AFCON 2013: Is The Worst Behind Us? It Would Appear So

It's not a Cup soccer tournament until a keeper makes a penalty. Says here at least...

It’s not a Cup soccer tournament until a keeper makes a penalty. Says here at least…

Matt Pentz on the developing situation at the Africa Cup of Nations

It is a pattern familiar to any soccer fan. A game has settled into a stalemate. The passing is disconnected, neither side seems too concerned and you’re sitting there wondering why you wasted your afternoon, why you should give a damn about this sport, anyway.

Then, unprompted, a flash of brilliance. A passing move, a powerful shot from distance, maybe just a simple flourish with the ball.

The wait was worth it.

It took patience to wade through the mostly bland first six days of the 2013 African Cup of Nations. But a brilliant Day 7 provided an overdue reward, and if Saturday’s matches are any indication, it could spark this tournament into life.

The opening half of the group stage failed to live up to this event’s usual spontaneity.

In the past, even if the results were predictable, it was never boring. This year’s tournament had produced few goals, and more worryingly, been defined by a crushing blend of caution and lack of quality.

Even the surprises, the teams rising from outsiders to possible contenders, have done so more by default than merit.

Take Group A.

South Africa is primed to win the group, despite an abject opening performance. Its quality was much improved against Angola, yes, but the Angolans looked so devoid of ideas that Bafana Bafana had little choice but to win.

Cape Verde, in most cases, would be an underdog to rally around. The island nation of just over 500,000 inhabitants is one result away from advancing to the quarterfinals in its first major tournament.  But enthusiasm has been restrained by their underwhelming style of play and the fact that this group just doesn’t provide much of a test.

In Group B, Ghana is in place to cruise to first place despite playing below its normal, admittedly high, expectations.

Some say the Africa Cup of Nations and playing for his native Nigeria is only where John Obi Mikel's quality is appreciated. He also missed a big chance though last week.

Some say the Africa Cup of Nations and playing for his native Nigeria is only where John Obi Mikel’s quality is appreciated. He also missed a big chance though last week.

From this gloomy backdrop of negativity, the Zambia-Nigeria showdown burst forth as an exuberant reminder of the event at its best.

It was a mouthwatering matchup on paper, the defending champs against a continental power. Both teams managed shaky draws in their respective openers, meaning that a loss could all but put them out of the event. Instead of being in awe of the stakes — or indifferent to them, as a sizable chunk of the squads have seemed – they brought each side’s best.

There was a simmering intensity underlying the tempo from the first kick of the ball. Zambia controlled the ball of the first half, its hold broken temporarily by a Nigerian penalty, only for John Obi Mikel to put it wide. The styles of the two sides meshed perfectly, resulting in a counterattacking, fluid pace.

Zambia failed to turn its pressure into a goal, and Nigeria came out of the break with an energy the champions couldn’t match. Super Eagles forward Emmanuel Emenike confirmed his man of the match performance with a powerful strike to put his team in front in the 57th minute.

But there is something special about these Copper Bullets. Maybe coach Herve Renard’s famed lucky white shirt really does have magical powers.

Zambia’s tournament life was in critical condition until Emmanuel Mayuka earned a 1,200-thread-count-soft penalty. The call was weak, but the spot kick was extraordinary. Copper Bullets keeper Kennedy Mweene trotted up the field, waved his teammates off and unleashed a rocket into the very corner of the net to earn his side a draw.

In the nightcap, Burkina Faso showcased how an underdog is supposed to book a passage in the next round – by earning it.

The Burkinabe hadn’t won a match at the Cup of Nations in 15 years, but they made it count. Burkina Faso’s pace and skill overwhelmed Ethiopia 4-0, the degree of difficulty of each score topping the next. The Stallions have galloped to the top of perhaps the toughest group in the field. At last, a long shot to believe in.

In all, it was a breathless, absorbing four hours of action. At last, I didn’t dread setting my alarm for the following morning – those 7 a.m., West Coast kickoff times are brutal – or need a steady stream of coffee to overcome nap-inducing stretches of play.

Group D continued the theme of teams actually having to fight for berths in the final eight. The Ivory Coast swarmed Tunisia 3-0 and Togo threw its hat in the “great story inspiring a historic run” ring with a surprising 2-0 takedown of Algeria.

Moments of brilliance in a dull game can be transformative.  Everything in the changes, intensity conjured out of thin air.

The energy of matchday seven could have a similar jolt on this tournament, a contagious bout of optimism. Saturday’s action was already much improved. From here on out, almost every game is win-or-go-home.

Pressure affects all teams differently, but Zambia and Nigeria provided a template for how to channel it positively. If the rest of the field takes note, the 2013 African Cup of Nations might live up to its promise.

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