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“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bafana’s Afcon date with destiny

Africa Cup of Nations 2013
Let the Games begin

After months of anticipation the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in earnest this evening at Soccer City when hosts South Africa face Cape Verde.

It’s a game of significance.

For Bafana Bafana the encounter represents the first real test for newly-appointed coach Gordon Igesund, as well as a gauge of how the tournament will unfold for the hosts. Whereas as in 1996 a sense of excitement engulfed the country this time around there’s a sense of foreboding, an unsure public and even indifference in certain quarters.

The group draw and Bafana’s recent underachievement have contributed to this state of affairs.

The general feeling since October’s draw has been South Africa has an easy group. That, though, couldn’t be further from the truth; Cape Verde, Morocco and Angola represent a stern test for a Bafana team trying to avoid crashing out in the first round of two consecutive tournaments, as hosts.

South Africa, meanwhile, go into the tournament ranked 84th in the world and under their seventh coach since 2006.

In the opposite corner the hosts face an opponent primed to cause an upset.

Indeed, in many ways Cape Verde are as tricky an opening opponent Bafana could have had. The small West Africa island nation has been one of the continent’s recent success stories, rising more than 40 places (111th to 70th) in Fifa’s world rankings over a four-year period.

Calling Cape Verde minnows would be to disregard the progress they’ve made over the past five years and the talent the Blue Sharks have assembled in that time, spearheaded by 21-year-old striker Djaniny Semedo and 23 year-old Ryan Mendes who plays for Lille in France. Underestimating Cape Verde would be to forget their 7-1 hammering of Madagascar and 3-2 aggregate victory over four-time champions Cameroon to get here.

Bafana’s next opponents, Morocco, aren’t any easier. The Atlas Lions have benefitted greatly from Fifa’s revised naturalisation laws and boast a squad brim-full with Europe-groomed players.

They have a talented, albeit volatile, team and were one of the most enterprising teams at the last year’s Afcon. As it was Morocco were unable to turn their play into wins, nevertheless the conditions in South Africa are certainly going to be more conducive to their style.

Angola’s defensive approach probably makes them the most manageable opponent in the group for South Africa. However, a Bafana team chasing a result could easily get burned by a Palancas side efficient on the counterattack and led by Valladolid hotshot striker Manucho.

It’s imperative, therefore, that Bafana get off a good start this evening against Cape Verde. Recent form under Igesund offers some of hope. A narrow loss to Brazil in August marked the start of Igesund’s tenure and Bafana showed the doggedness his teams have been famous for.

The hosts will need spades of that tenacity because this will be a tough group, one South Africa will do well to get out of.

This, in all, is the most open Nations Cup in some time. African football has in itself become less predictable and more of an open field over the years, but the fact this tournament is in South Africa makes it even more unpredictable.
Yaya Toure leads the Ivory Coast charge
This is because of the conditions and facilities teams will enjoy in South Africa. Usually one is able to count out certain nations because the tournament is held in a certain region. 

If it’s in North Africa, for instance, you can generally count out West African teams – and vice versa – as history has indeed proved. However, conditions in South Africa are most similar to Europe where the majority of the top players at this Nations Cup ply their trade. Good pitches, fair conditions and great facilities, that’s South Africa.

Looking back at the 1996 Afcon (in South Africa) Zambia, Tunisia, Ghana and South Africa were the semi-finalists, countries from different regions of the continent. Compare and contrast to last year’s Afcon in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon where three of the last four were from West Africa, with Zambia the surprise outsider.

We are likely to see an Afcon tournament that will reward technique and possession-based football more than most, and this could stand the hosts in good stead. Ball-playing sides such as Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria will benefit as well.

That said, the South Africa’s all-embracing conditions make the tournament open to any type of well-executed plan. Physical ability, as always at the Afcon, will also be rewarded. So in this sense Nigeria, for example, also has good possibilities. This will be a very quick Nigeria team, exceptionally physical and athletic – a seemingly deliberate throwback to Stephen Keshi’s time as a player.

This is why when running the rule over this year’s contenders it’s difficult to really pick a clear favourite.  Ghana are coming off a good series of preparatory games including a convincing win over Egypt and, as shown at the 2010 World Cup, they’ll enjoy local conditions. Similar can be said of Ivory Coast who collapsed physically in defeats to Egypt and Algeria in Ghana (2008) and Angola (2010).

Defending champions Zambia will be thereabouts as well with their fluid football and champions’ confidence.

All said, this should be one of the best Nations Cups because there are few excuses for the participants, wonderful weather, fantastic facilities – super conditions. Let the Games begin.


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