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Johannesburg – The fact that Ghana and Ivory Coast amassed the most points – seven each – in the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations suggests South Africa 2013 is living up to pre-tournament predictions. Far from it, however.
If anything, the continental finals here have produced shocks, history and, in some cases, tears which could not have been foreseen when the tournament kicked off on January 19.
Many would have had Ghana and Ivory Coast, who won groups B and D, as outright favourites but few would have predicted quarter-final places for the likes of Burkina Faso, who topped Group C, and Togo making the last eight for the first time since they first qualified for the finals in 1972.
Perhaps the biggest story of this year’s finals is that of debutants Cape Verde. Having knocked out giants Cameroon in qualifying last year, the islanders continued to write history here, first holding hosts Bafana Bafana to an opening day draw, and then Morocco before securing a heroic win against Angola to make the knockout phase.
Cape Verde have truly reaped rewards of consistency, having enjoyed a dramatic rise since Lucio Antunes took over the coaching reins in 2010. They climbed up the Fifa rankings and were, actually, the highest ranked team in Group A. But still, nobody would have backed them to finish level on points with Bafana, missing out on the top spot only through a single goal.
The Islanders take on Ghana in Saturday’s first quarter-final, and the cliché that a team have “nothing to lose” has to be most appropriate here. Whatever happens in Port Elizabeth tomorrow, Cape Verde have been massive winners.
South Africa too, have ended years of hurt in this tournament, topping Group A after a tense final match against Morocco. Gordon Igesund’s team, who failed to convince in the lead up to the tournament, finally clicked in beating Angola and then displayed tremendous strength in twice coming from behind to avoid defeat against Morocco.
Bafana were indebted to goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune in that match, but that they face highly rated Mali on Saturday in the last eight should be their biggest test yet.
Not since 1994 had the hosts of the continental finals failed to qualify for the second round – even Equatorial Guinea made it out of their group when they co-hosted with Gabon last year – so getting into the next stage was a minimum expectation even for a Bafana side who’ve declined in the last decade.
The most unlikely quarter-final this weekend is between Burkina Faso and Togo, two countries most would have expected to be heading for departures after just three matches. But instead, Paul Put’s Stallions topped Group C, thanks in the main to 4-0 drubbing of Ethiopia, which was the biggest score of the first round.
Togo, too, were expected to struggle after being pooled in the “group of death” against Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Algeria. Yet Didier Six’s men lost only to the Ivorians – through a late goal – and secured a comfortable win over Algeria before surviving an atrocious Mbombela Stadium pitch and poor refereeing to hold Tunisia in their final match.
Champions Zambia headed home without losing a match, finishing third in Group C mainly due to that opening day draw with 10-man Ethiopia. The Chipolopolo will have to rebuild their side, perhaps around a new coach with fresh ideas, if they are to scale the heights of Equatorial Guinea/Gabon, where they defied odds to be crowned champions.
As much as the overall standings show Ethiopia and Niger as the bottom sides, the biggest losers at this tournament have to be the north African teams. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria all bowed out at the first hurdle, which is a huge shock given their profiles.
Few would have predicted any of these sides not to make it. Although Morocco and Tunisia can count themselves unlucky – having been in contention for a quarter-final place until the very last minute of their final games against SA and Togo respectively – Algeria were easily the biggest flops at this tournament.
Ranked only second to Ivory Coast on the continent, the Desert Foxes played some enterprising football, but were knocked out after just two games, Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with a weakened Ivory Coast side serving only to save face.
While the tournament started unimpressively with only Mali and Ivory Coast winning their opening games, it finally caught alight, with the group phase producing 49 goals, albeit there has been a high rate of penalties awarded – 11 in 48 first-round games.
The standard of refereeing has been evidently poor, and the Confederation of African Football had to intervene and take an unprecedented decision to send home Egyptian referee Ghead Grisa following his decision to award Zambia a penalty in their match against Nigeria.
A Ghana-Ivory Coast final – predicted by most – is still on the cards on February 10, but do not discount the possibility of more shocks as the quarter-finals kick off this weekend. – The Star