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Jan 23, 2006

Missing the action

I don't mind telling you, I've had Egypt on my mind this weekend. I find it disappointing that so many people who claim to be students of the international game, care little about the African Cup of Nations.

We should all be capable of gazing away from the Premiership once in a while, especially to watch a competition replete with so much football talent. In a World Cup year, with five of the sixteen African participants bound for Germany in June, it's particularly enlightening.

The 2006 tournament has started brightly. No disrespect to Libya, but most neutrals were hoping for an Egyptian victory in Friday's competition opener. That the Pharaohs delivered three goals without reply means there's no danger of the locals losing interest, before things have really got going.

Spurs striker Mido strolled through the game, leading the line for an Egypt side untroubled by their modest Libyan opponents. Mohamed Aboutrika's superb free-kick from distance represented the individual highlight of a job well done by the host nation at the Cairo International Stadium.

It was my suspicion before a ball was kicked in Egypt, that the Ivory Coast might be the best team in the competition. Their grittily efficient win against Morocco on Saturday served to confirm those initial thoughts.

Few chinks in the Elephants' armour were noticeable. This was a well organised performance from the team coached by former French World Cup star Henri Michel.

We've spoken a lot in the build-up to the African Cup of Nations, about the striking prowess of Chelsea's Didier Drogba, and perhaps not enough about defensive stalwarts, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue, the Arsenal pair. Their keeper, Jean-Jacques Tizie, who plays his club football for the Tunisian club Esperance was similarly excellent.

I will say this. I'm far from convinced the Ivorians should have been awarded their 36th minute penalty. Moroccan defender Walid Regragui fouled Drogba outside the area for me.

Yet no one of fair disposition can really argue with the end result. If this is a portent of things to come from the Ivory Coast, they won't be far away when the medals are handed out.

I would fancy them to make an impact at the World Cup, were it not for the unforgiving group they've landed in. With the best will in the world, it's hard to imagine the Elephants finishing above Argentina and Holland, not to mention Serbia & Montenegro.

This brings me to something I've been worried about for a few months now. The conclusion that Africa will be hard pressed to do itself justice in Germany is unavoidable. This view has been reinforced in the wake of dispiriting displays at the weekend by two African World Cup standard bearers, Angola and Togo.

On the one hand, Angola's 3-1 defeat by Cameroon was no surprise. The Palancas Negras won't be the last team to succumb to Samuel Eto'o and his mates in Egypt. However, it's not unreasonable to suggest that there's insufficient quality within the squad, for World Cup progress to be likely.

Then we come to Togo, whose plight, following a tame 2-0 surrender to DR Congo, has worsened with news of a row between coach Stephen Keshi and star player Emmanuel Adebayor. No one is quite sure, at the time of writing, what precisely has caused this fight.

Originally listed in Togo's side on Saturday, Adebayor's name was later removed. The recently signed Arsenal striker started on the bench, and only came on near the end of the match. Whoever is right and wrong in this mess is unclear. What can't be contradicted, though, is that Togo rely extremely heavily on Adebayor. Without him, they're rather ordinary.

At least there was better luck on Sunday in Alexandria, for another World Cup country, Tunisia, the defending champions. The 4-1 margin of victory might look emphatic, yet this was a remarkably even game for long periods.

The Zambians scored first when James Chamanga took advantage of a misunderstanding between goalkeeper Ali Boumnijel and defender Hatem Trabelsi. However, Tunisia's Brazilian born striker Francileudo dos Santos netted a fine hat-trick, while Riad Bouazizi also got on target.

South Africa's 2-0 defeat at the hands of Guinea merely underlines what many who follow Bafana Bafana closely have been saying for some time. This is a very poor side and no one can begrudge the more inventive Guineans their victory.

No doubt about the most eye-catching individual effort so far. That early honour goes to the incomparable Eto'o. After scoring three times against the Angolans, you wonder if it's not far-fetched to picture the Cameroonian reaching double figures by competition's end.

In my view, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Tunisia and the host nation have all demonstrated that they have the capacity to go far the tournament. We'll know more about Nigerian and Ghanaian credentials after their meeting - the African equivalent of England v Scotland - in Port Said on Monday.

If you've given the African Cup of Nations the old body swerve so far, do an about-turn. You won't regret it.


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