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More Ruminations On Cup Of Nations - 2004-03-26


A few weeks ago I promised to return with some final ruminations on this past February's prestigious Cup of Nations tournament contested in Tunisia. Now where was I....

Oh yes, I wound up that initial look at the tournament by asking for your good wishes in my ongoing quest to wrest that all elusive chicken soup recipe from the steadfast mental clutches of my Mom, the 92 year old chicken soup lady. Despite all your best efforts that recipe remains securely locked in my Mom's steel trap of a mind. But rest assured that my skullduggery continues undaunted!

What all too few people worldwide witnessed at those Tunisian venues was the interesting and never ending blend of the old and the new -- players ready to exit the on field stage of their careers with others using such a highly-regarded tournament to begin stamping their individual indelible imprints on the game.

Then there are those luminaries who, at the peak of their talents, added extra luster and style to the tournament through their very presence on the pitch.

If before the tournament I had predicted that non-pareil Senegalese striker El Hadji Diouf would be among those not living up to advance billing Da Ole Emperor would have been accused of losing his regal mind. And who would have blamed you?

After all, this two-time defending African Footballer of the Year was seemingly at the pinnacle of his game. Diouf's talents had landed him a highly lucrative contract with English Premier League side Liverpool where he was expected to match skills up front with the likes of Australian midfielder Harry Kewell and striker Michael Owen. And, along the way, Diouf had managed to become a household name the length and breadth of the African continent.

So much expected, so little realized. In fact, so poor was Diouf's performance that he had many commentators predicting his rapid demise as a top-flight go-to player. Very harsh indeed, with the truth possibly lying part way in between if, indeed, his performance in Tunisia was a true indicator.

Diouf's problem seemed to be as much mental as eroding physical skills. He seemed arrogantly unaware that football is first and foremost a team sport. This attitude has not only put him at odds with teammates but, as importantly, with officials.

All this pent up bad blood came boiling to a head in Senegal's quarterfinal defeat to Tunisia. I won't go into the petulant details. But it's enough to say that Diouf disgraced himself to the point where he's been suspended for Senegal's next four World Cup and African Cup qualifying matches. And to paraphrase an advertising commercial here in Australia: "Not good, El Haji, not good indeed!"

Possibly one of the main indicators that the Senegalese striker's considerable skills might be on the wane was his non-inclusion on the list of contenders for this year's version of Africa's most prestigious individual football honor.

Another player failing to live up to his advanced billing was Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o. But there are those who are willing to overlook the twenty two year old striker's lack of production. After all, they note, Eto'o was under growing intense pressure as he tried to single handedly lift the fortunes of a Cameroon team that entered the tournament either over confident or under prepared. In hindsight, it may well have been a combination thereof that proved Cameroon's undoing in their failed attempt to become the first nation to win three straight African Cups and five overall.

Then there were those either living up to or even exceeding advanced billing. One such player was veteran Nigerian international, Augustine "Jay Jay" Okocha who, like fine wine, seems to only get better with advancing age.

The thirty-year-old Bolton Wanderers star continued to raise eyebrows with his scintillating and always innovative play. In fact, I've been told by eyewitnesses that they've never seen Jay Jay play better.

And is most generally the case, this stellar performance was punctuated with four strategically scored goals, the last coming in Nigeria's two-one victory over Mali to secure third place in the tournament.

Okocha was the undoubted star of the match. Not only did he toy with an increasingly frustrated Malian defense, Okocha scored on a twenty five meter cannon shot of a free kick in the seventeenth minute.

Far from finished, Okocha then set up what proved to be the winning goal just minutes after half time. Employing one of his many strengths, Okocha deftly crossed on to the head of young striker Osaze Odemwingie who did the rest.

Okocha's four-goal tally during the tournament won him the prestigious golden boot award. But he was not through yet, capturing five others as well, including the tournament's best footballer and the most valuable player award.

Among Jay Jay's goals was the one thousandth scored during the tournament, dating back to 1957 when yours truly was a mere junior emperor of sixteen!

And to answer the question being asked by many of you, the Cup of Nations' very first goal was scored by Egypt's Raafat from the penalty spot against Sudan on February 10th, 1957 in Khartoum.

Then forty-seven years later there were the young Turks on the rise and looking to make an even bigger name for themselves on the international scene. Readily admitting that I only got to see snippets of several matches, I did see enough to predict a bright future for the likes of Algeria's left back Yahia Anther, Pascal Feindouno of Guinea and Kenya's Dennis Oliech.

It's doubly gratifying to be able to mention Oliech as a rising star as he represents somewhat of a renaissance in the football fortunes for that once dominant East African nation. When African football was first emerging as a force to be reckoned with, Kenya was one of those nations leading the way, sending several highly talented players on to successful international careers in the process.

Since those halcyon days, Kenyan football fortunes had fallen on hard times before a complete restructuring of its on and off pitch philosophy has it on the path back to past glory.

For his part, Oliech's power on and off the ball and his gifted ability to score have caught the attention of football scouts in both England and France. And I'm told the English represent teams in the very highest echelons of the sport there, the Premier League. High praise indeed!

Guinea's Feindouno currently plays for French club Bordeaux. But the consensus is that once the twenty two year old polishes his considerable skills he will probably have a new postal address elsewhere on the continent -- an address in a city housing a much higher profile club.

I've named three potential stars but that's by no means the complete list. It's safe to say that each and every team making it to this year's tournament in Tunisia did so employing an effective blend of seasoned veterans sprinkled with irrepressible youth that must and should be served.

Once again, the 2004 version of the Cup of Nations tournament has served its purpose. It has given aging players one last chance to prove they can still cut it at Africa's highest level and in doing so prolong their careers.

For the established stars like Jay Jay Okocha, the tournament provided yet another world stage for them to show off their considerable skills. But in the case of the Nigerian midfielder there was a double motivation.

Okocha is locked in a three-way battle for the 2003 African Footballer of the Year Award. The other finalists are Ivorian striker Didier Drogba and the aforementioned Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon who'd rather forget his exploits, or the lack thereof, in Tunisia.

However, the tournament's generally high level of play cuts both ways. Devastatingly cruel, any erosion of skills and talent is exposed mercilessly, as evidenced in the case of Senegalese ace, El Haji Diouf.

In the case of the youngsters, like Oliech, Anther and Feindouno, such a tournament provides a world stage to impress not only the thousands upon thousands of paying customers but the hundreds of talent scouts with ties to every major club worldwide.

Individually, the 2004 Cup of Nations tournament proved a crossroads of sorts for each player taking part. For Africa, Tunisia 2004 proved, yet again, that the continental standard of expertise is advancing ever onwards and upwards.

And for those fortunate to enough to have watched the matches in person or via television, the tournament proved one thing clear: Africa's diverse but uniformly excellent brand of football, if managed with increased care, diligence and authority, could be ready for ultimate success at the next level. And we all know what that level is!

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