Coach on a mission
As we enter the quarterfinals of the 25th African Cup of Nations, tension and energy have begun to build up. Indeed, such is the appeal that not only has it attracted the presence of celebrities and official figures including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's sons, actors and actresses, singers and directors, but also highly prestigious global coaches. Big names like Portugese coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, Dutch star striker of his generation Marco Van Basten, Italian coach Marcelo Lippi and Dutch Johannes Bonfrere came to Egypt to follow the African fiesta, to eye future talents and to evaluate the African rivals that will play them in this summer's World Cup in Germany. They come and go in secret, and only by sheer coincidence did your reporter spot Lippi in the lobby of his hotel, before he headed back to his homeland to put the final touches on the preparation schedule for his Azzurri team.
Marcelo Lippi was set to succeed Giovanni Trapattoni as Italy's coach by the start of October 2005. He is reported to have been offered a two-year contract running until the next World Cup finals. He made his name during two seasons with Juventus, and after guiding Turin to five league titles and then to Champions League glory in 1996.
It isn't Lippi's first time in Egypt. "I spent an unforgettable holiday with my family in Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada and Marsa Alam, and I have read about Egypt's ancient civilisation. But this time I am here on mission," said the Azzurri coach. "I want to watch the African matches, especially those of Ghana team." For Ghana are set to make their debut at the World Cup playing Italy in the opening Group E game in Hanover on 12 June. Lippi followed all their matches in Port Said. But he has also made use of his stay by following other games, including those featuring Egypt, in search of the secret of the excellence of African footballers.
"All coaches should attend such tournaments, follow the matches and respect African football because it has constantly proved itself to be one of the important pillars of international football today," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. He highlighted African talent and the great number of Africans playing in Europe. "African football has improved drastically over the last 20 years, and the players' technical performance has reached that which we see in Europe. The African teams depend on African talent. Players know how to implement their skills well."
And despite not understanding just why the African tournament is held every two years -- while the World Cup is held every four -- Lippi qualified this contest as a great success. He watched almost all the first round matches in Cairo and Port Said, but missed those of Tunisia, title holders and World Cup qualifiers, in Alexandria. "I really missed seeing those games in Alexandria, but just based on what I have seen I still think it's a strong tournament. It is clear from the games that the physical and technical preparation of all the teams for the tournament was good."
What also puzzled Lippi was the failure of Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal to qualify for the World Cup. "They are good teams by all measures," he said. "I can't understand how they couldn't make it to the finals." As for Ghana, the Azzurri rival in the World Cup finals, he perceives a great threat. "Despite their loss in the first round, they are good, coherent and strong," he told the Weekly. "It's very rare to find a team with young players who are famous for their beautiful performance and enthusiasm. The game did not reflect the true performance of the World Cup side." Lippi has closely followed the Black Stars' matches in both the African tournament and in the World Cup qualifiers. "Injuries forced the Black Stars to enter the African Cup of Nations without three key players. Chelsea's Michael Essien, Udinese's Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan were all out of the games after picking up injuries days before the start of the competition. Their absence has badly affected the team's performance among Group D," he said, describing this group as "the group of death. And despite this the remaining players played much better than their group rivals Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe." Lippi marked four players as Ghana's pillars: Stephen Appiah, Samuel Osei Kuffour, Hamza Mohamed and star defender John Mensah.
Some critics feel that the games at this African tournament have suffered from slow performance. "I don't agree with such an opinion," Lippi said. "The tactics are varied, the technique implemented in the pitch is strong and coherent and the performance of the players is not slow. The Africans pass the ball a lot and move quickly. It's really good but I wonder why there are few goals. I think it might be because the goalkeepers are really strong."
Lippi was impressed by the performance of some African players, other than those who play in Europe. Young Moroccan Marawan Al-Shammakh, Libyan Captain Tarek Al-Taeb, Nigeria's Osaze Odemwingie , Wilson Oruma and Christian Obodo, and Egypt's Ahmed Hassan all caught the coach's eye. As for Hassan, he said that "his way of playing reminds me of the way the Azzurri captain plays in the pitch." And as for the performance of the Egyptian team in general, Lippi thinks the Pharaohs are good but feels it's a shame they are hosting the tournament. "There are good players," he said. "I watched two of their games in the first round. They enter the pitch to fight for victory to satisfy their fans. But I think the team hasn't been able to show their good mettle because the players are under stress. All host nations suffer from such dilemmas."
Focussing on star Egyptian player Ahmed 'Mido' Hossam, Lippi commented on his failure in the Italian League. "It's impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons," he said. "But while the player is sometimes to blame for his inability to adapt to a given club, at other times it's the coach's fault. In addition, the circumstances of a club may affect such contracts. Many have failed in Italy in the past, but now you see Mido in England. He has done very well in with Tottenham."
Countering opinions in Europe, Lippi found the organisation of the tournament satisfactory. "In Europe we hear about the poor organisation in African championships, but here I found it good so far. Anybody can pick that up when they go to the stadiums." As for his predictions for the finals, Lippi thinks Egypt have a fair chance to win the championship, as do Nigeria, Cameroon and Tunisia. "If the Egyptian players develop their team technique and make good use of their fans' support, they will reach the finals. I noticed some individuality in their early performance in front of Libya and Morocco."
As for the coming World Cup, Lippi thinks Italy will do well in the finals. Italy last picked up the cup in 1982, and were runners up in 1994. "We have a strong league and I will pick the strongest players who I see 100 percent fit for the finals." He has refused to announce the names before May, but said that the Azzurris will fight ferociously to live up to their great history. However, he doubts that the African teams will reach the quarterfinals. "Big teams will dominate, but the tournament takes place every four years and things can change," he said. "But for now I think they only have a weak chance. Even Ivory Coast is in a difficult group with Argentina and the Netherlands." Commenting on the new ball FIFA has announced it will use, Lippi said, "It won't make a difference, whether it's a smart ball or an e-ball, or whatever. The player is the maker of difference."