Tuesday, January 22, 2013

New football and the 'land of the upright men'

At the group stages of the AFCON 2013, take it that your team has a point at the first whistle. There is two elsewhere. The primary objective would then depend on who you are. One team is content with the single point already gained by donning the uniform and taking to the pitch. The other drops that point and chase all three from the word ‘go’.

Firstly, I have to say Africans are decent and civilised people. They excel in their being and in their coming in and going out. The barbaric crowd that hurled water bottles and vuvuzelas into the Mbombela Stadium football field when Zambia played Ethiopia are from another continent, maybe planet.

There is fresh football as firstly dished by Ethiopia when they disrespected the champions, Zambia, at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, and then the way Burkina Faso refused to be bullied by a star-studded Nigeria. I admired Ethiopians football until their fans threw missiles into the field.

For starters, one has to admire the East Africans abandoning their home soil and sojourning to Nelspruit, which was turned into Addis Ababa. What was special about it was not the numbers, but the cheer and the noise they made for their team. Even after the match, they behaved like they won the AFCON Cup.

I was embarrassed, firstly by the pushing at the ‘park and ride’ bus and a man who got into the bus and blocked the way, refusing passage to other passengers, really for no apparent reason.  Then the throwing of items during the red-carding of the goalkeeper and the Chipolopolo was way too much.

The Ethiopian number 8 played a blinder as an individual, my player of the tournament so far. As a collective, the East Africans patiently assembled goal-side and let the Southern Africans play football at pace and until they stalled.

Their transition was as patient as the African champions scurried for cover, they found themselves in sixes and sevens as the patient and lubricated penetration proved smoother and more effective.

While this gave time to Zambia to regroup, the Zambians found themselves covering unnecessary spaces, exposing themselves to the exquisite touches of the Ethiopians. Chipolopolo came looking for a physical contest which the Ethiopians were never interested in. They subscribed to the short crisp passing and slow movement occasionally punctuated by a long ball.

Their undoing was shooting a pass too early during the early stages. One obvious aspect to their confidence was the deafening crowd. If they can receive the same support for their next two matches, they will be a huge problem for Nigerians.

Ethiopia opened the Zambian defence with deft touches and deliberate central balls and were never under siege themselves. Their earlier chance that saw the ball bounce over the bar, the naively and hastily taken penalty that was saved by Kennedy Mweene could have taken wind out of their sails, but was testimony of their intentions.

Once the Zambians scored through Collins Mbesuma, a goal resulting from poor concentration at the back, left the Ethiopians a little paralysed. The second half saw them restore their tempo and the inevitable goal came while there was still time for either team to win it.

The match was quite a decent affair and the spirit of the Zambian players and their commitment to tackles and chasing was rendered useless as Ethiopia dished out a brand of football that I always cry about.

The most interesting aspect of their brand of football can see them rented to pieces by finer and opportunistic teams like ruthless Nigeria. Depending on how the Super Eagles shape up on the day, they may be in trouble with the Ethiopians. That will be a match to watch for me.

The West Africans were stretched by the less known Burkina Faso. The minnows were physical and showed less respect to the former champions. The men from ‘the Land of the Upright’ fought gallantly and matched their men fighting tooth and nail.

The prospect of watching them play Ethiopia is appetising. The Burkinabe used the ball and the pitch width very well. They looked to create chances and pushed forward with reasonable force.

The belief in their own abilities was what made so much difficulty for the Nigerians to find the second goal despite that early opener. It was amazing how the Super Eagles could sleep on duty and concede in the last minute.

Judging by the way the Zambians and Nigerians went about their business, one has a feeling they did not hit top gear. The problem with that is, there may never have the opportunity to.

One cannot shake off the feeling that this may be a tournament of the minnows. In both matches, the contests of interests were unit against unit and tactical awareness was a little better, though, both giants, Zambia and Nigeria were guilty of, again, poor decisions at vital moments.

I repeat that football requires good decision-making skills, moment after moment by everyone. Those guilty of not meeting the demands will exit the 2013 AFCON before we enjoy their company. The fortunate part is that there is lack of wisdom to punish the poor decision makers.

How long that honeymoon will last remains to be seen. Many teams will rue that ineptness soon. At the end of the day, Africa must remain the land of the upright as the tourney steps up a gear and pressure mounts. Scenes at the Ethiopia versus Zambia match by the fans must never be tolerated.