The race is not to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise,
Nor riches to men of understanding,
Nor favour to men of skill;
But time and chance happen to them all.
Jose Mourinho, during his tenure as Chelsea manager in 2005, struggled to hide his frustration after losing to Liverpool in a Champions League match, claiming that “the best team lost”.
This truth does not apply to European football teams alone, but also to African national teams. The Africa Cup Of Nations (AFCON), which started in South Africa on 19th January is another classical example of “the race is not to the swift.” Often the so-called “good teams” are outshined by underdogs.
The best team don’t always win
As always, last year’s AFCON was filled with surprises. Zambia surprisingly emerged as winners of the last edition after defeating favourites Ivory Coast in the final. The media reported it would be a David versus Goliath clash and most of them were in favour of Ivory Coast winning the competition. Few left Zambia a chance, but after a crucial penalty miss from Didier Drogba, the final ended goalless. Zambia played with passion and with a “can do mentality”. They won the trophy to become the 2012 African Champions.
This year, after an Africa Cup of Nations build-up dominated by Zambia and Ghana, it was minnows Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia who stole the limelight in the first group games.
The Congolese cast aside unhappiness over bonuses and poor treatment by team officials to wipe out a two-goal deficit and finish stronger than Ghana in a 2-2 thriller.
This year, Ivory Coast was the clear favourite, heading into the tournament with the likes of Drogba, Yaya Toure (Manchester City) and Gervinho (Arsenal), until Nigeria defeated Ivory Coast 2-1 to reach the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations, keeping Didier Drogba and his teammates from lifting the trophy.
“It’s over,” the 34-year-old striker quietly summarised.
The trophy has eluded the country since 1992 – and now for the fifth successive tournament, this top-ranked team once again failed to live up to expectation and went home empty-handed.
While they’ve been favourites over the last few years, they haven’t been able to bring home the cherished African trophy. In Africa, the best team doesn’t always win. That’s why African national teams take prayer more seriously than their European counterparts.
Some commentators said Burkina Faso was lucky this year, others say it was their positive attitude as Jonathan Pitroipa’s extra-time header puts Burkina Faso in the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations at the expense of Togo. Whatever the case, we know that favour doesn’t always come to skilful people “Nor riches to the smart, Nor grace to the learned” (The Message Bible). That’s why the best students don’t always become the most successful when they leave school.
Drogba was not very successful at school. At age 13, his parents banned him from football after he failed his exams and had to repeat a year of school, due to excessive football playing. What an irony! Today, he could be described as more successful than his classmates.
Africa has produced some of the best footballers in the world, with the likes of Samuel Eto of Cameroon, and George Weah from Liberia, who won the Fifa world player of the year (1995). These days Africa produces star players like Emmanuel Adebayor of Tottenham Hotspurs, Adel Taraabt of Queens Park Rangers and Papiss Cissé of Newcastle, just to mention a few. Little wonder top scouts in European football are often spotted at the Cup of Nations tournament, seeking fresh African talent for European teams.
Some of the continent’s greatest ever talents, such as Didier Drogba, George Weah and Michael Essien, have never laid hands on the African Nations Cup, but Phil Masinga who played for two seasons in the English Premier League at Leeds United was part of the South African team when they won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996.
Ghana (FIFA rank 30), Nigeria (FIFA rank 52), and Ivory Coast (FIFA rank 14) always take headline slots in African football; however, teams with worse rankings may end up winning the competition this year. This competition could be a case of the “stone rejected by the builders may end up becoming the chief cornerstone” in this competition.
Below are the ranks of some of the African teams:
SOUTH AFRICA World rank: 87; CAF rank: 23; Best finish: 1996 Champions.
ANGOLA World rank: 84; CAF rank: 21; Best finish: Two quarterfinal appearances.
MOROCCO World rank: 74; CAF rank: 17; Best finish: 1976 Champions.
CAPE VERDE World rank: 69; CAF rank: 15; Best finish: Never previously qualified.
Burkina Faso, (World rank 92) has already forced Nigeria (World rank 52) to a draw at the preliminary stage of this competition. In the always unpredictable world of African soccer, Cape Verde’s qualification was the most difficult to foresee. Just before the Nations Cup, Cape Verde held Nigeria to a 0-0 draw.
Cape Verde, a small country with a population of about 500,000, is the only debutant at this year’s AFCON. The Blue Sharks qualified at the expense of Samuel Eto’s Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. Remember Cameroon were the first African team to reach the quarter finals of the world cup; they also have qualified for the world cup more than any other African team. In FIFA’s football rankings for December 2012, Cape Verde came in at 69th place, ahead of nations such as Austria, Iceland, Wales and Scotland.
After losing by 0 – 2 to Ghana, Cape Verde’s coach Luis Antunes said: “Today, we all watched a beautiful game but, unfortunately, the best team is going home and the tournament will lose its shine.”
The two best teams in each group of the 2013 African Cup of Nations will proceed to the quarter finals. The winner of the tournament will go ahead to represent the continent at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. Who knows, maybe an African nation will win the 2013 FIFA Confederation Cup. Whatever the case, “the best team doesn’t always win.”