West Africa dominate at business end of Afcon

Posted by Firdose Moonda

With the business end of the African Nations' Cup about to begin, West African dominance is the main talking point. Of the eight sides left in the competition, seven are from that area of the continent, which means apart from South Africa's clash with Mali, the rest of the knockouts will be regional derbies.

The one team few would have predicted to make up the last eight is Cape Verde. But the islanders have shown they are not scared of big teams or big occasions. Cape Verde kicked Cameroon out of qualifying, played the opening match against the host nation in front of crowd the equivalent of a fifth their entire country's population and scored a last minute winner against Angola to progress.

At first, their coach Lucio Antunes indicated that their job has been done. "We came here to make a point and we have done that. We have a team with talented players though they are not very popular. They have been playing together for some time and the results are there for all to see. Our objective has been accomplished," he said.

Now, his ambitions have grown. "There is a big difference between before the tournament and now. We are now more confident and stronger. We think we are going to the final. Zambia won the last tournament because they were the strongest. We are going to win the tournament, that's why we are here," he said.

Like last year's champions, Cape Verde have built their campaign on team spirit and togetherness. Love alone won't win matches though and their skills are what stand them in good stead to progress. With most of the team based in Portugal, they display a certain European flair. Ghana have already identified their strength at set pieces and the strikers' ability in the air as two areas they need to watch out for, as they hope to end Antunes' fairytale.

For Ghana it will be less of a magical story worldwide if they reach the final four but important for their own development because of the inexperienced team they brought to the event. "When we came to this competition we had about 10 players who had never played in this type of competition. Their confidence levels are rising," Kwesi Appiah, Ghana's coach said.

The team may be feeling good but a cloud hangs over them after allegations of match fixing in their game against Niger surfaced. The Ghanaian FA strongly denied the Radio Gold report. "We wish to state emphatically that report is false, irresponsible, reckless and mischievous," they said in a statement on their website.

Another controversy at the tournament is that of the Nelspruit pitch, slammed by Togo's Emmanuel Adebayor who had strong words for the surface his team will play their quarter-final on. "The stadium is one of the best I have played in, but to be honest with you, I'm very sorry, but it's a disgrace for our continent to be playing on this pitch when the tournament is on the TV around the world," he said.

"Those people that watch the game in Europe, they will be sending SMS's to me tonight asking me, 'are you playing in the bush or what?'. It's a disgrace to our continent, we can do better." Zambia's captain Chris Katongo was also critical of the surface and the organisers have promised it will be in better shape for the knockouts.

They explained the sandy conditions and lack of grass. Before the event, the turf was infected with algae, which was made worse by heavy downpours. The groundsmen tried to rectify the situation with sand, although they did not have CAF's approval to try that. As a result, the surface was uneven and prevented teams from playing too much of a passing game.

The stadium manager Roelf Kotze said the double headers played in a role in his team not being able to fix the issue. The break between the group stage and knockouts, he said, will give them enough time to ensure the surface is back to its best. If the teams bring their A games as well, the least talked about quarter-final between Togo and Burkina Faso could provide as much as excitement as the rest.

But the match all eyes will be focused on is the marquee contest between Ivory Coast and Nigeria and the teams have done the best to talk it down. Each side has called the other favourites, although the Super Eagles goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama added some bait. "No doubt, they are loaded with good players. They are the favourites. What people don't know is that stars don't play football," he said.

Simply playing the game will not be the focus of the other two teams. Both South Africa and Mali have nation-building in mind. While Bafana Bafana's task is simply to win back confidence, Mali's is to heal broken hearts.

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