People say there are strange things happening in Africa; that strange times are here, and that strange days are coming. Rumours swirl that the natural order is changing, and stadiums from Cairo to the Cape twitch with a nervous fervour, in anticipation of a realignment of the status quo. Weekends like this, with competition raging across the continent, are offered up for inspection to these theorists. A series stacked with established competitors and plucky underdogs gives all a chance to see exactly where superiority skulks.
Liberia v. Nigeria – Changing Colours, or Returning Authority?
Traditionally, the landscape of African football is dominated by the biggest of beasts and the fiercest of warriors. The eagles have soared, the lions have roared, and the pharaohs ruled over the continent with an effortless majesty that appeared to be inexorable. But the whiff of revolution is in the air, and the old guard can no longer rest on their laurels, counting gold stars or recounting glories past. The colours of the world are changing, day by day.
Eyebrows were raised at the last Cup of Nations. ‘A temporary blip’ they called it, ‘a freak occurrence’. The absence of so many bona fide feasters from Africa’s top table in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea was credited by many to a perfect storm of misfortune. Inspiration and organisation had carried the lesser lights of Libya, Niger, and Botswana to the Afcon, while conspicuous absentees Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Algeria had missed out through a myriad of excuses and circumstance, the like of which would never be seen again. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts’, they said, ‘enjoy your spot in the sun, the heavyweights will be back next year.’
But will they?
Ignoring the horrendously rushed, and suspiciously arbitrary qualifying format, yesterday’s results, and perhaps more importantly, yesterday’s performances, suggest that we may well be witnessing an altered trend in African sport. The Pharoahs have already tasted elimination, humbled by the Central African Republic. Certainly, the snappier qualifying system gives more scope for shock outcomes and giant killings, but maybe, just maybe, some of the little guys are here to stay, while some of the big names face problems deeper than many had imagined.
Take Cameroon. Where do I begin? The ‘Indomitable Lions’? Don’t make me laugh! Even without Samuel Eto’o, arguably the finest player the continent has produced, a squad containing Nicolas Nkoulou, Stephane Mbia, and Achille Emana, not to mention new Barcelona signing Alex Song, should not be coming unstuck against Cape Verde. The four-time African champions had already achieved a third place finish at the Afcon before Cape Verde was even an independent nation. Today, Cape Verde has roughly a fortieth of the population of Cameroon. A fortieth. This should not be happening.
Maybe we can cross Cameroon off our list of African giants.
Ivory Coast’s shabbied Golden Generation at least managed to win their box office bout with Senegal at the FHB stadium in Abidjan. However, Ivorian defensive nous was almost non-existent, and it was only really the greater incompetence of their opponents, as well as some impressive individual performances that saved Elephant blushes. What has become of these two proud nations? Perhaps even the continent’s minnows would be confident that a little organisation and prudence could spread panic in those two ‘backlines’.
And so to Nigeria, a later kick off, and a potentially humbling fixture; they say that the bigger they come, the harder they fall, and in an African context, few come bigger than the Super Eagles.
So how would things come to pass? Would Nigeria reassert their dominance, clarify their place as a mega power on the continental stage, or would they shrink like their indomitable neighbours, lending weight to suggestions of an African uprising?
Public reaction following the match is decidedly mixed, and few results can fail to answer the above question more than a grotty 2-2 draw in Monrovia. The optimists will suggest that a point away from home, and two away goals is a good result, and a positive return from a potential banana skin – certainly enough to identify the Super Eagles as favourites going into the second leg; beat Liberia at home, and our place in the Afcon is secure. Pessimists take a different stance; they suggest that a Nigerian team that can’t beat minnows like Liberia, that concede two against a side of this calibre, simply aren’t good enough, or at least aren’t performing to their capacities. These aren’t the Lone Stars of George Weah anymore. Sekou Oliseh, who equalised late on, is an able frontman, but his supporting cast – plucked mainly from the domestic league, and outposts such as Indonesia and Malaysia, shouldn’t really be troubling heavyweights like Nigeria. Should they?
A realist would probably fall somewhere in the middle. Keshi picked an exciting team, a young team, and generally, they coped well inside the electric atmosphere of the Samuel Doe stadium – Doe a man who knew better than most what it means to fall from grace. Some of Keshi’s more inexperienced picks, Juwon Oshaniwa of Sharks, for example, as well as Nosa Igiebor and Nwankwo Obiorah, are still learning at this level, and days such as this are part of the necessary formation for a long career with the national side. Keshi will have been particularly pleased with Igiebor’s equaliser.
New Chelsea signing Victor Moses also continued his string of impressive performances with the Super Eagles – pacey and sharp, he will look to be more involved with play in the future, but demonstrated, once again, how his speed and trickery can unsettle defences – being brought down early in the first half to win the penalty which Ikechukwu Uche dispatched so coolly. Some criticism has been levelled at Vincent Enyeama for his role in Liberia’s equaliser, but this is a gardien we can trust, and the skipper will be looking to make amends in Calabar on October 12th.
Still, complacency must be shunned, it’s not too late for Nigeria to find itself amongst the disgraced absentees and fallen giants of the continent. Liberia will be buoyed by their late goal, and fans of the national side will recall a dismal day in Abuja, a year ago, when a ninetieth minute equaliser by Ibrahima Traoré sent Guinea to the Afcon at Nigeria’s expense.
It is an episode that must not be repeated.
Liberia v. Nigeria – Changing Colours, or Returning Authority?