By Nurudeen Obalola:
In spite of great efforts to knock the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations finals as being below par, evidence points in the other direction.
The 2015 AFCON winds down this weekend. And what a party it has been.
The absence of defending champions Nigeria was expected to put a downer on things.
Then two of the 2013 semi-finalists – Mali and Burkina Faso – fell at the first hurdle and failed to reach the quarter-finals. It did not matter. The fun has continued.
It has been suggested that because there has been no standout team in Equatorial Guinea, the tournament has lost its spark.
But, in keeping with the trend in the last few editions, no team has clearly stood out and appears to be running away with the trophy.
Apart from the all-conquering days of the Pharaohs when Egypt swept all before them from 2006 to 2010, no team has been truly dominant in AFCON finals in recent times.
Even that Egypt team needed penalties to defeat Cote d’Ivoire in the 2006 final in Cairo and could only beat Cameroun and Ghana 1-0 in 2008 and 2010.
Zambia did nothing special until they got to the final in 2012, and the Super Eagles were not sure of reaching the 2013 last eight until their last group match against Ethiopia, which they won courtesy of two penalties.
And they did not look like champions material until their stirring performance in beating Cote d’Ivoire in the quarter-finals.
So to claim that these finals are sub-standard because of the absence of a standout team is a bit unfair.
Besides, while the Black Stars of Ghana and the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire have not looked like world beaters in Equatorial Guinea, the two West African giants have at least produced some brilliant performances.
Ghana absolutely ripped Guinea apart, while Cote d’Ivoire proved their class against DR Congo in the semi-finals.
As at the semi-finals, no player has scored more than three goals at AFCON 2015, another stick to beat these finals with.
But when was the last time AFCON had a six, seven-goal top scorer?
The last time an AFCON top scorer got more than five goals was in 1998, when both Hossam Hassan of Egypt and Benni McCarthy of South Africa each bagged seven.
Emmanuel Emenike of Nigeria and Ghana’s Mubarak Wakaso (who was his side’s penalty taker) got four each as top scorers at South Africa 2013.
In 2012 in Equatorial Guinea, a rash of players were tied as top scorers. They – including Angola’s Manucho, Cote d’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba and Zambia’s Chris Katongo – scored three goals each.
The perceived major negative of the early parts of these finals was the string of draws in the group games. A record 13 games ended in draws in the group games.
If you were a betting man, the surest way to clean out the bookmakers was to punt on a draw and put in your life savings. Chances were you would end up a multi-millionaire (in dollars, not the now almost worthless naira).
While the raft of draws was a bit worrying in terms of entertainment value, it proved that the gulf in class between African teams was not as wide as it used to be.
Who would have predicted Cape Verde holding Tunisia to a draw a few years ago? Or Mali tying both Cameroun and Cote d’Ivoire? Or the mighty Indomitable Lions getting eliminated in the group stages?
The so-called minnows of African football are slowly catching up with the big guys, and these finals have provided the stage for the small men to strut their stuff. Surely, that is a positive thing, isn’t it?
These AFCON finals might have been deprived of our dear Super Eagles, but not much has changed. If the Eagles were not good enough to take their place on the African podium, others are waiting to pounce and do a decent job.
In Equatorial Guinea, the absence of the champions has not been felt. The show must go on.
The show has gone on.
No Eagles, no party? You gotta be kidding me.
CONGRATS, VINCENT ENYEAMA
I remember interviewing Austin Eguavoen in Benin for Complete Football in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup. Eguavoen was then the General Manager of Bendel Insurance and he had valuable knowledge of players in the Nigerian league.
When the former Super Eagles captain mentioned the Enyimba goalkeeper as one outstanding player that should be considered as part of the Nigeria squad to the Korea/Japan World Cup, I assumed he meant Dele Aiyenugba.
“No, not Dele,” Eguavoen said. “This boy is Igbo, I think. He’s a fantastic goalkeeper. He’ll be Nigeria’s number one for many years, you’ll see.”
That ‘Igbo boy’ turned out to be Vincent Enyeama, who is actually not Igbo, but from Akwa Ibom State.
And when I tracked him down to Abeokuta for a league match that eventually did not hold, he turned out to be a humble, well-spoken young man destined for the top.
True to Eguavoen’s words, Enyeama has become the best goalkeeper in Nigeria for years. And then some.
He made that year’s Super Eagles World Cup squad and produced one of the saves of the tournament in stopping England midfielder Paul Schole’s shot.
The Lille keeper is – without a shadow of a doubt – the best in Africa. And probably the best goalkeeper in the French top flight.
At long last he got the recognition he deserves with a string of award nominations and actual awards for his brilliant 2014 performances.
He was nominated for both the CAF and BBC African Player of the Year awards. He was also named the best goalkeeper in the French top flight in 2014 by the authouritative L’Equipe.
But the one closest to his heart right now has to be the Complete Sports Player of the Year award. Because he was chosen by his compatriots, his own people; the readers of Nigeria’s largest-circulating sports newspaper.
Nothing beats being recognized by your own people. Nothing.
MOAN OF THE WEEK
It really grates when coaches, pundits, journalists and fans excuse bad behaviour by footballers.
The refrain when a talented footballer misbehaves is that he is living on the edge. That he needs that extra bit of aggression to remain at his best.
Therefore the likes of Diego Costa, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez are expected to get away with blue murder.
But do talented players need to resort to the dark arts to retain their edge? Does Costa have to stamp on his markers for him to continue scoring? Does Suarez have to bite and generally be dishonest to stay being a brilliant player? Does Rooney have to scowl all over the pitch and lash out at opponents to remain a top player?
Instead of helping these players and their teams, this needless aggression tends to harm their teams.
Now Chelsea miss Costa’s goals because of his stamp on Emre Can; Rooney missed three games this season because of a reckless kick at a West Ham player, and Suarez missed months of action for both Liverpool and Uruguay because he used his teeth instead of his brains and feet.
While it is true that some players’ games are based on aggression, it is also true that this aggression has to be on the right side of the law.
There is no place in FIFA laws for over-the-edge aggression. Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time. Your status as a top player doesn’t matter.