It is quarter-final weekend in the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations tournament in South Africa and there have been plenty of talking points already as the record books continue to be rewritten. One of the more sensational sound-bytes came from the unexpected but deserved early departure from the showcase of defending champions and neighbours Zambia before the knockout phase.
For me, however, the more startling development is the fact that of the eight teams that are still in the tournament, seven have come from the same region, West Africa. The teams include the edition’s surprise package, the Cape Verde Islands whose population is not that different from that of the popular Ndirande Township in Blantyre. They qualified at the expense of another giant of the region, Cameroon, and have more than justified their presence in South Africa.
You could as well say it is an invasion because the only team not from West Africa is Bafana Bafana, the hosts, and you need to hope for an against-all-odds miracle like that of Zambia and Chelsea last year to prevent the trophy from going north. Gordon Igesund’s side have hardly convinced as potential winners even with home advantage and only an extreme optimist can put their money on them.
It is very fascinating that West Africa had eight representatives at the tournament and the only team that has not made the quarterfinals is Niger and you could say they missed out simply because there were three teams from that region in their qualifying group, with Ghana and Mali going through. It is the kind of dominance that makes the other regions feel green with envy, if not outright shame.
So, what has happened to the other regions? North Africa, for example, used to be a major contender, but all the teams from that region fell short and did not look as dominant as they used to in previous tournaments. Southern Africa’s hopes have usually been invested in the Chipolopolo Boys and Angola, but they also failed to impress in a tournament that is taking place within their domain.
One hopes the football administrators at Cosafa will take this development seriously and not only diagnose the problem but also seek the appropriate solutions; otherwise, the gap between us and the other regions, which are not relenting in their forward thrust, will continue to widen. This is supposed to be a continental tournament, not a regional one. As it is, we could as well have held it up there.
Away from South Africa, as I had foreseen, it was a weekend of upsets in the FA Cup fourth round. It all started on Friday night when struggling Aston Villa were booted out by Championship side Millwall and culminated in the elimination of my Liverpool by Oldham Athletic at Boundary Park. It was sweet revenge for the Latics who were knocked out in the third round of last year’s edition at Anfield.
There was a chance for the defeated sides to seek immediate redemption with midweek league fixtures, but none of the teams managed a win. For Villa, it was another loss while the Reds secured a draw as did other upset sides like Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers. With Manchester City dropping points at Loftus Road, Manchester United reopened a seven-point gap at the top.
Which makes Liverpool’s trip to Eastlands tomorrow [Sunday] even more crucial because Roberto Mancini would loathe increasing the gap even further given that the Red Devils have a bankable fixture against Fulham in tonight’s late kick-off.