Jerrad Peters


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Some final AFCON thoughts

Nigeria v Burkina Faso - 2013 Africa Cup of Nations FinalIt may be the world’s most overplayed tournament, yet the Africa Cup of Nations never ceases to deliver fascinating storylines, unexpected champions and heroes you never would have thought had it in them to rise to the occasion.

The 2013 instalment was no exception.

Once again Ghana and Ivory Coast arrived at the competition as overwhelming favourites (Algeria had also been tipped for glory by some, but theirs was always a status much over-hyped), and once again neither made it past the semifinals. Ethiopia’s involvement for the first time since 1982 was a feel-good story, and unfancied South Africa managed to exit the event they hosted with their honour intact.

As far as individuals are concerned, Mali’s Seydou Keita—who played his heart out for a bleeding homeland—was the inspirational figure of the three weeks; Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel the best player. Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune and Super Eagles midfielder Sunday Mba will surely be among the many Africa-based players tipped for transfers to European clubs in the coming months.

Following are the teams and players that made the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations interesting to me, with a handful of other observations thrown in just because.

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FBL-AFR-2013-MLI-NGA-MATCH29There are two storylines that have risen above the rest in the run-up to Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final between Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

In the first, we have a confident, outspoken Nigerian manager who has criticised what he sees as an obsession with white coaches in Africa and was brave enough to leave a handful of establishment players out of his side for this competition.

In the second, we have the classic Cinderella narrative of Burkina Faso, who have never contested a major final and, according to the Cup of Nations’ official website, represent “perhaps the greatest” surprise in the history of the tournament.

It’s a descriptor John Obi Mikel doesn’t quite buy into.

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Does the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations matter?

It’s a question I wrestled with in the run-up to the tournament, and I doubt I was alone.

The 2013 instalment of the continental championship, which began last month and will conclude on Sunday, is the third Cup of Nations to be played in the last four years and the second in succession. The Confederation of African Football decided to move its centrepiece from the even-numbered years to the odd so as to avoid congestion with World Cup qualifiers, but rather than waiting three years between competitions opted to have two of them back-to-back.

“More is better,” was the mantra, but it’s never one I bought into. And when the first two match-days produced only five goals and one winner it seemed as though the players were as uninspired as I.

No doubt some of them were, which is why they’re no longer in South Africa. The teams that remain, meanwhile, came here to have a go, each of them motivated by something that helped propel them into the semifinals.

For example, try telling Burkina Faso this Cup of Nations doesn’t matter.

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The South American Youth Championship—that scouts’ paradise—didn’t go exactly as planned for Brazil last month. Having finished in the top four in each of the biennial tournaments since 1977 they wound up bottom of their group at the 2013 instalment, with just one win and four goals scored in four matches.

It was a performance that fell well short of recent standards, in particular the 2011 side that lost just once en route to the title and hammered Uruguay 6-0 in the final. That side, which also graduated a handful of players to the squad that would win the FIFA U-20 World Cup six months later, was stacked with players who would become stars at club level, and others who already were.

Up front there was Neymar, Lucas Moura and Willian José; in defense Juan Jesus and Danilo. Alan Patrick and Oscar made things happen in the centre of the park, and holding it all together was an 18-year-old named Casemiro—an elegant, box-to-box midfielder with a penchant for playmaking who the previous season had broken into the first team at São Paulo.

At the time Casemiro was among the best central midfielders in his age category in Brazil, if not the best—a reputation that made him destined for a big-money move to big European club, should São Paulo have been unable to resist the offers tabled.

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The quarterfinals of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations are beginning to take shape. On Saturday Algeria, named by some as a pre-tournament favourite, became the first team to be eliminated from the competition when they fell 2-0 to Togo in Rustenburg. Meanwhile, Group D rivals Ivory Coast punched their ticket to the last eight with a convincing 3-0 win over Tunisia.

But let’s look back on Algeria’s ill-fated campaign for a moment. At few points in their two matches in South Africa (they lost their first contest 1-0 to Tunisia) can they be said to have played particularly poorly. Against both Togo and Tunisia they controlled extended segments of play, and in a post-match interview with the BBC Adlene Guedioura wasn’t far off the mark when he claimed his side’s failure to progress was merely (if you can actually say “merely” in this instance) down to poor finishing.

“The only thing you can reproach us for is not scoring,” he said. “I think against Togo we played well again but destiny just was not with us. It’s very harsh for us because we controlled the game again; we had the majority of possession; we had a lot of chances to score and at the end we lost 2-0.”

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Nothing seems to come easily for Itumeleng Khune. A career in professional football was never written in the stars for him, but it’s precisely because of that—because of his story, because of the adversity he has faced and good nature he has met it with—that he is almost universally loved.

Just 25-years of age he has already been capped 50 times for South Africa—a milestone he achieved on Wednesday against Angola. Bafana Bafana, as the national team is affectionately known, won the match 2-0 to take sole possession of first place in Group A at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, and throughout the 90 minutes Khune demonstrated both the marshalling and ball-distribution skills he has become famous for in the Premier Soccer League.

After the match he took questions from a handful of reporters and addressed the occasion of his 50th appearance for his country.

“It wasn’t an easy ride,” he said. “It was an up-and-down journey for me in order to reach the 50 because I got injuries along the way. But,” he added, “I managed to bounce back in the setup and regain the number-one spot. And here I am having reached 50, so I wish God can grant me blessings in order for me to get 50 more.”

That he even got one is testament to his strength of character.

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As far as the football is concerned, South Africa, it seems, is exactly as we left it following the 2010 World Cup. From an atmospheric standpoint, however, this Africa Cup of Nations couldn’t be more different.

As the host nation South Africa opened the 2013 installment of the international calendar’s most overplayed competition with a match against Cape Verde—the tournament debutants that just happen to be the top-ranked side in Group A according to the latest FIFA list.

Perhaps it was the absence of a truly high-profile opponent; perhaps it was the weather. But Johannesburg’s Soccer City was far from full as the opening ceremonies commenced, and even at kickoff the stadium that saw Spain defeat the Netherlands in the last World Cup final was peppered with empty seats.

If nothing else, a sense of gloom surrounding this edition of Bafana Bafana might have had something to do with the lack of enthusiasm, nevermind that South Africa went on to win the last Cup of Nations they hosted. Unfortunately, the football being played on Day One only served to further depress the mood, and in that the memories of 2010 weren’t at all difficult to conjure up.

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