking back to see how we were doing. That doesn't often happen at the bars I frequent to watch football. Most times, I'm stuffed next to some drunk brute who wants to bash my head in because I support a different club. Not so here.

After the restaurant, we found a smaller cafe to watch the 2nd half. This wasn't really a cafe, more a 'greasy spoon' you find in nondescript neighborhoods. But the passion emanating from the place was exquisite. One lad had a Cameroon shirt on, one on his body, another wrapped around his head. He motioned us in while jumping up and down to the hip hop beats of his beat box.

Hardly anyone in the place spoke English. But the place was hopping in anticipation of the second half. The Cameroonian lad with the shirts kneeled down to pray, constantly putting his hands to his face, the pain in his stomach on exhibit for all to see.

Finally, I felt like I was somewhere I could watch the game among true African fans! Motioning with our hands, we somehow got the waitress to serve us lamb stew over white rice. Very delicious! People smiled at us, some in bemusement as to why two Americans would want to watch the African game, others just happy to have us.

The place was packed full of men, some cheering for Cameroon, others for Egypt. They oohed and awwed every time a slicing pass came to an Egyptian striker. They jumped up and slapped the counter when Cameroon came close to scoring. And they cheered wildly both in support and opposition when Egypt found the back of the net.

The game ended and the arguing ensued. I don't mean arguing in the sense that glasses were thrown and knives were unsheathed. I mean the footballing debates started.

'Why didn't Song defend better?'
'What happened to Eto'o?'
'Ivory Coast should have won!'
(I'm guessing this was said. I bet it was. Football has a language all its own and one doesn't need to know another's language to know what's being said.)

On it went in a strange tongue for half an hour. Finally, the trophy was presented. We paid our check and said our goodbyes.
'Merci' said the gentleman at the door as held it open for us, letting us out into the cold Harlem afternoon. Outside, some of the men from the restaurant stood and argued some more, each with a smile on his face and a pat on the back.

They waved goodbye. We smiled and made our way.

I can't wait for the next Cup of Nations.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More Fallout from the Cup of Nations

More news coming out of Ghana in the wake of their hosting of the African Cup of Nations.

It seems that some tournament organizers are upset with all the empty seats at Accra's Obene Djan stadium during Sunday's final between Egypt and Cameroon.

Although no official attendance was given, the 45,000 capacity stadium appeared to be only around two-thirds full with swathes of empty yellow seats behind the goals.

The crowd was boosted by the presence of groups of organized fan clubs whose expenses are paid by sponsors, soccer federations or government agencies. Not real fans, but paid ones.

The only sell-out matches at the tournament were those involving hosts Ghana, who lost to Cameroon in the semi-finals.

Some group games were played in almost deserted stadiums and even the semi-final between Ivory Coast and Egypt was played in a half-empty arena in Kumasi.

Ghanaians have complained that ticket prices were beyond their reach and there have been numerous complaints that tickets were not available at designated sales points.

The tournament has suffered other problems, including a chronic shortage of hotels, while the Benin and Namibia teams said they had been approached by an unidentified man offering them money to throw games.

I suppose you can't win them all. Had Ghana won the tournament, maybe the organizers would have seen it differently.

Still, it's food for thought for Angola 2010 and South Africa 2010.

Make sure the infrastructure is in place. Make sure transport and accomodation are taken care of.

And make sure people can afford to buy tickets to the games.
All very important qualities to have when hosting an international tournament ...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Reactions to the African Cup Final

So it's over, with the defending champions Egypt retaining their African title thanks to a 1-0 victory over Cameroon. That's their sixth African championship, more than anyone else.

One could say the howler by Cameroon captain Rigobert Song handed the title to the Egyptians. But that would be a bit unfair.
Even today, word comes from Cameroon that Song's teammates don't blame him for the loss.

Song, who was playing in his seventh Cup of Nations, lost possession to Mohamed Zidan on the edge of his area and allowed the Hamburg striker to set up Mohamed Aboutrika for an easy finish in the 77th minute on Sunday.

"We played a good game but we conceded a goal at a very bad time," said Song, who had been gunning for a third continental triumph after lifting the trophy in 2000 and 2002.

"Even if everybody has not been on top, all the players gave their best. I will continue with the national team. It is not because things did not go the right way that I am going to retire," the 31-year-old centre back added.

Right back Geremi, who with Song and Samuel Eto'o was playing in his third Nations Cup final, denied that age was a factor.

"We're disappointed but in football, when someone makes a mistake, you can't blame them because it happens," he said.

"It was special for me and Rigobert and Eto'o because it would have been our third Nations Cup and we're really disappointed. It's not a question of age, you are confusing age and experience," the 29-year-old added. "This is my fifth Nations Cup, I started young."

Let's be fair: Egypt was the better team, creating most of the scoring chances with their speed and mobility. Cameroon rarely troubled the Pharaohs.

Egypt was compact in midfield, tenacious in defense and quick on the counter. Cameroon tried but couldn't wedge through the defensive-minded Egyptians.

Even with that, the score was still 0-0 before the error by Song.

Why the Egyptian dominance in international play?

One factor could be the strength of their club football.

Only two players based abroad started Sunday's 1-0 win, with defender Wael Gomaa and captain Ahmed Hassan playing respectively at Al Siliya of Qatar and Belgian club Anderlecht.

Most of the others play together with five-time African champions Al Ahly, giving fluidity to the Pharaohs' play, while several are from Egyptian rivals Ismaili.

"The Egyptian clubs are often brilliant in the African Champions League," says Angel Marcos, who coached Ismaili for a spell during the 1990s.

The Argentine, now a consultant for French sports daily L'Equipe's Web site, added: "The clubs have very good structures, with a lot of effort being made in the academies. They have tactical courses, making the Egyptian clubs play like the South Americans and the Europeans. Undoubtedly, it is what gives the Pharaohs the edge over the other teams in Africa."

Egypt played a free-flowing passing game throughout the tournament, beating Cameroon 4-2 in their opening group game before thrashing hot favorites Ivory Coast 4-1 in the semi-finals.

On Sunday, they dominated most of the game but were kept out by Cameroon's impressive keeper Carlos Kameni until Mohamed Aboutrika pounced after Song's error.

It's obvious Egypt wanted to prove their 2006 victory on home soil was no fluke.

"We always respect our opponents but we are not afraid to play our game," striker Mohamed Fadl told reporters.

"The fact that everybody was only speaking about Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Ghana (as tournament favorites) was a huge motivation for us. After all, we were still the defending champions and we eventually proved our point. We beat Cameroon twice and we knocked out Ivory Coast."

So what was the scene like in Egypt after the win?

Pure bedlam as hundreds of thousands of fans celebrated on the streets late into the evening.

According to the BBC, within seconds of the final whistle being blown, the Egyptian capital Cairo erupted into a cacophony of noise and a blur of light.

Tour boats on the Nile sounded their horns in time to the chants of crowds pouring across bridges spanning Africa's longest river.

Fireworks lit up Cairo's night sky as jubilant fans climbed atop buses and cars, dancing and beating drums.

"I feel very happy and I'm going to party all night to celebrate," 19-year-old Cairo resident Mohammed Saeed told the AP news agency, his face painted in the national colors of red, white and black.

In the football-loving nation of 80 million people, the celebrations are likely to continue for days to come.

Sounds like a great time!

Congratulations to Egypt, 2008 African Cup of Nations champions!!!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bios of Egypt/Cameroon Players Ahead of Final

Here, what the press call 'penpix' or bios of the players participating in tomorrow's Egypt-Cameroon African Cup of Nations final. These are provided by Reuters, the wonderful news service.

Should be a very good one!!

First off, Cameroon.

Penpix of Cameroon's squad ahead of Sunday's African Nations Cup final against Egypt:


1-Idriss Carlos Kameni (Espanyol, Spain). Born Feb. 18, 1984. Caps: 35 Goals: 0. Capped first as a teenager, he spent early part of career languishing in the reserves at Le Havre in France before achieving breakthrough in Spain. Hero of the penalty shootout win for Cameroon at the 2000 Olympic Games gold medal match against Spain.

16-Hamidou Souleymanou (Denzilispor, Turkey). Born Nov. 22, 1973. Caps: 15 Goals: 0. First choice at the 2006 Nations Cup finals in Egypt but after Kameni ended a self-imposed exile from the team, Souleymanou lost his place. Made his debut in 2000 in World Cup qualifier against Somalia.

22-Janvier Mbarga (Canon Yaounde). Born Jan. 17, 1985. Caps: 0 Goals: 0. The only home-based player in the squad, called up for the Nations Cup as cover for the first two goalkeepers. Previously played at under-23 level.


2-Augustin Binya (Benfica, Portugal). Born Aug. 29, 1984. Caps: 4 Goals: 0. Only came to the attention of Cameroon officials after Benfica signed him at the start of the season. Handed a six-match ban by UEFA for a vicious tackle in the Champions League against Celtic.

3-Bill Tchato (Qatar SC). Born May. 14, 1975. Caps: 44 Goals: 2. A Nations Cup winner in 2002 who was surprisingly recalled for this tournament three years after his last appearance for Cameroon. His club career includes stops at Nice and Montpellier in France and Germany's Kaiserslautern.

4-Rigobert Song (Galatasaray, Turkey. Pictured above). Born July 1, 1976. Caps: 117. Goals: 4. Cameroon's influential captain was the first player from sub-Saharan Africa to reach the milestone of 100 caps. Made his debut in 1993 and competes in a record-equalling third Nations Cup final on Sunday.

5-Timothee Atouba (Hamburg SV, Germany). Born Feb. 17, 1982. Caps: 38. Goals: 0. Fullback playing in his third successive Nations Cup. Moved from Cameroon to Switzerland, then England's Tottenham Hotspur before going on to play in the Bundesliga.

6-Benoit Angbwa (Saturn Rameskoye, Russia). Born Jan. 1, 1982. Caps: 10 Goals: 0. The only outfield player yet to get a game for Cameroon at these finals. He was also backup at the 2006 edition where he made a single appearance.

8-Geremi (Newcastle United, England). Born Dec. 20, 1978. Caps: 93. Goals: 9. Free-kick specialist who was a winner in 2000 and 2002 finals. This tournament is his sixth Nations Cup.

23-Andre Bikey (Reading, England). Born Jan. 8, 1985. Caps: 14 Goals: 0. Suspended for Sunday's final after receiving red card in the dying minutes of Thursday's semi-final. Played in the 2006 finals while still on the books of Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow.


7-Modeste Mbami (Olympique Marseille, France). Born Oct. 9, 1982. Caps: 26. Goals: 3. Played at the 2004 finals but a rift with officials cost him a place in Egypt in 2006.

10-Achille Emana (Toulouse, France). Born June 5, 1982. Caps: 15. Goals: 1. A regular for the first time after serving as a reserve at the 2006 finals. Has been on the books of Ligue 1 club Toulouse for eight years.

11-Jean Makoun (Lille, France). Born May. 29, 1983. Caps: 27. Goals: 0. Expected to become the next leader of the new Cameroon generation but has been in disappointing form in Ghana and lost his place in the team. This is his third Nations Cup tournament.

13-Landry Nguemo (Nancy, France). Born Nov. 28, 1985. Caps: 9. Goals: 1. Scored goal on his debut at the start of the qualifying campaign in late 2006 but has played only 45 minutes in Ghana. Came through the junior ranks at Nancy.

14-Joel Epalle (VfL Bochum, Germany). Born Feb. 20, 1978. Caps: 32. Goals: 2. Speedy winger who has spent most of career in Greece. Member of under-23 side that won gold medal at 2000 Sydney Olympics.

15-Alexandre Song (Arsenal, England. Pictured above). Born: Sept. 9, 1987. Caps: 6. Goals: 0. Nephew of captain Rigobert Song, he won one cap in late 2005 but did not play again until new Cameroon coach Otto Pfister watched him in Arsenal's reserves.

19-Stephane Mbia (Stade Rennes, France). Born May. 20, 1986. Caps: 11. Goals: 3. Began his international career at the start of the qualifiers for this Nations Cup. Scored twice in quarter-final win over Tunisia in Tamale last Monday.

20-Paul Essola (Arsenal Kiev, Ukraine). Born Dec. 13, 1981. Caps: 1. Goals: 0. One of four uncapped players in squad. Has had only 13 minutes of action in the group match against Sudan on Jan. 30.


9-Samuel Eto'o (Barcelona, Spain). Born March 10, 1981. Caps: 72. Goals: 29. Three-times African Footballer of the Year and the Nations Cup's all-time leading goal-scorer with 16 in five tournaments since 2000. Eto'o joins Rigobert Song and Geremi in a record-equalling third final.

12-Alain Nkong (Atlante, Mexico). Born April 6, 1979. Caps: 2. Goals: 1. Journeyman plucked from obscurity for this tournament. He scored winner in semi-final victory over hosts Ghana on Thursday. Has played for clubs in Spain, Portugal, Uruguay and the U.S.

17-Mohamadou Idrissou (SC Freiburg, Germany). Born March 8, 1980. Caps: 18. Goals: 1. Tall striker who made debut at the 2003 Confederations Cup in France and played at the Nations Cup finals in Tunisia the following year. Will move from MSV Duisburg to German rivals SC Freiburg next week.

18-Bertin Tomou (Excelsior Mouscron, Belgium). Born August 8, 1978. Caps: 2. Goals: 0. Made debut against Sudan in a World Cup qualifier in 2004 but not called up again until this tournament. Spent eight years playing in South Korea and China before moving to Brest in France and now Belgium.

21-Joseph-Desire Job (Nice, France). Born Dec. 1, 1977. Caps: 50. Goals: 9. French-born striker who chose to play for Cameroon in 1997 and made his debut against England at Wembley. Won a Nations Cup winners' medal in 2000 but has rarely featured for Cameroon in last five years.

And now, Egypt ...

Penpix of Egypt's squad ahead of Sunday's African Nations Cup final against Cameroon:


1-Essam Al Hadari (Al Ahli). Born Jan. 15, 1973. Caps: 82 Goals: 0. Al Hadari has fought a niggling injury but produced several vital saves, notably in Thursday's semi-final against Ivory Coast. Has won all of Africa's top honours at club and national level.

16-Mohamed Abou Moncef (Zamalek). Born Feb. 6, 1977. Caps: 9 Goals: 0. A squad member in the 2006 winning team, he has only played intermittently. His Cairo club have been struggling in domestic competition this season.

23-Mohamed Sobhi (Ismaili). Born Aug. 30, 1981. Caps: 0 Goals: 0. Recently drafted into squad as third choice but yet to win a cap. Has been an Egyptian Premier League regular for the last five seasons.


2-Mahmoud Fathallah (Zamalek). Born Feb. 13, 1982. Caps: 11 Goals: 0. Flying fullback who made his debut in a friendly against Saudi Arabia in 2005. Played in first two matches of this tournament before losing his place after a one-match suspension.

3-Ahmed Al Muhammadi (ENPPI). Born Sept. 9, 1987. Caps: 11 Goals: 0. One of the few additions since Egypt's triumph in 2006. Made debut last year although most of his caps have come as a substitute.

4-Ibrahim Said (Ankaragucu, Turkey). Born Oct. 16, 1979. Caps: 47 Goals: 2. Popular with fans because of his playboy image, he has not played club football this season. A regular in the 2006 team.

5-Shady Mohamed (Al Ahli). Born Nov. 29, 1977. Caps: 21 Goals: 0. Captain of the all-conquering Al Ahli team which reached three successive African Champions League finals from 2005-2007. Made debut for Egypt in 2000 but has played sparingly since, missing out on most of the major tournaments.

6-Hani Said (Ismaili). Born April 22, 1980. Caps: 30. Goals: 0. Played in the 2000 Nations Cup and earned a move to Italy's Serie A before losing his place in the national team. Brought back last year by coach Hassan Shehata and now a regular again.

13-Tarek El Sayed (Zamalek). Born Oct. 9, 1978. Caps: 44 Goals: 5. Playing in his fourth successive Nations Cup but has made only one start. A flying left back surprisingly recalled for these finals after two years out of the team.

14-Sayed Moawad (Ismaili). Born May 25, 1979. Caps: 25 Goals: 0. Started all five matches for Egypt here. Versatile player who can play at left back or in midfield. He made his debut in 2001 but only worked his way back into the squad over the last 12 months.

20-Wael Gomaa (Al Saylia, Qatar). Born Aug. 3, 1975. Caps: 56. Goals: 0. Uncompromising central defender who was an integral part of the 2006 team. He has played in four Nations Cup finals and has two African Champions League winners medals.


7-Ahmed Fathi (Al Ahli). Born Nov. 10, 1984. Caps: 54. Goals: 2. Made debut a month after his 18th birthday and played in the 2006 Nations Cup final in Cairo. Originally a right back, he is now used as an attacking midfielder.

8-Hosni Abd Rabou (Ismaili). Born Nov. 1, 1984. Caps: 39. Goals: 6. Scorer of four goals here and winner of several man of the match awards. Previously played in France with Racing Strasbourg and now involved in a tug of war between Egypt champions Al Ahli and Ismaili over who owns his contract.

11-Mohamed Shawky (Middlesbrough, England. Pictured above). Born Oct. 5, 1981. Caps: 50. Goals: 3. Key defensive midfielder who missed Thursday's semi-final win over Ivory Coast because of injury. Scored against Cameroon home and away in 2006 World Cup qualifiers.

15-Ahmed Shaaban (Petrojet). Born Oct. 10, 1978. Caps: 2. Goals: 0. Late bloomer on international scene, making his debut last month in a warmup against Namibia. Has not played here.

17-Ahmed Hassan (Besiktas, Turkey). Born May 2, 1975. Caps: 135. Goals: 18. Scored second goal in 1998 Nations Cup final victory over South Africa and named best player of 2006 tournament. Playing in record-equalling seventh Nations Cup.

21-Hassan Mostafa (Al Wehda, Saudi Arabia). Born Nov. 20, 1979. Caps: 25. Goals: 0. Hard-working midfielder who was substitute in 2006 final and played a similar backup role in Ghana. Made debut in 2003 but was not picked again until a year later when Shehata took over as coach.

22-Mohamed Aboutrika (Al Ahli. Pictured above). Born Nov. 7, 1978. Caps: 45. Goals: 12. One of the key men in the march to the final, overcoming a bout of flu at the start. Hit five goals in first six internationals although did not score again for 11 games.


9-Mohamed Zidan (Hamburg SV, Germany). Born Dec. 11, 1981. Caps: 14. Goals: 4. Moved to Denmark as a teenager and then on to the Bundesliga. Scored two goals in opening match of tournament against Cameroon.

10-Emad Moteab (Al Ahli). Born Feb. 20, 1983. Caps: 39. Goals: 15. Made excellent start to international career, scoring seven goals in eight games. Has failed to score here although a consistent goal-getter in Al Ahli's African Champions League successes of 2005 and 2006.

12-Omar Gamal (Ismaili). Born Sept. 16, 1982. Caps: 12. Goals: 0. Backup striker who has not featured at this tournament. All but one of 12 caps have come as substitute.

18-Mohamed Fadl (Ismaili). Born Aug. 12, 1980. Caps: 4. Goals: 2. Scored debut goal that ensured Egypt's qualification for these finals. Yet to appear in tournament.

19-Amr Zaki (Zamalek). Born April 1, 1983. Caps: 39. Goals: 21. Scorer of four goals at these finals including two in the semi-final win over Ivory Coast. Returned to club football in Egypt last year after a brief spell at Lokomotiv Moscow.

Cup Final Preview: Egypt vs. Cameroon

First off, congratulations to Ghana, who came from behind to claim a consolation third-place finish at the African Cup of Nations after beating Ivory Coast in a six-goal thriller, 4-2.

Sulley Muntari's swerving 25-yard free-kick gave Ghana the lead on 10 minutes before Ivorian Boubacar Sanogo hit back with a quick-fire brace.

Quincy Owusu-Abeyie equalized after half-time with a solo effort before Junior Agogo struck on 80 minutes.

Ghana's Hamanu Draman then sealed the win with a 25-yard shot on 85 minutes.

So after the tears of their semi-final loss to Cameroon, we get Ghana's joy of staging a terrific tournament and beating a skilled Ivorian squad for 3rd-place.

And as we can see above, some terrific dancing from Michael Essien and the rest of the squad!!

Good going!!

Nevertheless, the main event is tomorrow.

The Grand Finale between Egypt and Cameroon.

One one side, we have the defending champions, somewhat of a sleeper heading into the tournament. On the other, a squad fueled by the grace of striker Samuel Eto'o and the machinations of veterans such as Chelsea midfielder Geremi and defender Rigobert Song.

So who wins? I don't know. I haven't seen either side play.

Still, we have history to go by. The Pharaohs defeated Cameroon's Indomitable Lions 4-2 in Group C's opening game in Kumasi.

But midfielder Stephane Mbia said this helped: "We started slow, but losing to Egypt spurred us on to the final."

Egypt coach Hassan Shehata countered, "We are champions of Africa now and we hope to still be after the final."

"Cameroon are a big team, but we've already beaten them in this tournament and that is a good sign for us to produce a good result on Sunday. All my players are motivated, they want to keep the title to prove that we are truly the champions of Africa."

Cameroon coach Otto Pfister, who led Ghana to the 1992 final, reacted differently to their earlier loss to Egypt: "We've progressed match by match. Perhaps we started badly but we always know how to react."

Egypt seem to be peaking at the right time. And it's not like their earlier match against Cameroon was that tough for the Pharaohs. As the Guardian's Paul Doyle puts it:

... the fact is (Cameroon) were utterly dismantled, the Egyptians' clever passing and movement making the Indomitable Lions look oafish. While it's true that Cameroon have improved since then, largely thanks to the emergence of (youngster Alexandre) Song, so too have Egypt - not least because of the return to fitness of Mohammed Aboutreika, the Al Ahly playmaker whose balance, intelligence and probing have made him the classiest player of the tournament.

With their slick five-man midfield and smart attackers such as Amr Zaky and Mohamed Zidan, Egypt are experts at pulling teams apart. They won't constantly lob crosses into the box the way Ghana did, instead they will create holes and thread their way through them. Andre Bikey's suspension will make that task even easier. Wael Gomaa will shackle Samuel Eto'o and Hassan Shehata will become only the second manager to win back-to-back titles.

I think he likes Egypt in this tournament ... Also something to think about: Egypt have looked equally polished in defense and attack, with keeper Essam El Hadary in particularly good form. So they're a balanced, tricky side with few holes.

Also, they have the luxury of being healthy. Egypt skipper Shehata has a fit squad to choose from. Cameroon are sweating it out to see if Arsenal midfielder Alexandre Song recovers after being stretchered off at the end of the semi-final win over Ghana.

The young Song missed his side's final training session before the final to add to his coach's anxiety.

"The doctors reckon it's not serious. It's not a ligament problem," said the player's cousin and Cameroon captain Rigobert Song.

Cameroon are also missing Andre Bikey, the Reading defender who was sent off in the 90th minute in the semi-final for shoving a medical official tending a stricken team-mate.

So what do people in Ghana make of this unexpected final?

As writer Greg Lalas reports in today's New York Times Goal blog, not many people care.

“Cameroon-Egypt will not get people to the stadium,” Jerry Ayensu, a sports commentator for local channel Metro TV, said. “I mean, some will come, but there will be no atmosphere. You’ve seen Ghana games, how colorful, how loud, how much feeling in the Ohene Djan Stadium. Sunday will have very little of that.”

It is a final, though, so even if the Ghanaians are too saddened to care, other parts of the continent cannot wait. In Yaounde, the celebrating began right after the Indomitable Lions’ victory and will only ramp up on Sunday.

In Cairo, the traffic might actually subside for 90 minutes when everyone stops to watch the game. (There are events elsewhere, too. A friend working for an NGO in Juba, Sudan, has organized an educational match-viewing party. “We’ll watch some football and hand out some condoms to help fight the AIDS epidemic,” she said.)

What will be lacking in atmosphere, the Egyptian side might be able to make up for in performance. Coach Ali Hassan Shehata’s Pharaohs are awesome, capable of breathtaking creativity and teamwork. They calmly and collectively destroyed the impressive Ivorians the other night.

Striker Amr Zaky is a poacher and tricky playmaker Mohamed Aboutreika could be mistaken for a Brazilian. The attack has now notched 14 goals in five games, including a 4-2 drubbing in the group stage against the same Cameroonians they will meet on Sunday. In back, they are organized and goalkeeper Essem El-Hadary is right now my vote for the Golden Ball award.

With all these players, odds are the Egyptians will defend their title on Sunday and add to their record tally of five Nations Cup trophies.

I think he likes Egypt, too. Read the rest of the blog entry by Lalas to see his theory for why the Pharaoh's African Cup success doesn't seem to translate to World Cup success.

One theory? They're just too tired. The bulk of players on the national team make up the Al Alhy football club, the most successful club team in Africa.

As Lalas points out, 'With the Cup of Nations every two years — as opposed to every four, like the European Championship — the international schedule is crowded. Add to that domestic play with big clubs like Al-Ahly and Al-Ismaily, which must also participate in the African Champions League, and it is understandable why the Egyptians are exhausted when the World Cup comes around.

“For example, many of the Al-Ahly players have been going straight for three years,” Nazhar said.'

Good point.

Anyways, that's a discussion for another time. For now, we're ready for Egypt-Cameroon in the African final.

I can't wait! And I hope you can't either.

My prediction? Egypt in a close one, 2-1.

Have fun!!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Ghana in Mourning

Ghana were oh-so-close to getting the job done, to making their way to the African Cup of Nations final on their home soil.

But with their 1-0 loss to Cameroon in yesterday's semi-final, all those dreams came tumbling down. Hard.

Today, a report from BBC News about the emotional aftermath of yesterday's loss.

People in Ghana are taking it very, very hard. Have a read here and click above to see some images from the BBC's 'Nations Cup diary.'

Ghana do have one game left, against the team many thought they'd play in the final: Ivory Coast. Should still be a good game. Just not the one everybody anticipated ...

Ghanaians are not moving with a spring in their step this morning - their dream of lifting the Nations Cup trophy remains just that.

For the 600 fans who crowded into a square in central Ho to watch the Black Stars take on Cameroon's Indomitable Lions on a big screen, an earlier cloud burst set the tone for the tears to follow.

"I am not happy about what they did," Stanley, a 12-year-old boy, exclaims passionately after the 1-0 defeat.

"They tried but - but they didn't try hard to score a goal."

As the music blares out from giant speakers to try and ease the aching hearts, some are more philosophical.

"I still have hope - this is not the end of the world and there is nothing we can do," a young man called Joseph said.

Others still believe there is still something worth fighting for.

"We're going to pray and correct our mistakes for the next match so we can win third position, which will be played on Saturday," says a man aptly named Courage.


Few expected Ghana to err against Cameroon and the arguments and debates continued in Tank Rank square for hours.

"We had problem with the defence and midfield too. We have to have more skilful scorers to be able to break and penetrate that wall. That is our problem," says Anthony, a worker at the Volta Region Hospital.

Both semi-final results are what Ghanaian football fans least wanted and this raises the question about whether attendance will be reduced for Sunday's final in the Accra stadium - Egypt v Cameroon - and at the big-screen arenas around the country.

"No, I won't watch, because I'm sad," a teenage girl says on the verge of tears.

She seems most upset that Laryea "Rasta Man" Kingston - the Ghanaian midfielder was not selected for the match.

"As Ghana has been defeated I think the tournament will not be interesting any more. Me personally I don't think I'll follow it anymore," another man says.

But Anthony, in a more sporting frame of minds, says: "Football is a game, either you win or you lose. So each and everyone should go to the stadium on Sunday."

On the eve of the match, police across the country warned fans to contain their enthusiasm and not to over celebrate following several fatalities after Black Stars' victories.

This morning they'll be hoping they didn't jinx the result.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Final: Egypt v. Cameroon

Talk about unexpected.

I saw a Ghana-Ivory Coast African Cup of Nations final happening no matter what.
How could Cameroon stop the Black Stars on their home turf? How could Egypt defend their title against the hungry Ivorian Elephants, who wanted revenge from their loss against the Pharaohs in the 2006 final?

I was wrong, very wrong.

Egypt, who beat Ivory Coast on penalties in the final two years ago, thumped the Ivorians 4-1 in their semi-final in Kumasi on Thursday. Cameroon reached their sixth Nations Cup final with a 1-0 victory over hosts Ghana in Accra.

So the game's set. Egypt-Cameroon for the right to call themselves African champions!

I didn't see the games today. Work pulled me away. But from what I read, Ivory Coast's reserve goalkeeper Stephan Loboue was somewhat to blame. Loboue came on for the injured Boubacar Barry in the 39th minute.

As for Cameroon, they fought and fought in what was described as a dingy, dull game.
Substitute Alain Nkong's second-half goal gave the Indomitable Lions the win and a place in the final.

Poor Ghana. What suffering must be going on in the host country. So many expectations, so much energy coming off of Sunday's super victory against Nigeria.

"I was never as sad in my career as I am today," said Ghana coach Claude Le Roy.

"It's a terrible deception to lose this game. I can understand how sad the people of Ghana are tonight."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

There's World Cup Qualifying Going On? plus Busby Babes

Get a load of this: there are World Cup qualifiers being played today!

Who knew? Not I!

The big guns of Asian football got their 2010 World Cup qualifying campaigns off to a flying start today with Australia, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea all securing convincing wins.

But there were slow starts for two of the top Gulf teams, with Iran held to a disappointing goalless draw with part-timers Syria and Asian Cup holders Iraq sharing the points in their home Group One match with China.

Top-ranked Australia looked to have put last year's miserable Asian Cup debut behind them when they trounced Qatar 3-0 in Melbourne to make the early Group One headway, and Saudi Arabia set the pace in Group Five after beating Singapore 2-0 in Riyadh.

South Korea, Asia's most successful World Cup team, began their path towards their seventh successive finals with a 4-0 win over unfancied Turkmenistan, while Japan froze out their opponents from tropical Thailand with a 4-1 win in icy Saitama.

As the African Cup of Nations winds down, the winds of the soccer world shift to World Cup qualifying.

Did I mention I somehow want to make it to South Africa for the final game?

Before we head out, a word about the famed Busby Babes who tragically died 50 years ago today.

For those that don't know, the Babes were a group of Manchester United players who progressed from the club's youth team into the first team under Sir Matt Busby's management in the mid-1950's. They were notable not only for being young and gifted but for being developed by Manchester United, rather than bought from other clubs as was then in vogue.

Unfortunately, eight of the Babes died in an air disaster in Munich 1958. The accident took place 50 years ago today, February 6, 1958, when British Airways Flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at the Munich-Riem airport in Munich, West Germany after a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The plane had landed in Munich to refuel.

On board the plane was the Manchester United football team along with a number of supporters and journalists. Twenty-three of the 44 passengers on board the aircraft died in the crash.

It is one of the gravest disasters in football history and still haunts many people today. Pundits have always wondered what could have been had the Babes stayed together and matured under Busby.

Busby nearly died but survived and resumed managerial duties the following season. He eventually built a second generation of Busby Babes, including the legendary George Best and Denis Law. They went on to win the European Cup a decade after the disaster in 1968, beating Benfica in the Final. Crash survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes played for the 1968 team as well.

Our prayers go out to the survivors and perished today, the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

African Player of the Year Idiocy: Drogba? Kanoute?

A friend of mine suggested I inject more controversy into my blog this weekend. Well, how about this?

I think the Confederation of African Football (CAF) are shooting themselves in the foot over the awarding of the African Player of the Year award to Didier Drogba.

For those that don't know the story, let me summarize.

Star-striker Didier Drogba was supposedly told by members of the CAF that he'd won their prestigious African Player of the Year award this weekend. The award is voted on by national coaches from 53 African countries.

Unfortunately, Drogba couldn't attend the awards ceremony in Togo on Friday. He had more important issues to attend to. Namely, a quarterfinal match against Guinea in the African Cup of Nations in Ghana on Sunday.

"I was told if I didn't appear the rules would change and the prize would go to the runner-up," Drogba said.

The award did go to the runner-up, Mali striker Frederic Kanoute. No doubt Kanoute is a wonderful player. But Drogba had an excellent season. So the Chelsea striker and Ivorian captain decided to pull his name from all further contentions of the award.

"This attitude doesn't honor Africa so I've pulled out of future elections."

Drogba, who won the 2006 award, said it made no sense to have the awards ceremony in another country while such a high-profile African event was going on in Ghana.

"If I refused to go to Lome (in Togo) it was first for my team-mates, as you don't organise such an event just two days before a quarter-final," the Chelsea forward said.

"I didn't go as well because the son of Ulrich Stilieke (the former Ivory Coast coach) has died. We're all working for the African continent, there's a huge media presence in Ghana for a competition that was heavily criticised 10 years ago. So there comes a time when we all have to pull together."

Ivory Coast team spokesman Jean-Claude Djacus said, “CAF has brought itself into disrepute. They called Didier on the eve of the ceremony to tell him they would give the award to Kanoute if he did not come. Didier is now saying that he does not want to be part of the 2008 vote."

I couldn't agree more with Drogba.

How silly is it to have the awards ceremony take place in Togo while the Cup of Nations, the premier African footballing event, is happening in Ghana? While it's true that Tome is not far from Accra (about 118 miles away from my research), why have Drogba travel that distance a mere two days before an important quarterfinal?

Why not hold the ceremony in Accra or another city in Ghana to allow Drogba the chance to be present?

This is another example of the CAF shooting themselves in the foot. From my outsider perspective, it's almost as if the CAF wants to remain insular. The CAF doesn't care what the outside world thinks.

You'd imagine the CAF would want to give the award to their best player, not the runner-up. This isn't to say Kanoute isn't a wonderful player. I love watching him at Sevilla and rate him an efficient striker. I'm not trying to disrespect Kanoute. I'm just trying to say that he finished in 2nd place. The award should go to Didier. And Didier couldn't make it because he was preparing for an important match. How could the CAF do what they did?

Drogba is pure class, out-and-out one of the top 3 strikers in the world when on form. Why not promote this fine talent? Why snub him during your premier tournament?

This should be a time for celebration, not for dissension. Why put these players in this position?

Ghana midfielder Michael Essien took time out from preparing with Ghana for their Sunday quarter-final with Nigeria in nearby Accra to attend the dinner.

Initially he had been refused permission to go by Claude Le Roy, but the Ghana coach relented after pressure from Essien's team-mates.

Good that he came. But imagine if Ghana had lost. You think fans and pundits wouldn't call Essien selfish for going?

Can anyone blame Drogba for not going?

Shame on the CAF for blundering this awards ceremony.

Monday, February 4, 2008

And I Thought the Super Bowl Was a Big Deal: More Ghana-Nigeria

The Super Bowl was an amazing game for gridiron fans.
A story line of good vs. evil that couldn't be believed.

Still, this pales in comparison to the match-up that took place in Ghana on Sunday between Ghana and Nigeria.

Here, a taste from Jeff Klein of the New York Times' Goal blog about the fall out from Ghana's 2-1 victory over Nigeria.

There were two Super Bowls happening in the world on Sunday — the one in America with the Giants of gridiron football, and the one in Africa with the two giants of African football: Ghana vs. Nigeria. Both games were amazing.

No rivalry anywhere on the continent is as intense as the one between the Black Stars of Ghana and the Super Eagles of Nigeria, and when they met Sunday at a packed Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra, a berth in the African Cup semifinals was on the line. Nigeria went ahead 1-0, but Ghana rallied on goals from Chelsea’s Michael Essien and, while down a man, from Nottingham Forest’s Junior Agogo to beat the Super Eagles for only the second time in tournament history, 2-1. Highlights are here:

The victory was not only huge for Ghana in the tournament, it was huge in the Ghanaian imagination. As the Accra Daily Mail put it, “Wow!“, and within hours of the Black Stars’ triumph over their West African rivals, this song was cooked up (“These Nigerian suckas think they can come here and score, so we discipline them”). That was a response to this Nigerian joint, which was recorded before the game and told how “When Nigeria catch Ghana we go hammer them”.

As it turns out, it was the Super Eagles who got hammered, or, as The Guardian of Lagos put it, the Super Chickens.

Meanwhile back in Ghana the celebrations went on unabated. In Tamale, according to Ghana News Agency, citizens “of all ages went into joyful celebration with the noise pervading the air as though the people of Dagbon were celebrating their annual fire festival“, even as, elsewhere in the country, “Fans go gay in Sekondi”. Finally, if you think Ghanaian news organization are above gloating over knocking off Nigeria, have a look at this page and think again.

I tell you, I am falling in love with the majesty of the African game. It's intense on so many different levels than the European or even South American game is.

From my uneducated perspective, African football is on the verge of making a MAJOR breakthrough. I'm not saying a 2010 World Cup victory. But more fans will be more aware of the quality of this continent's football. It's right around the corner.

I hope I can shed even a small light on the beauty that is African soccer.

I Finally Saw a Match: Ghana-Nigeria

So after all this time writing about African football and my journey to the 2010 World Cup final, I finally got to see an African football match. And it didn't dissapoint.

Ghana-Nigeria was as good as it gets. Drama. Something on the line. Genuine antagonism. A boiling cauldron of a crowd. All the elements were there for a great football match. I can honestly say it was one of the better ones I've seen in some time.

I arrived early to grab a seat at my local football bar, Nevada Smith's. I figured many people wouldn't be there to watch the match, the bar being Irish and all. But I was wrong. By kickoff time, the place was jam-packed with Nigerians, Ghanaians and other fans curious to see the action. The place was hot and sweaty with anticipation.

The screen shots were poor. It was as if the game was being funneled to us from someone's iPhone. But the sound was excellent and we could hear the crowd pulsate with every neat ball flick and every near goal.

Here are some thoughts I jotted down from my first African football experience:

- There's loads of talent on both sides. This Nigerian striker Peter Odemwingie is quite good! Where does he play?

- Yakubu is not a good finisher. He had two good opportunities in the first half and fluffed them both.

- In the first half, Nigeria had opportunities but no real penetration. They played long-ball style, which to my untrained eye means they lack confidence in their midfield.

- A penalty! The throng at the bar exploded, so I didn't catch what he called. Was it a hand-ball? Yakubu finished that one, though. 1-0 to the Super Eagles.

- Ghana has loads of possession but no real shots to show for it.

- Strike my words! Goal by Essien! Beautiful header!

- It's a scrappy game, lots of hard fouls. It's clear these teams do not like each other.

- The Ghana goalie comes off his line to head a ball out of the offensive zone only to leave his net unattended. The ball comes in, the goalie runs back and *just* flicks the ball over the net. Great save!

- The 2nd half was much quicker, fast-paced and dramatic than the 1st half. They turned the engines on.

- Red card! A mental lapse or what some may call a 'professional foul' by Ghana captain Mensah. Ghana will need all their resolve to hold off Nigeria being down to 10 men.

- I can't say Ghana is playing for a draw. 10-man Ghana is still attacking with poise. They're being given loads of space by the Nigerian defense.

- The referee isn't very good. His personality is taking over the game.

- Ghana striker Agogo missed a sitter!

- Strike my words again! He scores a fabulous goal! The crowd goes wild in Ghana and at the bar! I am being doused with beer and hugged by strangers!!

- Who is down to 10 men here? Ghana look the better of the two.

- 89th minute and Nigeria is furiously battling for the equaliser. They're coming close!

- And it's over! Ghana are through!

What a game! What an atmosphere ... I really enjoyed my first-ever African football experience ... can't wait to see more!!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

This Guy Lived My Dream

Brian Furtig got to live one of my dreams.

While I sit here cutting and pasting articles about African football, all the while closed to watching the Cup of Nations (I will watch my first complete match tomorrow), Brian traveled around Ghana and got to experience the atmosphere of the Cup.

Frutig, a law student at William & Mary School of Law and a Chelsea FC season ticket holder who has lived in the United States and the United Kingdom, wrote a fan’s journal during the African Cup of Nations tournament.

He's back in the States today and in his New York Times blog post, shares his thoughts on his experiences in Ghana.

I want to be back in Africa, back in Ghana. Not here in Williamsburg, Va., trying to focus on the contours of probable cause with regard to the issuance of warrants and the definition of dependent relative revocation in Trusts and Estates law. Given the choice between my status quo reality and the next chapter of the African Cup of Nations…

Fortunately, the rhythmic drum beats, songs and smiles of Ghanaians remain at the front of my consciousness after 10 sometimes hectic days in Accra, Kumasi and Sekondi. Even memories of long, hot bus trips, inhaling dust while walking along side roads and fighting through misinformation concerning transportation and tickets are fond memories. How I wish I were still there, especially with the drama of the quarter-finals, which start Sunday.

Each game is surrounded by interesting questions: Will the injury to Kolo Toure make the Ivory Coast vulnerable? Will Guinea be competitive without Pascal Feinduono? Will Ghana be spurred on by the support of the nation, or will the team be burdened by the weight of expectation and fear of what will happen if the Black Starts fail? Will Cameroon continue to ride the goal scoring of Samuel Eto’o, or will unconvincing Tunisia continue to do just enough? Will Egypt play like the defending champions? Will Angola reflect their standing as the popular underdog and continue their dangerous and efficient attacking play with Manucho looking like Manchester United found a bargain?

The match of the quarterfinals is Ghana vs. Nigeria. This is the game that every Ghanaian I spoke with did not want – both because of the rivalry with Nigeria and the fact that the Super Eagles are a continental power. Furthermore, I got the feeling that Ghanaians do not think they match up very well with Nigeria. While Nigeria have been disjointed going forward, their defense has still been hard to beat – even against Ivory Coast - with Joseph Yobo bringing his formidable form from Everton.

Ghana, similarly, have been hard to beat at the back, but their strikers have been profligate to say the least. They looked more dangerous against Morocco with Michael Essien pushing forward, but many Ghanaians believe that to win, Gyan or Agogo will have to put one in the back of the net. Otherwise, the Black Stars will be rooted in a defensive struggle against a physically imposing Nigeria; any mistake could mean the game. The pressure in the stadium will ratchet up as the game goes on and I’m not sure which team will feel the pressure more.

Egypt vs. Angola in Kumasi is the next most interesting game of the quarterfinals. I watched Angola on TV in Ghana and they looked very dangerous in attack and very efficient in front of goal. Angola is a popular choice among Ghanaians, but the Angolans’ style might just play to the Pharaoh’s strengths. Egypt beat Cameroon on the counter-attack, soaking up pressure and releasing quickly through Mohammed Zidan, Hosni Abd Rabou, and Amr Zaki. Egypt’s defense of Fathallah, Fathi, Gomaa, and Moawad are ably protected by Mohamed Shawky and will require a creativity from Angola I did not see. Conversely, while Zidan went missing against Sudan and Zambia, he is at his clinical-best running at retreating defenses – something he does equally well for Hamburg in the Bundesliga. With Mohamed Aboutrikka and Ahmed Hassan in reserve, the defending champs may have too many weapons for Angola to defend against.

I would be extremely surprised if Ivory Coast has much of a problem with Guinea. Pascal Feinduono was far and away the best player for Guinea in the first two matches, with all attacking threat going through him. Whether as a play-maker or from free kicks, he was the engine that made Guinea go. Losing one of the best performers of the tournament clearly hurt Guinea against Namibia and will be felt even more against Ivory Coast – a team who displayed its ruthless streak against out-manned Benin. The ghosts of CAN 2006 haunt the Ivory Coast and the Elephants will not underestimate their opponent.

Cameroon vs. Tunisia in Tamale is the toughest game to predict. Cameroon was beaten quite decisively by Egypt, but have overwhelmed lesser opponents Sudan and Zambia. Coach Otto Pfister has been displeased with the team’s transportation to Tamale, lodging and practice times and facilities. On the other hand, it is unclear what to make of Tunisia. The parity of Group D led the Ghanaians that I spoke with to believe that this was the weakest group. Between Samuel Eto’o’s search for his record breaking goal and the support of Ghanaians against a team from North Africa, look for Cameroon to pull through.

The drama of the group stages was something to behold – but the real test of nerves begins now. As the national song says, “we go do or we go die.” I wish I were there to witness it and share the experience with Black Star Nation.

State of African Football

Today's BBC World Service's African sports program Fast Track featured three legends of the African game debating the state of African football before a live audience.

Host Komla Dumor spoke to Segun Odegbami, 1980 Cup of Nations winner with Nigeria (nicknamed "Mathematical", for his precision in front of goal), Ghanaian three-time African Footballer of the Year Abedi Pele and Zambia's Kalusha Bwalya (pictured, left), who captained his team to the runners-up spot in 1994.

Here's some of their discussion as it took place today ...


Odegbami: "The game is more technical now, but we had some terrific individual players in those days. I think there's too much passing in the game these days and that buries individual expressiveness on the ball. I see us lamenting the absence of so many of yesterday's stars, like Jay Jay Okocha (Nigeria) and Kalusha Bwalya."

Abedi Pele: "He's said it all. There were greater players before, I don't believe that technically the players of today are better than us. But Africa is showcasing itself on the continent and globally, and things are changing for the best."

Bwalya: "The game has come very far, and we're glad for that. The platform was set by the older players. Like types of cars change, we are the old models and they are the new models, a new generation of African players."


Bwalya: "Just reaching the Nations Cup finals used to be an achievement, there used to be only eight teams that qualified. Then of course, losing the 1994 final to Nigeria is my greatest memory, after the team died off the coast of Gabon a year before. We rebuilt the team and came back."

Abedi Pele: "Good memories or bad ones? My worst memory is watching my team-mates lose the 1992 final on penalties to Ivory Coast, when I was suspended. The best is from 1982, when I was just 17. I tormented the Tunisia defence and dribbled from our 18-yard area to theirs and gave a pass for a goal."

Odegbami: "It must be 1978. You know, we Nigerians like to beat Ghana! Ghana had a very big reputation then, but I was given so much respect and I did whatever I liked on the field, and I scored. Then of course, winning the 1980 Nations Cup - we almost walked through the tournament."


Odegbami: "Mohammed Polo, Abdul Razak (both Ghana) and Philip Omondi (Uganda) were all great. Then if you want a demonstration of how to play central midfield, Adolf Armah of Ghana is one of the greatest footballers I've ever seen."

Abedi Pele: "I remember watching Segun Odegbami and Philip Omondi back in 1978 when I was 12 years old, and I was amazed. Then there was Tarek Diab of Tunisia, a magician. But there are too many to mention, Africa is blessed with so much talent and we're going to make it big in the future."

Bwalya: "Just to mention one of today's legends, Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon is the quintessential striker. He's supremely confident and his Nations Cup scoring record justifies his place in history. And it's a pity that Stephen Appiah of Ghana hasn't been playing here."


Bwalya: "The future is in our own hands, it's our responsibility as we develop football. The calibre of foreign coaches is important, they have to be able to add something and understand the culture. But I think that sometimes in Africa we have little patience with our own coaches, and also our coaches can be unprepared to learn, and to do coaching courses."

Odegbami: "I disagree a little, I think that our administrators don't respect African coaches, so the great players don't want to coach, and the game loses. These players, the likes of Stephen Keshi of Nigeria can take African football to great heights."

Friday, February 1, 2008

Super Sunday: Ghana v. Nigeria

This weekend sees the traditional American holiday known as 'Super Sunday'.

It's not a true holiday, but in every sense of the word, the Super Bowl has become a veritable celebration in American culture. The American football championship is amplified even more for me personally, as I'm in New York City and the New York Giants (who actually play in the neighboring state, New Jersey ... don't ask) are in the game.

Huge game. Big celebration. Lots at stake.

But if you're a soccer fan, there's another monster fixture on the schedule: Ghana v. Nigeria in the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations.

Being an African football amateur, I'm not sure of the history and drama behind this game.

To better explain the significance, I hand the reigns of this blog over to the BBC's Farayi Mungazi, who has a much wider perspective on this tie.

Should be a spicy sports day for us football fans, both soccer and gridiron aficionados. Can't wait!

African football has over the years served up its fair share of compelling rivalries, but Ghana versus Nigeria outshines them all.

These two nations just love to knock the living daylights out of each other (in anything), but more so on a football pitch.

In my opinion, their rivalry is the one by which all others are measured and the Africa Cup of Nations will heat up on Sunday when they collide in a quarter-final tie in Accra.

As one Ghanaian journalist put it on TV the other day, "this is the only game that matters to every Ghanaian".

There is, indeed, something tasty about a confrontation between these two West African neighbours - particularly at the Nations Cup – where more than bragging rights is at stake.

“We Nigerians just love to beat Ghana even though they taught us the game in the first place,” said Segun Odegbami, a member of Nigeria’s 1980 Nations Cup winning side.

We can argue endlessly about the football pedigrees of these two arch-rivals but there can be no question about the interest and passion this fixture invokes in both countries.

So, come Sunday, fans in both countries will decorate their faces, put on their national colours and perform whatever rituals needed to spur their teams to victory.

There is no bad blood between Ghanaians and Nigerians – just a deep-rooted desire to be regarded as both the regional and continental top dogs.

There is an element of respect to this rivalry, though, with Nigeria envying Ghana’s four Nations Cup titles and Ghana envying the success of Nigerian players abroad.

Sunday will not be the first time these two teams have met at the Nations Cup – they have confronted each other five times at African football’s flagship tournament.

Their last meeting was as recent as the 2006 finals in Egypt where the Super Eagles won 1-0 in the group stage, to add to their previous victories in 1984 and 2002.

Ghana’s only win came at the 1992 finals, courtesy of a magical goal from Abedi Pele, but the Black Stars have not beaten their rivals in a competitive fixture since.

Not surprisingly, I have lost count of the number of Nigerians who gleefully point out that “history is against Ghana” going into Sunday’s showdown at the Ohene Djan stadium.

Overall, the two teams have met 59 times. Ghana lead with 24 wins to Nigeria’s 16, with the other 19 matches ending in draws.

That said, there is no point in denying the fact that the 60th confrontation sees the Black Stars take on a Nigerian side that looked extremely vulnerable in their group campaign.

But one cannot help having the impression that despite their woeful form thus far, the Super Eagles are still capable of turning this Nations Cup on its head.