26 January 2013

Africa: Football As Building Block of Nations (I)

Events at the 29th Africa Cup of Nations have truly shown that indeed, football is the bridge that helps to link many countries to reality and even to the future.

The history of the Africa Cup of Nations has been told several times by historians with the facts and the capacity to deliver, and some of us have read different accounts, which all, however, agree that the championship has helped the African continent together more than any other device in the past half-century.

On Saturday, the 29th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations started in South Africa with the host nation, in the garb of Bafana Bafana, taking on little-known Cape Verde, a country of just about half-a-million people!

Actually, if not for football, there are very few areas of endeavour that would bring South Africa and Cape Verde together on an equal footing. But on Saturday, 19th January, the Cape Verdians dared to dream and even their few noisy supporters inside in the National Stadium in Johannesburg shared that dream.

Having cut to tiny bits the four-time champions Cameroon, stopping the Indomitable Lions from the Cup of Nations finals for the second successive edition, the Blue Sharks had the courage and even the pomposity to think they could win matches at the Cup finals and progress to the knock-out rounds, where as they say, anything can happen.

The flag of Cape Verde stood side-by-side with that of the Rainbow Nation and both starting squads sang their different national anthems, shoulder-to-shoulder. In the jungle of football, all animals are equal!

And the result on the field showed that there are no longer small teams in the game; only small minds remain. The Cape Verdians carved the biggest opportunity of the match and could have won if they were a bit more adventurous.

Angola and Morocco also finished scoreless the same day, before Group B took us out of the scoreless salon as Ghana drew 2-2 with Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali pipped Niger 1-0.

Yes, we know Democratic Republic of Congo to be strong but considering the unease in that country, everyone thought the team would be too distracted to do anything tangible. Instead, they came from two goals down against one of the championship favourites and drew level, even threatening to scoop all three points in Port Elizabeth.

Mali is presently in a serious state of war. Only last week, Nigeria and a few concerned nations sent troops into that country to restore a semblance of order and stop the insurgents. But on the field of play, it was all positives for Mali as they became the first country at the finals to record a win, following Seydou Keita's goal in the 1-0 defeat of fellow West Africans Niger.

Ethiopia last participated at the Africa Cup of Nations 31 years ago, at Libya 1982. But that counted for nothing when started against the Cup holders, Zambia at the Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit on Monday. The Zambians went ahead just before half time and then the Ethiopian goalkeeper got a red card and everyone thought they were in for a horrible hiding.

It didn't work that way. Instead, the Ethiopians fought harder and played better and got the equalizer. Game ended 1-1. Champions against 30-year absentees!

And what about the match between our Super Eagles and Burkina Faso? We thought we had it in the bag, and even with a man down, we controlled the game and should have added to the tally. But what did we have? In the very last second, a slip and the spoils were shared. Very painful.

The following day in Rustenburg, Cote d'Ivoire shot ahead against tiny Togo and thought they were in the driving seat, until the Togolese, who played well, equalized. It took a moment of brilliance from Gervinho, two minutes from time, to give the Ivorians the full points.

The north African derby provided all the fireworks and more, and it took Tunisia with a touch of brilliance late on to edge the game.

And, would anyone have expected South Africa, which failed to beat Cape Verde, to cage Angola? But they did. Two goals and the Bafana Bafana were no longer shedding tears of a possible group phase elimination.

Of course, things are still somewhat fluid in Group A and even one-pointer Angola can still make it into the quarter finals. But with four points from their two matches, the Bafana Bafana are much better off in harvest and confidence that they were after their opening game.

And then, Morocco and Cape Verde played to a 1-1 draw. How many of those who dared predict the match could have correctly predicted a goal for each team? Morocco, champions in 1976 and runners-up in 2004, at par with the debutants and supposed neophytes.

There have been a number of other matches since Wednesday, including the Zambia/Nigeria match at Mbombela, but what remains indisputable is the huge role that football plays in international relations and as precious image builder for every nation of the world.

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