Saturday, May 28

Afcon departures from Algeria and Ghana surprise, but traditional minnows are catching up | African Cup of Nations 2022

TThe medium continues to rise. In Europe at least, the question about African football is why it has not been activated in the last two decades since, in the space of 12 years between 1990 and 2002, Cameroon and Senegal reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup and Cameroon and Nigeria won Olympic golds. A few quarter-finals as it doesn’t seem like much progress.

And yet, despite all that, infrastructure and management issues continue to blight the top tier of the African game, where there has been clear progress at the bottom of the pyramid. There is a healthy and growing middle class. It wasn’t so long ago that the expansion of the Nations Cup from 16 to 24 teams would have seen a marked dilution of quality, but not now.

Comoros and Gambia, both traditional minnows and in their first Nations Cup, have reached the round of 16. Comoros may have been a bit lucky, but Gambia played with an impressive level of calm organization and deservedly beat Tunisia to go through.

Malawi, in their second tournament, beat Zimbabwe and, had it not been for the controversial VAR disallowing a penalty, they might have beaten Senegal. Only Mauritania have really looked out of their league, which, given the dreadful format of six groups of four, could be an argument for expanding to 32 teams. Logistics can make that difficult, but given that Zambia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not qualify, it’s hard to argue against the move on quality grounds.

The format, with four third-place teams in the last 16, is horrible. There is too great a risk of stalemate, favoring teams from the bottom groups who know what they have to do, and there is the fundamental injustice of comparing between groups that have their own dynamic: most obviously, a team that lets the players for the final. game if they have already finished, and they must be discreet. But the tournament has recently developed a habit of producing notable drama.

The final round of the European Championship group stage matches (Viktor Claesson’s stoppage-time winner as Sweden knocked out Poland, Germany saved by Leon Goretzka’s late strike against Hungary) could have been more exciting, but the Nations Cup games felt more consequential, with reigning champions Algeria and four-time champions Ghana eliminated.

Algeria was the big surprise. Ghana was in apparent chaos ahead of the tournament, with Charles Akonnor sacked in November to make way for the return as coach of Milovan Rajevac. The Serb led Ghana to the final in 2010, but his cautious, possession-based approach, which brought out the best in a young squad that included André Ayew, has only led to sterile football this time.

Desperation for the Algerian Riyad Mahrez after being eliminated from the tournament
Desperation for the Algerian Riyad Mahrez after being eliminated from the tournament. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

The goals conceded in the last 10 minutes cost them the draw against Morocco and the victory against Gabon, a game that ended in a brawl that highlighted the frustration on the field, with Benjamin Tetteh being sent off for a left hook.

Still, a win against the Comoros would have allowed them to qualify, but having come undone at half-time, they lost Ayew to a harsh red card for a tackle on goalkeeper. A second goal at half-time followed and although Ghana struggled to level again, Comoros intercepted them again in the 85th minute, the culmination of 10 days of poor discipline in which Ghana failed to reach the round of 16 for the first time since then. 2006.

Ghana Football Association president Kurt Okraku defended Rajevac, noting how little time he has had to work with his team, but that begs the question why the GFA fired Akonnor when they did. The dismissal of the Serb, at a reported cost of $275,000, was confirmed in the morning.

However, there was no such sense of apprehension about Algeria. Rather, they entered the tournament on a 34-match unbeaten streak as, by general consensus, the best team on the continent. The only real doubt about them was the regular fighting of North African sides outside of North Africa; Egypt in 2008 and 2010 remains the only North African country to win a Sub-Saharan Cup of Nations.

To some extent, Algeria was unlucky in Cameroon, a feeling that was only exacerbated when their federation issued a statement denying it had brought a healer to help. They had more touches in the final third than any other team in the group stage, while only Nigeria and Mali had more shots, and there is no doubt that the poor quality of the pitch in Douala made their passing difficult.

Djamel Belmadi showed two years ago in Egypt how capable he is as a coach. His team played a modern pressure game that seemed ideal for international football. He had suffered only one loss in 44 games in charge before last Sunday, since when he has suffered two in a week, against Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Steven Caulker on representing Sierra Leone at the African Cup of Nations – video
Steven Caulker on representing Sierra Leone at the African Cup of Nations – video

Both were similar in the way that the midfield, at key moments, disintegrated and allowed their opponents to fight back. The last 10 minutes against Equatorial Guinea were extraordinary in the way the structure that had been a fortress in 2019 came crashing down: essentially four forwards standing on the halfway line and waiting to be handed the ball as Equatorial Guinea cavorted into space. in the Algerian half. Similarly, the 15 minutes after the break against Côte d’Ivoire were chaotic: the Ivorians scored a decisive third but missed three other decent chances.

Maybe it was just one of those things. Bad things can happen to good teams in tournaments. But it still feels significant that the two 2019 finalists, Algeria and Senegal, who play highly structured football, managed just two goals between them in six group stage games.

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The lack of preparation time before this tournament, compounded by the complications of Covid, has probably cost them fluency – and it has been remarkable how the game has generally improved as the group stage progressed – and in the current environment, in which there are a lot of decent, if not brilliant teams, it can be enough to cause real problems for the giants of the continent.

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