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Monday, 7 June 2010

Africa unlikely to blow their own trumpets

“Oh Africa” indeed. Akon may well have been bemoaning the bad luck that has cursed the continent in the lead up to the World Cup. And Didier Drogba may just be wishing that the fanciful idea of a pitch being made up of spectators in that shite Pepsi advert were true. It is sad to say the least that the first World Cup on African soil sees the continent in perhaps its worst shape for years coming into the tournament. High hopes have been dented by injuries to Africa’s two best players – Michael Essien and Drogba (who may just recover from a fractured arm in time for the Portugal game next week). Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel is also going to be missing from the finals. These great expectations were already spoilt by the tough draws facing the African nations, with the most talented side, Ivory Coast, pitted yet again in a group of death, this time with Brazil and Portugal when four years ago it was Argentina and Holland blocking their hopes of progress. Indeed, Africa’s official best team, Egypt, didn’t even qualify. Hugely impressive in the African Nations back at the start of 2010, had Egypt qualified and been handed a place in, say, Groups C, F or H, it doesn’t take such a leap of imagination to picture them reaching the knockouts. Then there is the man in the pram, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, who seems more preoccupied with throwing his toys at Roger Milla than adding to his phenomenal international goals tally of 44.

The scenario of no African sides making the last 16 is a very real possibility. Here’s why: as mentioned, the Ivory Coast are in an incredibly tough group. They meet a Brazil side which is built in its manager’s image. Dunga has fashioned a ruthlessly efficient outfit which is built on a solid defence featuring world-class performers Julio Cesar and Inter teammates Lucio and Maicon. But nevertheless, its proficiency on the counter attack will be more than a worry to a relatively dodgy Ivorian defence and goalkeeper. Kolo Toure will need to step up. That said, Arthur Boka and Emmanuel Eboue will be looking to attack at the earliest opportunity and are real threats going forward. Yaya Toure and Didier Zakora will provide an impressive safety net and an on song (and hopefully fit) Didier Drogba is one of the best strikers in the world. Supported by Salomon Kalou and Lille’s Gervinho, the attack is potentially lethal. If the Ivory Coast are to progress, the Portugal game is absolutely crucial. The Portuguese yet again ride in on their impressive dark steed, with a squad brimming with talent. The margin for error will be slight, as the Elephants found out to their cost four years ago, being on the wrong end of 2-1 scorelines against first the Argentines and then the Dutch. On the back of a phenomenal golden boot winning season, the importance therefore of Drogba cannot be overstated. On the plus side, manager Sven Goran Eriksson has a history of getting sides to the quarter finals.

Cameroon’s hopes rest more so on the shoulders of their talismanic front man. Now, Samuel Eto’o’s pedigree as a thoroughbred is best backed up by stats: a return of 108 goals in 145 games for Barcelona. Jose Mourinho did a great impression of a cat burglar when he shipped off Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Catalonia and received Eto’o and a staggering €46m. At the San Siro, Eto’o learned the art of altruism from his Portuguese boss as he laboured unlike he had ever had to do before. But a reversion to type will be needed for the 29-year-old if his country is to have any hope of reaching the knockouts. Alex Song and Stephane Mbia will form a very effective defensive shield in front of a defence that boasts Spurs defenders Sebastien Bassong and Benoît Assou-Ekotto, as well as the best African keeper, Idriss Carlos Kameni. Achille Emana is the wild card. The Real Betis midfielder is electrifying on his day, but has just spent a season in the Spanish second flight. Fighting off the attentions of Denmark and Japan to follow the Dutch through to last 16 will be difficult but is doable. It is a fairly favourable draw but the Lions will have to live up to their indomitable nickname.

Perhaps the biggest slice of the bad luck cake was chewed off by the Ghanaians when Michael Essien was finally ruled out of the World Cup after months fighting to get fit. Essien’s loss is huge and Ghana are certainly no Chelsea. His more attacking role with the national team will mean that the onus to provide thrust will fall to lesser mortals such as Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng. And those remembering the big strapping battering ram Stephen Appiah’s former glory may be a little disappointed with the 2010 model, wracked as he is by injuries. Goals are going to be hard to come by – Rennes striker Asamoah Gyan will need a big tournament – and edging past Germany, Serbia and Australia is probably going to be a step too far for the Black Stars. That said, Germany are sufficiently weakened by the injury that rules out Micheal ‘professional fouler and very good international footballer lest we forget’ Ballack, while the Serbs, promising in qualifying, contrived to lose to New Zealand a few weeks ago.

Nigeria are evidently weakened by Mikel’s departure from the squad. Argentina aside, they are in a group they should realistically hope to get out of, pitting their wits against South Korea and Greece. On their day, Yakubu Ayegbeni and Obafemi Martins could be a lethal combination. But for ‘on their day’, read ‘probably not going to happen but…’ With Mikel you’d have fancied them. Without, it will be a struggle. The squad is littered with average players at every turn. The heady heights of France ’98 and that beautiful victory against Spain seems too long ago.

Which leads me to another African squad full of average players but this time, more than the sum of their parts, certainly. It was Algeria that put out Africa’s Best TeamTM Egypt in a play off. Come January this year, that victory looked more and more like a watershed moment for the Algerians as Egypt gained their revenge with a brutal 4-0 thrashing in the African Nations semi finals. With England and the US in their group, Algeria’s fate undoubtedly hinges on getting off to a flying start against Slovenia in their first game. Madjid Bougherra will need to be at his inspirational best but the omens don’t look too good.

And then we come to the hosts. It would be cruel – but perhaps true – to suggest that in football terms, they are in fact the worst World Cup hosts ever. No host nation has never not made it to the round of 16. This year, that is in danger of becoming a redundant fact. However, if last year’s Confederations Cup is a marker, the incessant, mind-numbing buzz of the vuvuzela may just propel them along to the knockouts. Everton’s much-admired Steven Pienaar is the star man, while an unorthodox goal threat is offered by the gigantic figure of the exotically-named centre back Matthew Booth. While a group containing France, Mexico and Uruguay is not remarkable, it also poses its fair share of problems. France, as pedestrian (read: appalling) as their recent form may be, do boast a very talented squad, while the Mexicans play a fluent attacking brand of football and were unlucky to lose to England recently. Uruguay too will be hard to overcome, with Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez combining to offer a potent threat.

While it might seem a little unfair to tar an entire continent with the ‘too many injuries, no chance’ brush, this does unfortunately appear to be the African nations’ destiny. Their losses are akin to Europe turning up without Rooney, Ronaldo and Spain, or South America turning up without Messi and Lucio. What they will need, to stand any chance of progression beyond their respective groups, is for all their players, not just the superstars to come to play. The fervent support is there, as is the grandest stage of all. No one wants to wake up after this vuvuzela-fuelled party with only a blinding headache and lots of plastic to recycle. Adam Bushby

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