Matt Pentz rounds up the best of Africa 2013
The curtain closed on the 2013 African Cup of Nations with a match that neatly encapsulated the prevailing plot of the tournament: Disjointed, uneven stretches of play punctuated by decisive flashes of brilliance.
Sunday Mba’s goal late in the first half clinched the title for Nigeria, as the Super Eagles held on to down Burkina Faso 1-0 in Johannesburg.
Neither the Super Eagles nor the Stallions managed to hit the highs they’d managed earlier in the tournament – a playing surface that hosted the Red Hot Chili Peppers last Saturday didn’t help – but Mba rose to the occasion.
A deflected shot found its way to the Nigerian midfielder at the top of the box in the 40th minute. A controlling flick with the outside of his right cheat allowed him to dart past an onrushing Burkinabe defender, and he then rocketed a left-footed volley into the corner of the net before further help could arrive.
It was more than enough for the deserving champions, the most consistent, purposeful team at the tournament.
The template for success at this tournament is becoming increasingly clear – balance and unity outweigh the influence of international stars. Nigeria featured more household names than the close-knit, disciplined Zambia side that prevailed last year, but it showed a familiar willingness to choose functionality over flash by picking a number of locally based players.
More importantly, at least in terms of long-lasting impact, the Nigerian triumph provides a strong counterpoint against African teams’ fascination with European coaches.
It was a widely circulated belief that the very best African sides, those with stars based in the world’s top leagues, wouldn’t take native coaches seriously. The managers that did break the trend seemed to be on a shorter leash. The continent is far from alone in its tendency to defer to Europe for expertise – ahem, here are the keys to the entire U.S. soccer system, Jurgen – but it has been far more systematic and widespread than elsewhere.
Enter Stephen Keshi.
The native Nigerian boss rose eyebrows at the beginning of the tournament by leaving out West Brom striker Peter Odemwingie. It was a gamble, but one that clearly made an impression on his side. The no-nonsense approach brought home his country’s first AFCON trophy side 1994.
Combined with the stirring quarterfinal run of Cape Verde under home-based coach/full-time air traffic controller Lucio Antunes and the fact that we were a Ghana win away from the first final between native coaches in 15 years, and a changing of the guard may be in order.
The other finalist, Burkina Faso, showcased the rise of African soccer’s middle class. The talent pool on the continent is as deep as it’s ever been, and as the Stallions’ run to the final showed, the favorites can no longer sleepwalk their way into the later stages of the event.
This year’s Cup of Nations may have lacked the quality and drama of the 2012 tournament, but it functioned as a powerful measuring stick of the robust health of the African game.
Top player: Emmanuel Emenike, Nigeria
It can seem a bit nonsensical to tab someone who missed out on the final with injury as the player of the tournament, but that’s how integral Emenike was to Nigeria’s run.
He scored in both of the two matches that set the stage for later success. The 1-1 draw against defending champion Zambia was the moment when Nigerian belief began to germinate. And the 2-1 upset of the Ivory Coast solidified the notion that the Super Eagles really could win at all.
Emenike set the table for Nigeria throughout the tournament, a bullish, powerful striker who functioned as the pivot point for the attack. His co-tournament leading four goals were just one measure of how influential he was up top.
He personified the dogged, relentless spirit of the new era of Nigerian soccer.
Best celebration: Muteba Kidiaba, DR Congo
And there isn’t even a remotely close second. The man behind the creatively titled YouTube video “Goalkeeper for the DR Congo national team Hops on Ass” was the highlight of the short but memorable Congolese campaign.
The Leopards may not have made it to the knockout rounds, but they thrillingly came from two goals down to draw with powerhouse Ghana, dazzled with their tournament-best kits and injected some life to a bland run of group stage games.
It had been seven years since DR Congo last made the field, but here’s hoping it doesn’t take as long this time. You’re welcome back any time, Leopards.
Best game: Nigeria v. Zambia, group stages
Apologies to the Super Eagles-Elephants quarterfinal and the Ghana-DR Congo group stage epic, but the 1-1 draw between the defending and eventual champions left the deepest impression.
A pair of surprising opening day draws meant that both sides needed all three points, setting the stage for a positive, attacking showdown. The intensity and desperation was even more vibrant in contrast to the conservativeness plaguing the rest of the opening round.
The teams traded blows – if not goals – in a captivating first 45 minutes before Emenike turned Nigeria’s second half dominance into a lead with a powerful, first-time finish.
Zambia poured forward and, just when looked out of bullets, earned a dubious penalty. If the call was questionable, the finish was emphatic. Copper Bullets keeper Kennedy Mweene made the long trip upfield to deposit the spot kick into the very top corner of the net.
The match was significant enough as a metaphoric changing of the guard, but add in the quality and drama and it was a classic.
Best fans: Ethiopia
An unfortunate fact of life in the Cup of Nations is that, like it or not, most of the matches take place in front of half-empty stadiums. The small numbers were even more glaring in the cavernous, 2010 World Cup stadia South Africa chose to house the event.
The travelling Ethiopian masses were a joyous exception.
It was the national team’s first berth in the continental tournament in 31 years, and the Walia Antelopes supporters filled the stands of each of their matches with a seething, yellow mass.
Ethiopia went three-and-out, but not before providing a much-needed boost of fanfare to the event. Come back soon, Antelopes.
Team of the tournament
Goalkeeper: Fatau Dauda (Ghana)
Defenders: Bakary Kone (Burkina Faso), Efe Ambrose (Nigeria), Nando Maria Neves (Cape Verde)
Midfielders: Seydou Keita (Mali), Victor Moses (Nigeria), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Dean Furman (South Africa)
Attackers: Jonathan Pitroipa (Burkina Faso), Emmanuel Emenike (Nigeria), Gervinho (Ivory Coast)
It’s been a fun ride, TSG readers.
If the tournament did its job in burrowing a passion for the African game deep inside your soul, remember, World Cup qualifying ramps back up in March.