Thursday, January 10, 2008

The African Cup of Nations: Group A

It’s time for that bi-annual event called the African Cup of Nations or the African Cup or the African National Cup or, as it is known in England, the “Bi-Annual How Soon Until My Favorite African-Born Player Returns to My Favorite English Premier League Team* a/k/a the Bi-Annual Excuse for Why Fat Sam and Harry Redknapp’s Team Is Under-Performing.” What do you need to know about the, uh, African Cup? Most importantly, it is held in the middle of European leagues’ fixture schedule. This wouldn’t be a big deal if, as all seven fans of Major League Soccer would tell you, Europe followed the MLS schedule. But, for some reason European leagues insist on playing through the winter. European leagues have shown no desire to re-arrange their schedule to accommodate the African Cup. And, no, the African Cup can't be re-scheduled for the summer because everyone knows that's monsoon season.

* Unless you support Man U, Liverpool, Man City, Aston Villa or any number of other English teams that won’t lose any important players to the Cup. And no Mohamed Sissoko doesn’t count. Racists.

But the African Cup of Nations is, after all, a competition with teams and players and winners and losers. It’s been held every two years since 1957. The host nation has won the past two competitions (Tunisia in 2004 and Egypt in 2006), making this year’s host Ghana the favorite to hoist the trophy. On a somewhat serious note (sorry!), for all the annoyance that the African National Cup causes to European club managers, it does give African players a chance to try out for European clubs. And then there are all of those nationalistic reasons, what with Africa having a billion people (I looked it up!). In other words, football isn’t all about the dollars and cents, and the pounds and pence.

With this preamble out of the way, here’s part one of a four part series running down the sixteen teams that comprise this year’s Cup, starting with Group A:


Key Players: Michael Essien (Chelsea), Sulley Muntari (Portsmouth), Stephen Appiah (Fenerbahce), John Paintsil (West Ham), John Mensah (Rennes)

As previously mentioned, Ghana are the host nation and the clear favorite to win the Cup. The Black Stars were dealt a blow when captain Stephen Appiah suffered a knee injury. Yet, Appiah was still placed on the team’s roster for motivational reasons by manager Claude Le Roy (who looks like the love child of Peter Gammons and an oven mitt):

Could there be a proverbial Willis Reed moment for Appiah in the knockout stages? If not, Ghana is still loaded with tons of talent, especially in midfield with the powerhouse duo of Essian and Muntari. The Black Stars are a very strong team, as evidenced by their good showing at the 2006 World Cup, and they will have a powerful home-turf advantage.

Key Players: Youssef Hadji (AS Nancy), Badr El Kaddouri (Dinamo Kiev),

The Atlas Lions last made it to the finals of the African Cup in 2004, losing to hosts Tunisia. They have long been one of the stronger African sides, although have also been long inconsistent. Of course, the team instead blames poor refereeing for their exits from the 2006 World Cup qualifiers and from the 2006 African Cup. In their favor, Morrocco will be fielding pretty much the same squad as have appeared during the past few years. As long as they can make a decent showing against Ghana and hold their own against Guinea and Nigeria, the Atlas Lions will likely be in the knockouts.

Key Players: Bobo Balde (Celtic), Pascal Feindouno (AS Saint-Etienne)

Even though Guinea has never qualified for the World Cup, the nation has a long tradition of football success especially in the 1970s.

All you Reds faithful (Red faithfuls?) will surely remember Guinean national Titi Camara who scored a goal for Liverpool on the day his father died. Of course, this was in 1999, and Camara was sold to West Ham in the off-season where he is generally considered one of their worst signings ever. But Liverpudians are sentimental and they still hold a place in their hearts for Titi – that place being somewhat close to their love of robbin’ wif der mates.

And then there is the sad story of Ousmane Bangoura, the midfielder who was part of the Guinean national team until he had his eyeball ruptured in a Chinese Super League match in 2006.

Guinea's Bangoura blinded

As for this year’s crop, although Guinea reached the quarter-finals of the African Cup in 2006, they now have a combination of older players and younger, inexperienced players. Many -- and by many I mean phantom people on the Internets -- were surprised that Kaba Diawara (former Arsenal), Sambegou Bangoura and Ibrahima Yattara, all reasonably talented attacking players, were omitted from the team omitted. In this case, manager Robert Nouzaret is going to war with the army he wants, not with the army he has. Guinea will nonetheless likely struggle to make it past Ghana and Morocco into the knockout stage.


Key Players: Collin Benjamin (Hamburg)

Namibia are the perennial “just happy to be here” team in Group A, this being only their second appearance in the African Cup of Nations. To make things worse, the Brave Warriors’ beloved manager Ben Bamfuchile passed away just before the new year. Plenty of adversity for Namibia, then.

Enough pseudo-punditry from the so-called experts for now. Coming up in parts 2, 3 and 4.....

Group B: Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Benin
Group C: Egypt, Cameroon, Sudan, Zambia
Group D: Tunisia, Senegal, South Africa, Angola

1 comment:

The Fan's Attic said...

Claude Le Roy looks like Martina Navratilova.