9 January 2013

Niger/South Africa: Outsiders Niger Must Cure 'Travel Sickness'

Poor travellers Niger will seek a first Africa Cup of Nations victory when they face the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Mali in Indian Ocean city Port Elizabeth. The first appearance of the Menas (Gazelles) at the tournament last year brought no joy as they lost to co-hosts Gabon, Tunisia and Morocco while managing only one goal.

Much of the drama provided by the Nigeriens came off the field with Harouna Doula, voted African Coach of the Year a month before the tournament, surviving one match before giving way to Rolland Courbis. The experiended French coach quit before a 2013 qualifier against Guinea and Germany-born Gernot Rohr took over having guided Gabon to the last eight at the 2012 Cup of Nations. A former Bayern Munich defender, 59-year-old Rohr has to try and replicate in South Africa the form displayed by Niger when they play before capacity crowds at the sauna-like General Seyni Kountche Stadium.

The beginning of the end of the reign of Egypt as the dominant force in African football came in Niamey, a capital city where the temperature often soars above 40 degrees celsius (104 degrees fahrenheit). Egypt arrived in Niger licking their wounds after being held at home by Sierra Leone in a 2012 qualifer as they sought a record-stretching fourth consecutive Cup of Nations title. It was classic David-versus-Goliath stuff and the minnows emerged victorious thanks to a goal from Moussa Maazou, the closest Niger have to an African superstar.

After unsuccessful spells with French, Russian and Belgian clubs, Maazou has joined former CAF Champions League winners Etoile Sahel and the Tunisians must hope he can bring his predatory international instincts to Sousse. Maazou has netted many times for his country, but it was late second-half goals from Mohammed Chikoto and Issoufou Garba that earned a 2-0 home victory against Guinea and a ticket to the 2013 Africa Cup. Niger had lost the away leg, the latest in a series of reverses on the road, and the absence of 40,000 passionate Nigerien supporters and searing heat in Port Elizabeth casts doubts on the ability of the team to survive.

Rohr remains upbeat, however, and even one victory at the 45,000-seat Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium would probably turn him into an instant national hero in a country that ranks among the poorest in the world. "We wish to create a surprise even though we must face three of the best national teams in Africa," he told reporters in Niamey. "We do not have any superstars but I believe we can handle the pressure." Much could hinge on diminutive goalkeeper Daouda Kassaly, who plays for South African Premiership newcomers Chippa United, and has been in outstanding form for club and country.

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