The saga of Togo's withdrawal from the tournament rumbled on in a blizzard of voltes-face and misinformation. First the players had decided to stay after last Friday's terrorist attack, then their prime minister had told them to go, then Emmanuel Adebayor said they would go even though they wanted to stay, then the sports minister said they could stay, but only if they were first to go and observe three days of mourning.
After a day of twists and turns came a game of one major twist, as Mali proved themselves the Peterborough of Africa, coming from 4-0 down with 11 minutes to go to snatch an improbable draw against Angola, whose goalkeeper, Carlos Fernandes, seemed intent on proving true every negative stereotype about goalkeeping on the continent.
African management hasn't known any truly dreadful shirts since Adegboye Onigbinde left the Nigeria job, so it was heart-warming to see Kinnah Phiri, Malawi's coach, complementing his wild eyes with a navy shirt hooped in red, yellow, pink, orange and white. As a centre-forward in the Seventies he inspired the Flames to two East and Central Africa Challenge Cup titles; as a coach he led them to a first-ever win in the Nations Cup – and by an emphatic 3-0. Algeria were far better than this in World Cup qualifying, suggesting there may be some truth in rumours of a rift between the coach, Rabah Sadaane, and his players. Sadaane blamed the fact that it was hotter than he'd been expecting.
How hard is it to run a press conference? You'd think it was fairly simple, but not for CAF, who seemed taken aback that people in Egypt might speak Arabic, which is odd, given their headquarters are in Cairo. One of the great innovations of this tournament – and it is to be welcomed, when it works – has been simultaneous translation of press conferences, but it only really makes sense if you take account of what languages the people being interviewed speak. So when Egypt's captain, Ahmed Hassan, spoke, he was translated, ad hoc, into French, presumably for the benefit of the one Togo-lese delegate, while the Angolans and Nigerians who made up the majority of the audience were left nonplussed. One continent, united in bafflement. What was clear was how good Egypt remain; they were the only side to look anything like coherent in their opening match.
Another day, another failure for one of the teams qualified for the World Cup, as Cameroon lost 1-0 to Gabon. The two had been paired in World Cup qualifying, when Cameroon's eventual passage to South Africa was eased by the death of the long-time Gabonese president Omar Bongo.
Gabon were scheduled to play Cameroon in Libreville last June, but funeral arrangements led to the game being postponed. By the time it was eventually played, in September, Paul le Guen had taken over Cameroon. Having restored discipline and self-belief, his side won both in Libreville and four days later in Yaoundé, and a five-point deficit became a one-point advantage. In Lubango, though, Bongo had his revenge as Daniel Cousin gave Gabon the lead and Cameroon lacked the imagination to break them down. It meant that, with Ghana's game against Togo cancelled, none of the sides who had qualified for the World Cup won in the first round of matches.
A day of great celebration for the hosts, as they beat Malawi with two goals in the space of six minutes to go top of their qualifying group and set up an intriguing final game against Algeria, who beat Mali 1-0. The noise as Flavio put them ahead with his third fine header of the tournament, and then when Manucho clipped a neat finish over the goalkeeper after dispossessing Joseph Mpondo, was astonishing. Up in the VIP box, the president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, sitting oddly alone – his wife, who had been with him for the opening game, nowhere to be seen – allowed himself a gentle smile of celebration, while a black-suited flunkey alongside him danced an uncomfortable Arsène Wenger-style jig of delight. As fans celebrated raucously in the streets, it was hard not to think that, once again, a Nations Cup was being carried by the glee of the home nation.
Diffident against Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast rippled with authority against Ghana, mixing power and class. Even more impressively, when Emmanuel Eboué was sent off 10 minutes into the second half they showed the sort of mental fortitude they have at times in the past been accused of lacking, weathering a brief Ghana flurry before taking the game beyond reach with Siaka Tiene's superb free-kick. Otherwise, this was a day dominated by the vagaries of Angolan air travel, with a bus-load of passengers boarding one flight from Luanda to Cabinda turned away at the aircraft door on the grounds that the pilot was having his lunch.
More sinister in nature were the problems afflicting Malawi, who claimed to have been denied access to their training facilities three times before their game against the hosts, Angola. "Each time, we were told to go at 16:00 to the ground, and we found Angola training," Phiri said. "We waited for Angola to finish training and we went to go in, and they said, 'No, the ground belongs to the club, you can't train,' and the police kicked us out."
Nigeria rode their luck to ease some of the pressure on them with a 1-0 win over Benin, and in all probability a point against Mozambique on Wednesday will see them to the quarter-finals. The return of Peter Odemwingie after a virus seemed to give them a greater balance than in the defeat by Egypt, but this was still a far from convincing win.
Twice Benin hit the bar – through Stephan Sessegnon and Nouhoum Kobena – while the penalty from which Yakubu Aiyegbeni rolled in the only goal was awarded for a doubtful handball, Odemwingie's header hitting the chest of Rommy Boco – once of Accrington and now with Sligo Rovers – before ricocheting on to his arm.
Egypt became the first side to win two games in the tournament but they didn't find it easy against Mozambique, despite the unconventional approach of the Mambas' goalkeeper Joao Rafael. Egypt have suffered through complacency before, and they might have been undone again had Mozambique been able to match their approach play with an quality in front of goal. It took an own goal just after half-time from Dario Khan to break the deadlock, before a spectacular volley from Gedo nine minutes from time sealed the win and Egypt's passage to the quarter-finals.Reuse content