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Africa's Football Showcase - 2004-03-02

Well the 24th Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Tunisia is now history. And with only few exceptions, what a scintillating three weeks of football was provided by Africa's most prestigious tournament. But, most unfortunately, all those thirty two mostly memorable matches went unseen and, for the most part, unnoticed and thus unappreciated by a great portion of the world's football-mad populace.

In fact, only those football aficionados in North and South America, Asia, Australia and elsewhere fortunate enough to possess the necessary cable or satellite paraphernalia got the pleasure of appreciating lovely attacking football.

I realize the football universe is still centered squarely and securely in Europe and, to a lesser degree, South America. But surely the football bosses at FIFA's world headquarters outside of Zurich, Switzerland, should at long last be getting the message. That message has never been more true: no matter how popular the sport of football is at the moment it needs continuing infusions of the positive attacking and mostly attractive style of play offered first by South America and now so successfully emulated by African nations south of the Sahara.

The continent's generally accepted geographic exception is North Africa where powerhouse nations such as Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia shut things down tighter than the proverbial drum in close affairs and even more so if and when they get their noses in front. But as the Nigerians learned bitterly in their world cup match against Italy in the American city of Foxboro, Massachusetts, the bottom line of the North African football philosophy is winning matches, not entertaining the crowd. In fact, that heart-breaking Nigerian two-one loss to the Italians only served to cement my long held suspicions that some African teams would almost rather lose gloriously with elegance, than win dourly without style or panache.

Strutting one's stuff out on the pitch may win the plaudits of fans but it doesn't always translate into wins, unless you're Brazil of course! But say what we will about the oft-times dour nature of North African football, it's hard to argue against their success down through the years. And Tunisia prevailing two-one over Morocco in the 2004 final played in Tunis being only the latest example. In fact, the Tunisian victory marks the seventh time a North African team has lifted the prestigious trophy, Egypt earning the honor a record-tying four times, with Algeria, Morocco and now Tunisia winning once each.

I won't try to fool you into thinking Da Ole Sports Emperor was fortunate enough to actually be in Tunisia to witness some of the matches in person. I was not so lucky. But I did see enough snippets and portions of matches to get a general feel for the skill level involved.

Then there were the reports from our very own "Da Sonny Man", other non-VOA sports personalities, CAF's highly informative website plus print coverage of the event. Thanks to these various sources I was kept fully up to date with all sundry news and assessments, on and off the pitch. And discounting the usual gripes and grumbles concerning organization, general conditions, etc. there emerged general agreement that the quality of play was of an overall high standard.

And which match could have epitomized that excellence better than the semi-final duel in the desert between the hosts and perennial powerhouse, Nigeria. Watching key parts of the match gave substance to the old cliché about neither team deserving to lose. It was like watching a Ali-Frazier boxing match, most notably "The Thrilla in Manila." Punches given and taken freely and often.

Even when adopting Tunisia's careful approach to game management and control plus close marking on and off the ball, Nigeria nonetheless managed to still play solid attractive football. As befits their style, the Tunisians were forced out of their cautious shell shortly after the break when Nigeria's main man Jay-Jay Okocha calmly scored from the penalty spot after a foul to Nwankwo Kano.

Spurred into action, the Tunisians surged forward and eight minutes from full time were rewarded with their own penalty kick scored by Khaled Badra. Then it was "batten down the hatches" time for both teams, each preferring its chances in the thirty minute overtime period. But then there was no petrol left in either tank, with both teams apparently leaving it all on the pitch in regulation time -- thus necessitating the dreaded penalties.

Yes I readily admit that I would have preferred Nigeria to run out the winners. But that disappointment only reinforces my utter loathing of the so-called penalty shootout.

I consider the entire exercise to be, at worst, a travesty and, at best, unfair. To decide two hours of laborious work that way is not football, not to this observer and fan at least.

You ask what I'd do instead? It's a no brainer! I'd let them play on until attrition and conditioning (or the lack thereof) won or lost the day. Let the match be decided through the run of play, rather than kowtowing to schedules or the whims of advertising executives. After all, when push comes to shove, the bean counters care more about the bottom line rather than the game's integrity. And I say that without fear of contradiction or retraction!

Anyway, back to, in my mind at least, the match of the tournament....

So now all that needed to be done was to kick the penalties. And with the penalties two-one in Tunisia's favor, the home side's goalkeeper made the save of his career and the Tunisians ran out deserved winners, five-three.

After such a thrilling victory over their main threat, who would have bet against the Tunisians winning it all which they subsequently did.

But Africa's crown jewel of football deserves more than one article, even from Da Ole Emperor. So look for another retrospective on Tunisia 2004 in just a few weeks. But for now I'm off to try and weedle that now famous chicken soup recipe out of my 92 year old mother who still steadfastly refuses to reveal that well guarded secret. Wish me luck 'cause I'll most certainly need it!