AFRICAN CUP OF NATIONS

FOX Soccer Exclusive

Stars and egos out, unity gets wins

Nigeria will face Mali in the African Cup of Nations semifinals.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA

Over the past decade a clear template has emerged for success at the Cup of Nations. When Egypt won three tournaments in a row with a squad drawn almost entirely from the domestic league, it was assumed that it was simply benefiting from a fine generation of players, but other teams have begun to have success with a similar model. Stars are out and discipline and team ethic have become the defining features of the best teams.

When the then Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac fined Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien and Asamoah Gyan for skipping a friendly against Angola ahead of the 2010 Nations Cup, many thought he was fighting a losing battle. But Rajevac stayed strong and, when Muntari refused to pay, he left him out of the squad for the tournament in Angola. With a young side drawing several members from the team that had won the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt a year earlier, Ghana was highly impressive, reaching the final in which it lost to the Egyptians. That side then formed the basis of the team that, later that year, came within a Luis Suarez handball of becoming the first African side ever to reach the semi-final of the World Cup.

Last year, Zambia won the tournament with a team that included just one player, Emmanuel Mayuka, who played for a top-flight side in Europe. The bulk of the squad played their domestic football in Zambia, South Africa or DR Congo; there were no stars but a team playing to the tactical plan of the coach, Herve Renard.

The trend has continued this year. The Ghana coach, James Kwesi Appiah, fell out with Dede Ayew last year after he reacted badly to being substituted in a qualifier against Malawi and, when the Marseille winger missed a deadline to report to a training camp to have a hamstring injury assessed, he dropped him from the squad. Ayew, perhaps not insignificantly, has not been inconvenienced enough by his injury to miss a single minute for Marseille since the French league resumed after the winter break. Perhaps his invention will be missed - Ghana, after all, has rather staggered through to the semi-final, impressing only against a Niger side that has lost five of its six games in Cup of Nations finals – but at least there is a sense of unity and togetherness.

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The Black Stars face Burkina Faso in Wednesday’s semi-final. The loss of Alain Traore to a thigh injury has blunted Paul Put’s side but it was still disciplined enough in its quarter-final against Togo to keep a clean sheet and win 1-0 after extra-time. That it has let in just one goal in the tournament so far – against Nigeria in its opening game – and gone 367 minutes without conceding, indicates a defensive solidity that makes it far from a pushover for Ghana.

Perhaps most striking, though, is Nigeria. The Super Eagles are traditionally racked by infighting, with press and players and government ministers all thinking they know best, the coach essentially there is as a useful scapegoat to be sacrificed when things go wrong, as they inevitably do. This time, though, in Stephen Keshi, Nigeria seem to have a coach though enough and single-minded enough to resist the pressure and to impose his will and vision on the team even as the sports minister Bolaji Abudullahi reportedly tried to depose him.

Keshi was captain last time Nigeria won the Nations Cup in 1994 and he sees some of the spirit of that side in the present side. “Our wonderful boys showed character,” he said after the quarter-final victory over the tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire. “This was a bit like the character I know from when I played with Nigeria – they know they have to fight, fight, fight.”

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He was pointedly mocking of his critics. “I thank the players, Nigerians and all those who criticized the team,” he said. “They all contributed to the victory.” Much of the criticism he received was for calling up six domestic-based players and discarding bigger names such as Obafemi Martins, Peter Odemwingie and Shola Ameobi, but after the Warri Wolves’ forward Sunday Mba’s run and deflected shot brought the winner in the quarter-final – the first Nations Cup goal by a domestic-based player since 1992, he clearly felt his selection had been vindicated.

“The big challenge we have is that Nigerians do not believe in the home-based players but I do,” he said. “I believe if they are given the opportunity they’ll play much better. The problem is that in Nigeria, we’re not patient with the home-based players.”

He stressed, though, that it was the collective that was behind the win. “It wasn’t just Sunday Mba who was the hero,” Keshi said. “Everyone in the team was a hero.”

Nigeria faces Mali in the semi-final, a team of admirable doggedness that was unfazed by the raucous atmosphere of Durban as it eliminated the hosts South Africa in the quarter-final. It does have an obvious star in Seydou Keita but, as its coach Patrice Carteron said, he is less diva than “spiritual leader”.

Everywhere, it seems, the trend is away from the individual and towards the team.

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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