West Africans Roar at Nations Cup
Harare ‑ The West Africans have turned the 2013 Nations Cup final into their special show and a country from that part of the continent will be crowned champions this weekend, to end a barren search stretching over a decade.
But it was never meant to be this way.
This was supposed to be a Southern African football festival, the Nations Cup show returning to the Rainbow Nation for the first time in 17 years with a COSAFA country, Zambia, coming in as the defending champions.
South Africa, winners of the tournament the last time they hosted the tournament in ’96, were back in the running while regular campaigners, Angola, wanted to make a bigger statement after falling on the wayside when they were hosts three years ago.
But both Angola and Zambia, the first two countries to arrive in South Africa to prepare for the Nations Cup finals, never made it beyond the group stages.
Champions Zambia neither lost a match nor did they win any ‑ with all their three group games against Nigeria, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso ending in stalemates.
Chipolopolo became the first defending champions in 23 years to fall in the group stages and have been criticised for the way they meekly surrendered their crown.
“Everybody is sad but my players did their maximum, and I’m very proud of them. I loved my team tonight, I can’t play with eight defenders, if there is someone who is responsible then it’s me, not my players,” coach Harve Renard, a hero in Zambia just a year ago, said after the draw against the Burkinabes confirmed their exit.
South Africa did better than Zambia by topping their group and qualifying for the quarterfinals where they met a plucky Mali, who refused to surrender in the cauldron of the Moses Mabhida Stadium, and forced the game to the penalty shootout lottery.
Bafana Bafana, who were carrying the weight of the nation on their shoulders, buckled under pressure and were beaten 1-3 in the shootout.
Mali’s progress meant there were four West African nations in the semi-finals with Nigeria, who last won the tournament in ’94 and boycotted it when it was last held in South Africa because of a diplomatic row between Johannesburg and Abuja, Burkina Faso and Ghana.
It is the first time, since the 2002 Nations Cup in Mali, that four West African countries have taken all the places in the semi-finals of the tournament. Back then, when the last West African nation won the tournament, the four teams that graced the semi-finals were winners Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria and Mali. Two of those giants, Nigeria and Mali, are back in the semi-finals and have been joined by Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Such was the dominance of the West Africans that seven of the eight teams in the quarterfinals were all from their part of the continent.
Only hosts South Africa were the odd team out as all seven West African teams made it past the group stages into the quarterfinals.
Surprise packets, Cape Verde, and pre-tournament favourites, Cote d’Ivoire, needed West African opposition to knock them out with the Atlantic Ocean islanders going out, with their heads held high, after a strong performance in a losing cause against Ghana.
Cape Verde became the first debut nation, in 48 years of Nations Cup finals, to reach the quarterfinals while Togo moved out of the group stages for the first time in their history.
The Ivorians choked at the big stage, for the umpteenth time, and crashed to a shock 1-2 defeat at the hands of Nigeria’s Super Eagles in Rustenberg.
Confederation of African Football Secretary General, Hicham El Amrani, hailed the West Africans for the way they turned this Nations Cup into their special show.
“We can only congratulate them and urge the other regions to catch up,” said El Amrani. Interestingly, while the West Africans soared, the North Africans were poor and all crashed out in the group stages with record-winners Egypt failing even to qualify. It is been 11 years since a West African country won the Nations Cup when the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon powered themselves to glory in Mali in 2002.
Cameroon, who had also won the Nations Cup in Ghana and Nigeria in 2000, thrashed Mali 3-0 in the semi-finals, leaving 50 000 home fans shell-shocked by the nature of the destruction, and then defeated Senegal 3-2 in the penalty shootout after the final had ended goalless.
That marked the last high point for West African football and, as Cameroon’s fortunes nose-dived, so too did the region’s.
North Africa came to the party with Tunisia winning at home in 2004 and Egypt doing the same in 2006 after beating Cote d’Ivoire in the final.
The Pharaohs won the tournament again in 2008 in Ghana and made it three straight titles by beating the Black Stars in Angola in 2010. Another West African nation had to play the bridesmaid, in 2012, and it was the Ivorians, who crashed to a shock defeat at the hands of Zambia in the final.
But West Africa’s long wait is over and this weekend one of them will be crowned kings.