Can an African side outdo Bafana Bafana?
Chris McGrath looks at the prospects for the continent's five other contenders
Saturday 12 June 2010
Rabah Sasaane, the obdurate and emotional veteran now in his fifth stint as national coach, has incensed his captain, Yazid Mansouri, by omitting him from the starting XI against Slovenia – a match where victory would seem imperative for either side to progress. Mansouri is said to have threatened a walkout.
Pretty awful in their recent 3-0 friendly defeat by Ireland, the suspicion persists that Algeria's febrile play-off success against Egypt has robbed Africa of its most plausible contenders. Certainly Egypt looked far superior in avenging that defeat with a 4-0 thrashing in the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations. Nadir Belhadj is suspended today as a legacy of that game. At least Karim Ziani, a French-born playmaker, belongs to the same zone as Zizou, but the Desert Foxes badly need something extra – too bad they can't call on Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri.
Exorbitantly dependent on Samuel Eto'o, who underlined the disparities between his career and those of his team-mates by reportedly buying each one a £29,000 watch as a reward for qualifying. Eto'o showed his temperamental side in threatening to quit after a spat with Roger Milla, and he knows that he has yet to exorcise the hero of 1990 in the national colours. But Paul Le Guen has made him captain, in the hope that he exalts his compatriots, rather than gaze down on them in despair – and he certainly sounds motivated by a World Cup on African soil. "I might live in Europe, but I sleep in Africa," he said. "This generation of players is too great not to aim high. My job is to convince them it's possible, not one of Samuel's daydreams." Le Guen managed to avoid the retribution visited on the coaches of Nigeria and the Ivory Coast after similar disappointment at the Africa Cup of Nations, but arrives under pressure after Cameroon failed to win any of their warm-up matches.
Impressed in 2006, beating the US and Czech Republic before bumping into Brazil in the second round, and made qualifying look far easier than most African nations. They enjoyed a much more productive workout in Angola in January, thwarted only by Egypt in the final. Milovan Rajevac, plucked from obscurity in the Serbian league, will relish organising his men against his native land tomorrow and can be depended on to take a tough, pragmatic approach to what admittedly looks a tough, pragmatic group. Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah will be expected to make their experience count among a solid bloc of five midfielders – grievously weakened by the injury to Michael Essien – while the young solo striker, Asamoah Gyan, has been candid in saying he wants to put himself in the Premier League shop window. This seems a less factious squad than some, with players huddling to sing together at the end of training sessions, though a late change of hotel reinforced a reputation for volatility.
Their captain and attacking focus, Didier Drogba, has not yet been ruled out of Tuesday's opening game against Portugal. The Chelsea striker suffered a fracture in his arm playing a friendly against Japan eight days ago but stayed on after surgery and resumed non-contact training yesterday. Either way, the Ivorians are again in tough company, having drawn Argentina, Holland and Serbia when making their tournament debut in 2006. They have also had a jittery preparation and were deplorable in the Africa Cup of Nations, promptly discarding Vahid Halilhodzic as coach to rush in Sven Goran Eriksson to add some Nordic phlegm. But the Touré brothers and Salomon Kalou have elite club savvy and the young gun, Seydou Doumbia, is strong and quick and could yet seize his moment after scoring 55 goals in two seasons in Switzerland.
Another qualifier to have failed to impress in the Africa Cup of Nations, and like the Ivory Coast, turned to Sweden for a cool hand on the tiller. Lars Lagerback supervised his homeland to five consecutive tournaments before failing to reach this one, but his new charges had made very heavy weather of qualifying. They had to win their last game – which they did, in desperate style – while relying on results going their way elsewhere.
It was a far cry from 1994, when the Super Eagles were two minutes from the last eight. That team went on to win Olympic gold and suggested African football to be on the brink of a defining breakthrough, but they look a rather more bedraggled set of fowl nowadays, with the creaking Nwankwo Kanu the only survivor.
With John Obi Mikel succumbing to Chelsea's World Cup curse, Lagerback may bid to stem Argentina's creative menace tomorrow with three defensive midfielders, including Dickson Etuhu of Fulham.
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