Matt Pentz reminds us it’s getting close at the Africa Cup of Nations
The 2013 African Cup of Nations has been whittled down to four.
In theory, the final four is perfectly balanced: The runaway favorite (Ghana), the resurgent challenger (Nigeria), the sentimental dark horse (Mali) and the outsider (Burkina Faso).
The quarterfinals provided plenty of flashpoints – Nigeria’s fortuitous deflection off Sol Bamba’s ass both vaulting the Super Eagles into the semis and encapsulating the absurdity of Ivory Coast’s futility, Mali joyously celebrating a shootout triumph in front of a stunned host nation for the second year in a row.
Yet the moment that left the deepest impression took place off the pitch.
In the wake of his team’s quarterfinal defeat to Ghana, Cape Verde coach Lúcio Antunes straightforwardly questioned the value of underdogs at major tournaments.
It many ways, it was a familiar complaint. His underdog Blue Sharks had, on balance, actually outplayed the heavily favored Black Stars. But a series of close penalty decisions, one in Ghana’s favor, others denying Cape Verde, allowed the Black Stars to narrowly survive.
In truth, it was a series of phenomenal saves by Ghanaian goalkeeper Fatau Dauda – including a diving effort to claw Djaniny’s curling free kick out of the top corner in added time – that ultimately decided the outcome.
Antunes chose to blame more sinister forces.
“They (the organisers) would want to see Ghana move into the semi-finals. Or do you want 200 spectators to watch Cape Verde against Togo in the semi-finals?” he asked.
This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking point – see the grumbling over the lack of prestige after a Champions League draw matches up Porto and Malaga or the ratings of a World Series not involving either New York or Boston.
But it is more glaring at an event already struggling to draw crowds, where a quarterfinal can look like it’s being played in an empty stadium.
Antunes’ comments can be easily dismissed as paranoia, yet they struck a chord because of just how improbable his team’s run was. Cape Verde, after all, stood out as a particularly compelling story in a tournament never lacking for them.
It’s useful to place it in a different context.
Imagine that it is 2024. France is approaching its peak as the dominant force of international soccer and facing a surprising upstart in the Euro quarterfinals.
For 90 minutes at the New Singapore National Stadium – following the wild success of spreading Euro 2020 all over the continent, UEFA decided to go global, don’t ask – unfancied Liechtenstein goes toe-to-toe with the mighty France. Les Blues advance thanks to a Gael Kakuta strike against the run of play, but Liechtenstein and their full-time clockmaker head coach become the darling of the tournament.
Closer to home, the Bahamas have become the darlings of the 2024 Copa America Unidos, the rebranded, third edition of the merged Gold Cup and Copa America, by pushing Mexico to penalties in a thrilling quarterfinals.
Seems unrealistic, no? Yet both Liechtenstein and the Bahamas are currently higher in the FIFA rankings than Cape Verde was a decade ago.
Cape Verde is the encapsulation of the magic of cup football, the romance of the tournament, all of that. And the Blue Sharks certainly received some international attention. The Guardian’s feature about the team opened with a brilliant lede describing how Antunes’ full-time gig as an air traffic controller prepared him for soccer management
But there was a sense that the event would be better off with Ghana advancing to the semifinals.
The Ivory Coast’s Groundhog-day-like, can-they-ever-win-the-big-one narrative would’ve drawn in plenty of neutral observers to the semifinals, as well, but Nigeria deservedly put an early end to that in a rollercoaster quarterfinal.
Fans love the excitement of upsets and competitions need them to maintain the illusion of unpredictability, yet once the later stages of a tournament arrive, viewers tune out unless the big names are still around.
The 2013 Cup of Nations semifinals contain a compromise: A mixed bag of traditional powers and upstarts.
Ghana remains the undisputed favorites to lift the trophy. It was underwhelming against Cape Verde, but major title threat Ivory Coast are no longer lurking on the other side of the bracket.
Nigeria looks like the most likely foil for the Black Stars.
Emmanuel Emenike continued his bid for Player of the Tournament against the Ivory Coast. The Super Eagles rode the momentum to perfect against the Elephants, Emenike capping a dominant first half with a sizzling free kick. Nigeria weathered a second half rally before delivering the killer blow. Sunday Mba’s 78th minute shot took hit Bamba on the backside, torqueing under the bar and sending his team through.
The lucky bounce also hints at the lingering questions around these Super Eagles. Was the upset the dawning of a new age of Nigerian dominance, or merely a high point of a run that received its share of breaks?
The matchup with Mali should provide some definitive answers. Mali hasn’t been especially convincing, either, yet here they are. For the second straight tournament, the Eagles came back from a deficit to eliminate the hosts on penalties. South Africa would have brought more fans to the final four, but Mali’s run while a war was raging back home provides a sympathetic backstory for neutrals to rally around.
As captain Seydou Keita is to Mali, Jonathan Pitroipa has been to Burkina Faso. It became evident early on that the uneven, fitful final quarterfinal would likely comedown to whether Pitroipa or Togolese talisman Emmanuel Adebayor could provide the great influence.
The craftiness of Pitroipa played a greater part than the power of Adebayor, and it was appropriate that Pitroipa was the one to head in the game-winner from a corner in extra time.
The Burkinabe victory set up a perfect balance between chalk and the overthrow of conventional powers.
Looking at Wednesday’s matchups, it’s hard to argue with Antunes’ point. But just because his team’s storyline isn’t still around doesn’t mean those still around aren’t intriguing.
Wednesday, Feb. 6
10:00 a.m. ET – Mali v. Nigeria
1:30 p.m. ET – Ghana v. Burkina Faso