The beauty of bad boys
Looking ahead to Africa's performance at the World Cup, and in the wake of the African Cup of Nations, the side to salute is Ivory Coast, bets Gamal Nkrumah
Let us, Africans, pin our hopes on the bad boys -- or shall we say t 0-0 at El-Gabalephants. Of the five African sides who will be in Germany this summer, Ivory Coast appears to be the most promising.
The Elephants must not fail to find their feet in Germany. Their performance at the African Cup of Nations in Egypt two weeks ago was found wanting, even though they made it to the final. Indeed, they have drawn opprobrium from both fan and foe. However, they are an African side studded with star players and internationally acclaimed strikers who play for top European sides. Cameroon and Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o recently won the African Footballer of the Year award for the third consecutive year but his chief rival, Ivory Coast's star striker Didier Drogba was close behind, losing by just two votes. Drogba is by no means the only Ivorian star -- there are also Yaya Touré and Koffi N'Dri among others. Alas, Eto'o -- simply Africa's greatest striker -- would not be playing in Germany. Drogba will.
Chelsea's Drogba might have lost his nerve during the heart- stopping penalty shoot-out in the ACN finals -- having his shot saved by Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadari -- but he is still an exceptionally talented player. It is far easier to shape a national playing style when you have such artistry with the beautiful game as Drogba. But, as the finals with the Pharaohs so clearly demonstrated, the Elephants buoyancy can swiftly turn into floundering.
Nor do we want to see African teams playing keep-ball for hours on end. We want goals.
One curious feature of this summer's World Cup is that some African sides will be obliged to face their former colonial masters. Togo meets France on 23 June in Cologne -- a certain win for the Metropolitan country. And, Portugal plays with its former colony, Angola, on 11 June -- also in Cologne.
The Elephants stand as good a chance as any in Germany of getting into the quarter-finals. In fact, no less an authority than Franz Beckenbauer, chairman of the organising committee for the 2006 tournament, tips the Ivorian side as possibly making it to the final of the World Cup. However, qualifying from their tough Group C would be a feat in itself. Come the summer Ivory Coast, after all, will play in a World Cup group that includes such heavyweights as Argentina and The Netherlands. This is probably not very good news for what is, quite frankly, Africa's most impressive team. All Africa hopes surely that they can, at least, thrash Serbia. Had Ivory Coast, say been in the relatively easy Group G instead of Togo, they would definitely have been certain contenders to reach the last eight.
The goal is to avoid bottom place in Group C, most certainly one of the toughest in the tournament. But, let us reflect for a moment on the Elephants' performance at the ACN. Still buoyed by the experience of beating Nigeria's Eagles in the semi-final, the Elephants' high-tempo, rucking and rolling style in the final made one think more of rugby than soccer. The following day the Ivorian style was mauled by Egyptian critics.
Strength is all very well as long as you do not play muscle- bound. The boisterous bad boys love rough contact and boot and bash. The heavy-handed sportsmanship and skill of the Elephants have gained them few admirers in Egypt. "They are crude thugs and ruffians," furiously squealed an outraged Egyptian colleague after watching the ACN finals. "I couldn't believe my eyes. They were out to disable our national side. They whacked, kicked and fouled. The rascals were so contemptuous of the rules of the game and they deserve what they got."
The Elephants, let us say, are at ease with adventure. And, woe betide a player who does not wear shin guards. Still, they must learn the art of kicking with subtlety.
The Elephants might have played mighty rough, but at least they have sound reasons to be so. Ivory Coast is, one must keep in mind, a country desperately trying to hold on for dear life as a nation. It teeters dangerously on the verge of an ominous civil war that pits Muslim against Christian, North against South. Soccer unites the country as never before. The Elephants, bearing the scars of war, obviously lack discipline and self-restraint, in spite of the urgings of coach Henri Michel. They excel with the indelicate interweaving of spunk and spirit where control gets a little frayed.
The Elephants might have the best maul on the pitch which has earned them a reputation as the bad boys of African soccer, but what about the continent's other boys who will show up at the World Cup tournament in Germany in June? The four debutante World Cup qualifiers -- Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo -- are a mixed bag. They must be able to put the finishing touches to their preparatory planning.
The failure of the Togolese to get past the first round at the ACN augurs ill for their performance in Germany later this year. Arsenal striker, the Togolese-born Emmanuel Adebayor, will undoubtedly make his mark in Germany.
The Togolese side will most likely be knocked out at the first hurdle. And, the Tunisians, too, will in all probability be flying home before the end of the tournament -- the Tunisians, making their fourth World Cup appearance, have no less of a wooden style than the Togolese. The two sides do not play soccer with any sense of fevered imagination.
The Carthage Eagles will face Al-Suqur, the Saudi Falcons, in Munich on 14 June. The Falcons might well beat the Eagles, we shall see. The Tunisians will then meet Spain in Stuttgart on 19 June -- alas they have a very slim chance of beating the Spaniards. Forget it, I would say.
Are things quite so gloomy?
There will certainly be no prizes for those who correctly guess the winner of the Ghana versus Italy match in Hanover on 12 June. Ghana finds itself in an especially tough Group E. The Black Stars, ordinarily no pushovers, are not expected to wallop either the United States or Italy, let alone the Czech Republic. It is highly unlikely that Ratomir Dujkovic, Ghana's Serbian-born coach, will lead the Black Stars to the final eight. Ghana's Michael Essien might wow fans in Germany, but the 22-year old Black Star striker who became the most expensive African player when he moved from Lyon to Chelsea, cannot single-handedly bestow the World Cup to this promising albeit greenhorn side.
And, what about the Angolans? Angola doesn't stand a chance of reaching the last eight either. The Angolan side lacks the extra thrust that takes them beyond the scrambled defence. They slacken just when a little improvisation is required. Will they come in from the cold?
Whatever the answer may be, many of Africa's emerging teams are hugely underrated even though they have a tendency towards poor finishing.
In the past, the ball has tended to turn more towards the traditional powers -- Nigeria, Morocco, Cameroon and yes, of course, Egypt. These sides invariably represented Africa at previous World Cup tournaments. It is widely feared that the demise of the old guard, undoubtedly a terrible blow to African football, might negatively impact African performance in Germany. And, to be honest, the African players of 2006 have nothing really to live up to -- yes, a number of star strikers and gifted players, but no overall multi-talented team -- again the Elephants come closest to the ideal.
The Elephants take on the Argentines in their opening game in Hamburg on 10 June. If Drogba can keep himself and his team going until the World Cup in Germany, Ivory Coast could be Africa's success story of the year. Maybe, maybe not.