The African Nations Cup remains an enigma. It grows in international stature but is still beset by organizational problems. Egypt beat its more fancied rivals to defend its title at the competition recently held in Ghana.
The Pharaohs repeat
CHAMPIONS. Two years ago, Egypt needed penalty kicks, after 120 minutes of scoreless action, to beat Ivory Coast in the final of the African Nations Cup.
In 2008, the Pharaohs left no doubt they were the kings of Africa.
Egypt beat runner-up Cameroon twice - 4-1 in their opening game and 1-0 in the final. It also crushed Ivory Coast, 4-1, in the semifinals.
Unlike the West African powers whose squads are dominated by European-based (and often European-bred) players, Egypt relied heavily on local players, most from Cairo power Al Ahli.
Of its key players, only captain Ahmed Hassan (Belgium's Anderlecht), striker Mohamed Zidan (Germany's Hamburg) and defender Wael Gomaa (Qatar's Al Siliya) play abroad.
"This team is better than that of 2006," said Hassan. "The players have matured and gained much more experience."
The final was decided on a defensive error by Cameroon veteran Rigobert Song, but the 1-0 margin of victory did not reflect the Pharaohs' dominance.
"We tried to take the game with good football," said Egypt coach Hassan Shehata, "for Egypt and for the fans, and it proved enough to win."
Shehata is only the second coach to win back-to-back African Nations Cup titles, but he credited his players for the team's success.
"We have a side that plays for each other and maybe even for me as coach," he said. "I think there is an understanding that we have, a special bond."
CONTENDERS. Cameroon failed in its bid for its fifth title, but it produced the upset of the tournament when it knocked off host Ghana, 1-0, on a goal by former MLS player Alain Nkong in the semifinals.
The much-traveled Nkong, who now plays for Atlante in Mexico, had never played for the Indomitable Lions before the 2008 African Nations Cup, but he became an overnight celebrity after his goal eliminated the mighty Black Stars.
Ghana and Ivory Coast finished third and fourth, respectively, but their coaches, both Frenchmen, were happy with the performance of their teams.
A day after falling to Cameroon, 1-0, in the semifinals, the Ghana Football Association gave Claude Leroy, a longtime veteran of African soccer, a vote of confidence, opening the door for the Frenchman to remain as national team coach.
"I am very grateful for the confidence the GFA has shown in me and I am also ready to work with the team in future," Leroy said. "It is unusual for an African football association to give its vote of confidence a day after it had lost a crucial game; so this gesture means a lot to me."
Ghana also had a player with MLS connections. Junior Agogo tied with Sulley Muntari with a team-high three goals.
Ivory Coast's African Nations Cup had started so well with four wins by a margin of 13-1 in four wins, but the Elephants, coached by Gerard Gili, collapsed in their last two games, losing to Egypt, 4-1, in the semifinals and to Ghana, 4-2, in the third-place game. They are loaded with international stars - Didier Drogba, Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou, the Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya - but were undermined by defensive deficiencies.
PRETENDERS. The big disappointment was 2002 World Cup semifinalist Senegal, which didn't win a game.
Coach Henryk Kasperczak quit after a 3-1 loss to Angola in the second game. Captain El Hadji Diouf, goalkeeper Tony Sylva and Ousmane Ndoye were dropped for the final group match against South Africa after breaking curfew.
Colorado Rapids goalie Bouna Coundoul started for the Lions of Teranga in their final game, a 1-1 tie with South Africa.
Not much was expected of South Africa, the 2010 World Cup host. The Bafana Bafana also finished without a win, fueling speculation that they will field the weakest host team in the history of the World Cup.
Morocco and Mali could have done better. Morocco finished third in its group when it lost to Guinea, 3-2, on the final day of group play. Mali had a shot at making the knockout phase after holding Nigeria to a 0-0 tie in their second game, but it was eliminated when it fell to Ivory Coast, 3-0.
Nigeria advanced at the expense of Mali to the quarterfinals, where it fell to Ghana, 2-1. The loss marked the first African Nations Cup in which it was entered since 1982 that Nigeria has not advanced as far as the semifinals.
Honsi heads star list
PLAYERS. Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o and Drogba may be international superstars, but they were upstaged at the African Nations Cup.
Eto'o and Drogba had solid tournaments - Eto'o led the tournament with five goals and set a career scoring record with 16 goals, while Drogba led Ivory Coast to the semifinals - but neither made the all-tournament team.
Midfielder Hosni Abd Rabou was named the tournament's top player and was joined on the all-tournament team by four other Egyptians: Mohamed Aboutrika, who scored the winning goal against Cameroon in the final, goalkeeper Essam Al Hadari, Amr Zaki and Gomaa.
Hosni, who plays for Egyptian club Ismaili, was sensational in both Pharaoh wins over Cameroon. He scored the first of four goals in the opening 4-2 win and ran the show from his midfield position in the final. He was unlucky not to score, being denied by Cameroon keeper Carlos Kameni on a free kick and hitting the post with a header.
Cameroon (Geremi and Alexandre Song) and Ghana (Michael Essien and Muntari) both had two players named to all-tournament team.
Other members of the all-tournament were Ivory Coast's Yaya Toure and Angola's Manucho, who was recently signed by Manchester United and loaned to Greek club Panathinaikos for the rest of the season.
COACHES. Shehata, the Egypt coach, was the exception to the rule at the African Nations Cup. He was only one of four Africans to coach at the African Nations Cup. Frenchmen and Germans dominated the coaching ranks, as they have done for many years now.
Cameroon's German coach Otto Pfister has been coaching in Africa for more than 30 years. He arrived in Rwanda in 1972 as part of an exchange program sponsored by the German government and has since held jobs in 11 other African nations - Burkina Faso, Congo, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Togo, Ghana twice and Cameroon - as well as posts in Asia.
Other famous coaches at the African Nations Cup included Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira (South Africa), who led Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title, Frenchman Roger Lemerre (Tunisia), who led France to the Euro 2000 title, Frenchman Henri Michel (Morocco), who led France to the 1984 Olympic gold medal, and former German star Berti Vogts (Nigeria), who led Germany to the Euro 1996 championship.
Case for artificial turf
ORGANIZATION. Unfortunately, the success of the African Nations Cup on the field was not duplicated in terms of its organization.
Teams complained about travel arrangements and their lodging.
Parreira, who is used to staying in luxury hotels with Brazil, found himself lodged with South Africa's Bafana Bafana at a two-star hotel in Tamale where goats roamed outside.
After having to endure long travel delays on the eve of his team's final group match, Cameroon coach Pfister complained, "This is a total disaster. I don't know if this is the Nations Cup or a tournament for children."
Perhaps the biggest complaint was the poor quality of the fields.
LeRoy, the Ghana coach, complained about Accra's Obene Djan Stadium.
"In more than 20 years in Africa," the Frenchman said, "it's the worst field I've ever seen in my career."
Following the tournament, FIFA president Sepp Blatter pressed the case for artificial surfaces.
He said artificial turf might be introduced at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. FIFA is laying artificial turf fields in 53 African nations as part of its "Win in Africa with Africa" campaign.
(This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)