African soccer expert Matt Pentz is back
There is plenty about the 2013 African Cup of Nations to inspire déjà vu.
For one thing, thanks to the Confederation of African Football’s choice to flip the tournament from even years to odd, barely 11 months will have passed from the closing of the 2012 event to this year’s kickoff.
With a limited amount of talent turnover, more than half of the 16-teams in the field participated last time, too.
The favorites are again headed by the Ivory Coast. The Elephants came up short against stunning tournament victors Zambia in a penalty shootout last February, and one gets the feeling that the CAF decided to give the Ivory Coast golden generation another quick shot at its overdue title merely for fear of reprisal from CIV captain Didier Drogba.
There’s also the host. Libya was originally chosen to house the tournament, but when a popular revolution toppled the ruling regime, the confederation was left scrambling to find a suitable replacement. South Africa and its existing infrastructure and stadia were a natural sub.
But having a host country that just hosted the 2010 World Cup does little to add freshness to an event already with a bit of a stale, re-heated taste to it.
There is some good news, though, dear TSG reader. And that’s that since you (likely) didn’t tune into the 2012 Cup of Nations, it will all be exhilaratingly, overwhelmingly new to you.
Even for those that wanted to tune in last time, there were few options unless you were willing to dive into the depths of Internet piracy for a feed. My vantage point for the final was a grainy, Arabic-language Al-Jazeera feed that may or may not have played a role in my laptop’s demise three weeks later and most definitely did cut out in the 112th minute. This time around, ESPN3 has picked up the rights to the tournament, free of crippling spyware.
Like Drogba’s snakebit Ivory Coast side, you have been given a great gift, — the chance for a mulligan.
Because while you were stuffing your gullet with a predictable, Manchester-clubs-only EPL title race this time last year, I was being treated to the most unpredictable, story-line packed, underdog-laden, joyful event I’ve followed in my soccer-consuming life.
Zambia’s run from long-shot quarterfinalist to African champions was one of the best stories in recent memory, in any sport.
Its roots were planted in tragedy nearly two decades ago. The bulk of the greatest Copper Bullets side ever perished in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon while travelling to a World Cup qualifier in 1993. A replacement squad miraculously rallied from the tragedy, but fell one step short in the 1994 Cup of Nations, falling to Nigeria in the final.
No Zambian side had made it that far since.
The 2012 tournament was full of meaningful coincidences for the southern African nation. The final was played in Libreville — the city from which that fateful flight took off 19 years before. The underdog Zambian squad paid its respects at the crash site on the eve of the final. The architect of the team’s stunning rise was Kalusha Bwalya — star striker on that early 1990s squad who was spared because he was playing in Holland, not based in an African league like the bulk of the squad.
Though the first 120 minutes of the Zambia-Ivory Coast final may not have been one for the aesthetic, the penalty shootout was as tension-dripping a 20 minutes as you can imagine. It was hard for anyone with any knowledge of the backstory to not be affected by the scene of the players running to Bwalya to celebrate the nation’s first ever major trophy.
Often times, general narratives for major sporting events can feel forced and overblown. At the Cup of Nations, an inspiration backstory comes standard.
Take Mali, trying to improve upon last year’s trip to the semifinals while troops stand off back home.
Or Togo, whose team is still attempting to shake off the after affects of having its bus ambushed while at the 2010 tournament in Angola.
And that’s before even wading into the on-field storylines, where the Ivory Coast aims to finally get a return its riches of talent with a trophy, Nigeria makes its return to the field after a tumultuous few years and Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco hope to shift the continent’s center of power back up north.
In all, the tournament can serve as a powerful antidote to ingrained predictability currently affecting the elite levels of the club game.
Part of the joy of following the global game is its scope. There are association football leagues happening in all seasons, in nearly every country to provide an endless stream of perspectives and faces. But it can be so easy to become bogged down in the minutia of the top leagues.
The glorious diversity of the Cup of Nations — the previously unearthed talent, the sloppy pitches, the eye-searing shirts — offers an exhilarating break from the monotony.
Take the Gabon-Morocco match from last year’s group stage. There were few names on the pitch familiar to fans outside the continent, with former Hull City striker Daniel Cousin probably most recognizable face. But the sides put on a performance for the ages.
The co-hosts equalized in the 77th minute before Cousin put them ahead two minutes later and sparked a momentary, celebratory pitch invasion. The Moroccans, one of the pre-tournament favorites, hit back with a penalty conversion in the 89th minute, but there was one last twist. Gabon substitute Bruno-Zita Mbanangoye slammed home a free kick in the final seconds to send his side through and Morocco out, setting off chaos in the stands.
It was a moment of brilliant spontaneity that makes this tournament so unique.
Drogba and company have plenty of hurdles to overcome to take advantage of their second chance. You’re just a click of the mouse away.
South Africa and newcomers Cape Verde kick off the tournament on Saturday. A complete list of matches can be found here.