Friday, October 21, 2011

Soccer: A Continent Up for Grabs

[1009soccer] Reuters

South Africa's soccer players celebrate after their 2012 African Nations Cup Group G qualifying soccer match against Sierra Leone on Saturday. They were under the mistaken impression that they'd qualified for the Cup of Nations with a 0-0 draw.

Imagine March Madness without Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA and UConn. Not quite the same thing, is it?

A similar handicapper's nightmare is playing itself out in Africa. The Cup of Nations, a biennial continental competition for African national teams set to kick off in late January, will do so without most of its traditional powers after a qualifying tournament marked by a beyond bizarre series of upsets. Of the six African teams who qualified for the 2010 World Cup, just two – Ghana and Ivory Coast – have booked their tickets to Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, co-hosts of the 2012 Cup of Nations.

The topsy-turvy field could pave the way for Ivory Coast and Ghana, likely uber-favorites come January, to run the table on their way to the final. But it could also signal a permanent shift in the balance of power toward a more level playing field, one which could be mirrored in other parts of the world.

First, the casualties: Egypt, winner of the past three tournaments (and seven overall, more than any other nation), will be watching on TV, having finished last in its qualifying group, a result so disappointing that the Egyptian FA thought way outside the box, appointing former Team USA coach Bob Bradley to lead the Pharaohs. Indeed, of the 10 African nations who were highest in the FIFA rankings when qualifying began just over a year ago, just five actually managed to secure a spot.

Saturday, the final day of qualifying in most of the 11 groups, proved to be as dramatic as you would expect, with familiar do-or-die scenario. Take Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation and an exceptional producer of soccer talent: among non-European countries, only Brazil and Argentina export more players to Europe. Thanks to the Nigerian diaspora, fans of the Super Eagles are everywhere, a bit like Red Sox Nation.

And, like the Sox on the final day of this year's regular season in Major League Baseball, Nigeria stumbled at the final hurdle. It went into Saturday's home clash with Guinea needing to win either 1-0 or by two goals. It twice took the lead in a nervy match in the capital, Abuja. But a goal deep in injury time by Ibrahima Traore clinched qualification for Guinea. Such was the sense of disappointment that, less than 24 hours later, the Nigerian FA announced an official inquest into the failure to qualify, one that could yet result in coach Samson Siasia going the way of Terry Francona.

If that sounds cruel, it's nothing compared to what South Africa went through. Going into the final group game against Sierra Leone, Bafana Bafana was second, one point behind Niger and tied with Sierra Leone. With news filtering through that Niger was losing in Cairo, South Africa – which had the best overall goal difference in the group – appeared to change its game plan during the match, playing more defensively to preserve the 0-0 draw, knowing that if the results stood, it would finish tied for the group lead in Group G with Niger and Sierra Leone, but with a better overall goal difference (+2, compared to Niger's -2 and Sierra Leone's 0). And so the players celebrated their scoreless draw at the final whistle, jubilantly doing a lap of honor in front of their fans. Except they had failed to read the fine print. When teams finish equal on points in this year's Cup of Nations, the first tiebreaker isn't overall goal difference, but head-to-head results. And those favored Niger.

All told, it has been a nightmarish qualifying campaign for the continent's traditional powerhouses, with the exception of Ivory Coat and Ghana. Some of this can be explained away by a qualifying system that exacts a hefty price for early slip-ups. Cameroon, held to a tie at home by the Democratic Republic of Congo and beaten away by Senegal in its second and third games, is an example of this.

Some of it comes down to generational change. Certainly this is the case with Egypt, where a group of very talented players and their long-time, legendary coach, Hassan Shehata, seemed to grow stale all of a sudden. Which is why they took a leap of faith with Bradley, the first American-born-and-bred coach to take charge of a major soccer power outside North America.

But much of it stems from the rest of the continent catching up to the elite teams of West Africa and North Africa, who have long dominated the competition, winning 17 of the last 18 African Cups of Nations, dating back to the mid-1970s. (The one interloper was South Africa, which triumphed in 1996).

Tiny Botswana, with a population of just over 2 million, and Niger, will be making their first-ever appearances at the Cup of Nations (the second-oldest continental national team tournament in the world, after the Copa America). So too – albeit as an automatically qualifying co-host – will Equatorial Guinea. And, as of Sunday morning, Sudan and Libya, both ravaged by Civil War and with just one appearance each since the mid-1980s, was on the verge of qualifying.

The rest of the world has been taking about the supposed rise of African soccer for several decades. But what they really meant was the rise of the top teams in Africa competing with the best from South America and Europe. That has happened, at least to some degree.

Yet now Africa stands on the cusp of having true strength in depth across the continent, rather than pockets of excellence. That can only bode well for the future. And while it may be too early to definitively state that it's a world-wide trend, it stands to reason that as nations develop, the competitive advantage in terms of know-how, resources and infrastructure the traditional powers once enjoyed will be eroded over time. Which is why perhaps, unless you support one of the eliminated nations, it's not a tragedy that so many of the big boys won't be there this time around.

Gabriele Marcotti is the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a regular broadcaster for the BBC. His column appears on Sundays.

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