To party or not to party at the Afcon

Posted by Firdose Moonda

A solitary goal on day six of the African Nations' Cup meant that the on-field action was secondary in the media just a week after the tournament began. Ghana's cagey win over Mali did not attract much attention while Congo DR and Niger's far more entertaining stalemate only left the group looking as predicted, with the big teams on top.

- Moonda: Black Stars shine dimly

Congo were most aggrieved by their inability to secure some points over the team that are regarded as the group's whipping boys. It leaves them needing to beat Mali in their final group match, a tough ask even against a side that has looked lethargic thus far.

Claude Le Roy will have to conjure up yet another bit of magic and his recent talk makes it seem as though he has lost some of his touch. Le Roy allowed his team to stay up later than usual the night before the Niger match to celebrate with Dieumerci Mbokani who received the MVP award from his Belgian club Anderlecht. He is the first Congolese player to be recognised in this way in Belgium since 1954.

Mbokani hooked up with the ceremony through satellite link at his hotel but missed two clear chances in the match against Niger. Although kick off took place 18 and a half hours after the broadcast, Le Roy still thought it had an effect on his team's performance.

"Maybe we lost concentration with this party," Le Roy said, although he did not regret allowing Mbokani his moment in the sun.

"It was a difficult decision for me to make because it is such an important award for Mbokani, the first time he has won it. I could not stop him from receiving the award because that would have cut him on a mental level. It's such a big moment in his career. Belgian television respected everything they promised me but it finished around 11.30pm. It's no excuse at all but it might be a reason why we lost concentration in the game."

There was no celebrating for Nigeria's coach Steven Keshi who turned 51 on Wednesday. He has put plans to enjoy his birthday on hold in the wake of Nigeria's marquee clash against Zambia on Friday. After the Super Eagles drew their opening match with Burkina Faso, conceding in the last minutes, Keshi has been spoken to by members of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) board and told to make sure the players up their game.

"We have told them to go and put up a credible performance that will make Nigerians proud. The good thing is that we were not disgraced in the first game because we didn't lose. Every team in the group drew their games but we have told them to improve on their performance in subsequent games," Aminu Maigari, NFF president said.

Another board member sees Zambia as being vulnerable and as a result, prime for the picking. "We have asked the coaching crew to give us reassurances of a win over Zambia. The Zambians were not spectacular in their first game against Ethiopia. We've made it clear that the team needs to beat Zambia to ensure they qualify from the group stage," Emeka Inyama said.

Keshi has never won a match as a manager of the ANC team, although he took both Mali and Togo to the tournament in the past. He was part of Nigeria's 1994 squad that lifted the trophy and will want no better birthday gift than a first victory as coach.

Another coach eyeing some redemption is Algeria's Vahid Halilhodzic. Although the teams in the group of death only play again on Saturday, talk has already started about whether Togo and Algeria can challenge Tunisia and Ivory Coast, or if the opening victories were decisive in that pool.

Halilhodzic was in charge of Ivory Coast at the 2010 edition of the tournament when they lost to Algeria and he still thinks the Elephants can't be beaten. "Ivory Coast are the absolute favourites. I really don't see a team that can beat them. That team is experienced, it is the best in terms of quality, have a good system and they are very motivated," he said.

But he still wants to have something to show for his proud record as coach. In the last three years, he has presided over 75 matches and lost only eight across three different teams. All his defeats have been only by one goal. Now, he hopes to start a winning run because as he has learned, "the pressure in Africa is much bigger than anywhere in Europe."

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