The joy felt in Togo and Angola at World Cup qualification risks turning to fear of humiliation after a poor continental championship. Ghana also have little to cheer about and, as Chris Taylor reports, only Ivory Coast of Africa’s five teams in Germany did really well in Egypt 

It was an exciting African Nations Cup tournament and when the champions were crowned in Cairo’s International Stadium they approached their debut in the forthcoming World Cup on German soil with high hopes. Little did they realise that disaster awaited them.

That was 1974, when Zaire powered exuberantly to victory over Zambia in the Nations Cup final held in Egypt. Three months later they left West Germany with their tails between their legs having scored no goals and conceded 14 in a disastrous World Cup campaign that fixed the image of African football’s “naivety” in the popular mind.

There will be no repeat in Germany this summer, not least because the newly crowned African champions, Egypt, will be absent, along with such established heavyweights as Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal. But the showing of Africa’s five World Cup representatives – four of whom will be debutants – at the 25th staging of the continental championship has raised concerns that their showing in the 2006 World Cup could be the continent’s worst in years.

Much good football was played by well organised teams in Egypt. Unfortunately, for the most part those playing it would not be going to Germany, including less-fancied sides such as Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two of the World Cup qualifiers, Angola and Togo, were drawn together but neither made it out of Group B. Ghana, missing the injured Michael Essien of Chelsea, were more impressive and, having beaten Senegal, needed only to beat pointless Zimbabwe to qualify for the last eight, but surprisingly crashed to a 2-1 defeat. A fourth qualifier, Tunisia, lasted only one game more. But although the reigning champions were edged out on penalties in the quarter-finals by Nigeria they had good organisation, a dangerous striker in the Brazilian-born Francileudo dos Santos and less of the play-acting and gamesmanship that had marked their victory as hosts two years earlier.

The World Cup qualifiers who really bucked the trend were Ivory Coast. Their quarter-final with Cameroon turned out to be a classic for connoisseurs of the muscular school of African defending, with the Elephants’ back line taking turns to boot the tournament’s top scorer, Samuel Eto’o. Cameroon had been possibly the most impressive team in the group phase but Ivory Coast, under the experienced French coach Henri Michel, successfully broke their rhythm. A goal apiece in extra time set up a shoot-out that featured a succession of 22 perfect penalties before Eto’o missed his second spot-kick.

In the semi-final Ivory Coast saw off Nigeria, a simple long ball over the top allowing Didier Drogba to exploit a yawning gap at the heart of the Super Eagles’ defence. Awaiting them in the final were Egypt and a fanatical 75,000-strong home crowd. But not their pin-up striker, Tottenham’s Mido, after his furious touchline bust-up with the coach, Hassan Shehata, following his substitution in the semi-final against Senegal. Mido had barely sat down when his replacement, the lively Amr Zaki, stabbed home what turned out to be the winning goal, forcing the sulky golden boy, like a third-placed Miss World contestant, to join in the delirious celebrations half-heartedly. Mido apologised – he had called Shehata a “donkey” – but was suspended from the squad for six months.

A generally tedious final was enlivened by a ludicrous home-town penalty award, a sequel to the clear penalty denied Senegal’s Diomansy Kamara in the last minute of their semi-final against the hosts. With poetic justice Ahmed Hassan could only hit the post. After 120 minutes the match ended 0-0. In the shoot-out Drogba, who had missed a sitter in extra time, saw his kick saved. Egypt won 4-2, to take a record fifth victory in the event.

“If Drogba had scored, it would have been over for Egypt. If you look at the overall tournament, we deserved to have won it,” said Michel. Shehata saw it in spiritual terms: “God always rewards those who perfect what they do and we exerted huge efforts to win the championship until this dream came true.”

For the World Cup qualifiers, the prospects of avoiding an experience like Zaire’s look mixed. The former Nigeria captain Stephen Keshi was receiving the African coach-of-the-year award for his achievement in transforming Togo from also-rans to World Cup qualifiers when he heard via the media that he was being sacked, the result of picking up a solitary point and a falling-out with the star striker, Arsenal’s new signing Emmanuel Adebayor. The German Otto Pfister will now coach Togo in Germany.

Angola are busy searching for new players and have recruited the Leeds reserve Rui Marques and hope to entice Porto defender Pedro Emanuel. For Ghana midfielder Kingston Laryea, Egypt was a particularly costly experience. His four-match ban for scuffling with Senegal’s Habib Beye means his World Cup is almost certainly over before it has begun. His team-mates will hope the return of Essien can inspire them.

Roger Lemerre, who knows all about African surprises after his France team lost to Senegal four years ago, said he was “very satisfied” with Tunisia’s showing and can certainly boast experience and a settled side. Ivory Coast, who received a rapturous welcome home in Abidjan, drew confidence from their showing. “We’ve got a really young team and just want to improve,” said Kolo Touré. “This was our first tournament together and it’s going to help us play good football at the World Cup, definitely.”

Now they just have to get past Holland, Argentina and Serbia & Montenegro.

From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month

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