••• BOLAS & BANDEIRAS •••

World Cup 2010 — Group B

Posted in Uncategorized by Steven Villereal on June 8, 2010

ARGENTINA

That other Albiceleste, also twice World Cup winners, pose an interesting predicament. They possess two individuals who some claim to be the greatest footballer of all time—unfortunately one of them is their cuddly-but-clueless coach Diego Maradona.

Will Maradona's Argentina belly flop or effortlessly gliiiide across the pitch?

At the helm since late 2008, El Diego is undeniably a cult-like figure, commanding the respect of the nation and theoretically of his footballing charges as well. However, under Maradona La Selección stumbled badly through qualification—they equalled the worst defeat in their history, falling 6-1 away to Bolivia (blaming the altitude, despite backing Andean nations a year before when FIFA tried to ban high-altitude matches) and their hopes of qualifying hung in the balance until a 2-1 victory against Peru in their final match. That was when 57 year-old Boca Juniors striker Martin Palermo scored a last gasp winner in the torrential rain, prompting the now-famous Diego penguin-slide celebration featured above.  El Diego hasn’t forgotten Palermo’s heroics—he’s seemingly been included in the side as some sort of talismanic mascot. It’s hard to see why else he’s come along (except to see the South African sights!) as he is slow, mono-faceted, and competing for a place with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Kun Agüero—all strikers on whom he’s got nothing except years. But, see, he scored this goal in the rain!!! Maradona hasn’t exactly distinguished himself with his formulaic selection policies; he’s called up more than 120 players since taking charge, utilizing a learn-by-doing approach to tinkering with his squad. Controversially, his final 23-man list didn’t contain seriously-in-form midfield schemers Javier Zanetti or Esteban Cambiasso, who both excelled in Inter Milan’s recent march to Champions League & Scudetto glory. A high-level ego spat has also seen 2006’s star performer Juan Roman Riquelme pushed into international retirement, replaced by Juan Sebastian Verón in the role of unmoved midfield mover.

Lionel Messi...in his own world

Perhaps tactictal nous isn’t required when you have the current best player in the world (only demented Madrid fans and nativist freak Rooney-devotees question this) in the form of  Lionel Messi. La Pulga Atomica was otherworldly this season, scoring 47 goals in all competitions, many of them exceedingly easy on the eyes. Despite his La Liga-based heroics, Messi has yet to really distinguish himself in an Argentina shirt…and one has to imagine he is itching to do just that. Final doffs of the editorial hat to the world’s best number-five (the traditional, Argentina-style midfield lynchpin) Javier Mascherano and 22 year-old fantasista/Benfica sensation Ángel de María. The Argies are being tipped by many to hoist the cup this year, but will it be because or in spite of their legendary skipper?

SOUTH KOREA

The South Koreans have actually qualified for the last six World Cups, famously making a dubious run to the semi-finals in 2002. The national team didn’t win itself many new fans as the co-hosts back in ’02, when their combination of extreme dirtiness and FIFA-backed refereeing leeway saw them unfairly dump both Italy and Spain out of the cup. I frankly can’t remember much of their performance in 2006, except that they drew with France and lost out to Switzerland in the qualifying stages? Perhaps their most successful appeal for the support of neutrals this time around could be: We’re Not North Korea!!!

Analyzing the clip above, I’m struck by the lack of pace and mobility in the squad. Not pictured is their captain and undisputed leading talent, Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung. He’s the driving creative force behind the team, and likely to play provider for Monaco’s no-nonsense finisher Park Chu-Young. I am admitting to a lack of editorial curiosity about the South Koreans—any loyal supporter-correspondents feel free to write in with more nuanced thoughts!

GREECE

Another team I am hoping doesn’t qualify making things interesting in Group B are the Greeks. They’ve only qualified for the World Cup once before, back in 1994, and they’ve never won a match there. ’94 also found them sharing a group with Nigeria and Argentina, and they are likely to have relive the memories of losing to both here in 2010. In stark contrast to their government’s fiscal policies, Greece is known for their well-organized and extremely conservative approach. They’re led into battle by coach Otto Rehhagel, who shocked and bored Europe in 2004 when Greece won the European Championship.

Zeus of the 4-3-3: Otto Rehhagel

As a tactician, Rehhagel is famous for advancing the theory of kontrollierte Offensive (controlled offense)—sounds aesthetically inspiring, does it not, prospective spectator?! Many of the “stars” of that generation are still fixtures of the Greek squad, but hopefully Rehhagel is pursuing a tactical rethink after failing to win a game in the 2008 Euros. Don’t hold out too much hope, however, as he’s recently been plying a 4-3-3 schema that might also be termed 7-at-the-back Endlessly Heading Balls Away. Jesus wept. However, renewed success with such limited resources might just kick off a Rehhagel-for-Greek Minister of Finance campaign.

NIGERIA

It’s tempting to recycle chunks of Nate’s African Cup of Nations breakdown of the Naija Super Eagles, but add that expectations are YET LOWER due to the absence of Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel with a knee injury. This fan report from the Guardian says it all, really: I Fear the Worst. Another disappointing casualty to injury is Ikechukwu Uche, a player I remember fondly from his free scoring days at Recreativo Huelva! The Nigerians can boast a semi-formidable strikeforce in the form of Yakubu (though he’s lightyears from being in-form), Obafemi Martins, and the ageless Nwanko Kanu (seriously, how old is Kanu? NO ONE KNOWS!!!).

Odemwingie flowing in Lokomotiv motion

In the absence of Mikel (who plays a much more offensive role for Nigeria than his MakeleleLite™ duties at Chelsea) the midfield creativity will be in the hands of Lokomotiv Moscow’s Peter Odemwingie, who impressed at the African Cup of Nations (when he wasn’t mangling various joints on the spongy and poorly-laid Angolan turf). Perhaps holding midfielder Dickson Etuhu, with knowledge gained from master man-manager Roy Hodgson and Fulham’s run to European near-glory, can provide some much needed on-field leadership?

The quality (or lack thereof) of African goalkeepers has been a recurring meme, particularly after the komedy kapers witnessed at CAN ’10 in Angola, but Nigeria have a fairly reliable shot-stopper in Vincent Enyeama (though his positional sense is NOT great). He was recently linked with a move to Arsenal (insert joke about what being a prospective Gunners keeper sez about one’s reliability in goal). Enyeama recently spoke out against the Jabulani, the ultra-aerodynamic official tournament ball, and after tipping away a supernaturally dipping shot noted he was “sure an angel was protecting me, otherwise, that would have been a goal”. Will there be a preponderance of angels at this World Cup, or will we witness the goalkeeping atrocities we bore witness too back in January in Angola? Rather than angels, I think what Nigeria need to succeed is some rather more terrestrial concentration at the back. Joseph Yobo and Danny Shittu, neither of them brilliant but both adequate professional centerbacks, have pulled some Keystone Cops-type shit in the past. Hopefully pragmatic Swedish gaffer Lars Lagerback has adequately drilled his defense. If so, the Naija boys have a healthy chance of qualifying out of the group.

••• Official BOLAS & BANDEIRAS Qualifying Picks: Argentina, Nigeria

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CAN ’10: Semifinals! Ghana-Nigeria

Posted in Uncategorized by Steven Villereal on January 28, 2010

Good day! It’s the first of the CAN ’10 semifinals, and a historic West African showdown featuring 4-time CAN champs Ghana vs. 2-time winners Naija. This post is coming LIVE! from my cubicle so, in a bid to salvage some scraps of professionalism, I am going to keep the updates light…but I’m here! Woah!…team sheets are shockingly available already! [NB: “shockingly available” team sheets were PERHAPS UNSURPRISINGLY inaccurate!]

Ghana: Kingson; Inkoom, Vorsah, Addy, Sarpei, A. Ayew, Badu, Annan, K. Asamoah, Opoku, A. Gyan,
Nigeria: Enyeama; Yusuf,  Shittu, Nwaneri, Echiejile, Kaita, Mikel, Ayila, , Odemwingie, Obasi, Martins

Optimistic Super Eagles supporters represent!

The crowd is currently looking patchy in Luanda’s Estadio 11 de Novembro, but it’s rapidly filling up. Fattened FIFA goose Sepp Blatter is looking on from a balcony, and I’m at my laptop in my cube! The ball begins to rolllllll!

~20 min: GHANA GOAL!!! From a corner it’s Asamoah Gyan, wriggling away from his marker and heading in at the near post! Naija were starting to look comfortable on the ball, but now the Black Stars have gone ahead on a set piece. That’s Gyan’s 3rd CAN gol.

25 min: In an age of rapidly changing player hairstyles, Asamoah Gyan has had the same, awesome mini-natural do for at least 5 years now. I remember admiring during his days playing for Udinese. More to the point, he is looking spritely today, and aside from his goal has already forced several half-errors from the Nigerian back four.

30 min: Opoku has gone to ground several times this game, but he appears to be genuinely hurt…he’s off and more experienced head Haminu Draman is on in his place.

32 min: Ghana obviously ahead here, but Odemwingie & Martins are starting to swap smart passes and get in dangerous positions for Nigeria.

44 min: Mikel floats in a free kick from ~25 yards out, and Richard Kingson comes out and punches the ball clear…and a good thing he dead and several massive Nigerian heads were winding up menacingly to plump for that ball.

HALFTIME! and it’s GHANA 1-0 NIGERIA—welp, the Super Eagles have had 60% of the possession and were starting to organize on the edge of the Ghana box towards the end of the half. It’s clear that the Black Stars are going to follow the same gameplan that knocked out Angola…they’re a goal up, so they just have to stay concentrated and compact and they’re into the finals.

49 min: The Nigerians have come out energized and are buzzing around the edge of the Ghanian area…Obasi just tried to roundhouse kick a cross in but it deflected off a defender.

54 min: Ibrahim Ayew comes on at left back for Sarpei (who was playing through an injury he picked up in the first half). It seems a smart move as Martins and Obasi were starting to cause problems on that side of the field.

60 min: A smart chip by Mikel sails over the two CBs and it’s Martins racing onto it…but Kingson is off his line and makes a crucial save at close range!

63 min: Obasi & Martins don’t look much like scoring today, despite being consistently fed convertable opportunities. You’d have to think that one of the bench-bound striker pool of Yakubu, Kanu, or Uche are soon to be summoned here?

70 min: Mikel is really starting to spray incisive passes…and again it’s Martins threatening goal as he chases one down…he seems to be one-on-one with goal but is rapidly crowded out by a collaborative pincer motion by Inkoom & Vorsah. Yakubu is now on, replacing Odemwingie (and surprisingly not the less-enterprising Martins).

73 min: Yakubu’s first “chance” as a rifled cross unknowingly ricochets off his thigh and not toooo far wide of the post.

83 min: I’m writing some work emails.

87 min: Kingson is redeeming the reputation of African goalkeeping after the high comedy we’ve witnessed this tournament. He’s come off his line to bravely break up several dangerous balls the Nigerians are putting into the box. Dunno if you’ve taken a look at the girth of Obasi/Martins/Yakubu, but repeatedly bashing into them in mid-air requires some fortitude.

FULLTIME! GHANA 1-0 NIGERIA!!! The Black Stars, despite missing virtually all of theirmost famous names, are through to their first CAN final since they were runners-up in 1992.

Asamoah Gyan 1-0 Nigeria

So, U-20 World Cup-winning Black Starlets like Inkoom (20 y/o), Addy (19, and the nerviest looking of the youthmen), and Andre Ayew (20) have acquitted themselves marvelously,  thickening the Ghanian squad sauce (???) as we simmer towards the GrownUp World Cup in June. I have to say I’m pleased to see Nigeria dumped out of the tournament here…they were pretty rough on the eyes. Cheers to Ghana, and stay tuned for Egypt-Algeria!

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CAN ’10: Gettin’ Pumped for the Semis

Posted in Uncategorized by Steven Villereal on January 27, 2010

Apologies to once & future BOLAS & BANDEIRAS readers for several days of radio silence. I know my gentle colleague Nathaniel has more pressing life obligations, and wish I had such an excuse! Rather, I think I burnt myself out with Sunday’s back-to-back QF coverage. Since that blessed day, we had Monday’s QFs, which saw Egypt (greatly aided by a calamitous Cameroonian defence as well as one extremely dodgy refereeing decision/plea for goal-line technology) and the Super Eagles of Nigeria (in a snoozefest with Zambia which finished 0-0 after extra time and finally generated some excitement via a penalty shootout) advancing to the semi-finals. Both semis are TOMORROW and they also both represent two of the most intense rivalries in African soccer…a West & a North African derby if you will.

EGYPTALGERIA is certainly the contentious contest freshest in our minds. The flames were generously fanned for their World Cup qualifying playoff match back in November, billed as a rematch of their 1989 “Match of Hate”. Media in both countries whipped their fans into a frenzy, and there was a lot of controversy in the choice of the neutral venue of Khartoum (Egypt’s preferred location, as opposed to Algeria’s suggestion of Tunis). Desert Fox fans flocked to Sudan to support their team however, with over 13,000 Algerians in attendance and ready for, well, war:

In the end, the Egyptian fans left Khartoum shaken but generally unscathed. The Egyptian health minister reported that 21 Egyptians had been injured. Nonetheless, back in Cairo, the escalation continued. The media ran stories of the Algerian government emptying its jails and transporting thousands of criminals to Sudan, of Algerian supporters chasing Egyptians with what Egypt’s English-language Al-Ahram Weekly listed as “knives, nails, daggers, switchblades, scalpels and heavy wooden sticks.” Crowds of indignant Egypt supporters tried to attack the Algerian Embassy in Cairo; dozens of policemen and fans were injured in the fighting and rock-throwing that ensued. Alaa Mubarak, the president’s son, called in repeatedly to TV talk shows to complain of the behavior of the Algerians in Khartoum and to call them “terrorists” and “mercenaries.” Elsewhere in the Egyptian media, Algerians have been described, en masse, as “uncivilized,” “violent,” and “sick.”

And of course, Algeria won 1-0. Despite the expense of travel and lodging in Angola (at least this match is in Benguela and not World’s-Most-Expensive-City Luanda) it’s expected that at least 1,000 fans from each side are set to fly down. Although Algeria have delivered more tactical compactness than aesthetic footballing thrills, surely if anything can fire to the next level it’s the intensity of this clash. It has to be said after exorcising their demons in their 3-0 loss to Malawi, Les Fennecs have looked more cohesive than any other side at CAN…except Egypt!

Hopefully there will be more fans in Luanda...

NIGERIA-GHNA is a rematch of the match that sent home the Super Eagles in the quarterfinals of CAN 2008. These two West African footballing giants have a less violent rivalry, though it has a deeeep history, going back to the 1950s Jalco Cup competition held between the two:

The 1958 edition of the JALCO Cup was perhaps the most melodramatic. The Black Stars came to Lagos determined to avenge Nigeria’s first win on Ghanaian soil. The score was 2-2 when an unfortunate, if not scandalous decision by the centre referee almost completely ruined a match of outstanding quality. Hell broke loose as the Black Stars, captained by Ghanaian legend Charles Gyamfi, protested the “goal” vehemently. A furious wife of Ohene Djan stormed the field and slapped the centre referee, causing the match to be stopped for twenty minutes.

Sadly tomorrow will likely see the Ghana WAGs more sedate. Alas, despite Ghana’s massive injury problems they still might be seen as favorites. Nigeria has been downright soporific so far this tournament, and Ghana’s youthful side seem to be gaining in confidence. This humble blogger’s predictions have been less than revelatory throughout CAN ’10…so why not just watch the games yourselves! Hopefully our editorial crew will be around tomorrow for to illuminate & unpack as these semifinal clashes unfold. CYA THEN!

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CAN ’10: Day 3— Egypt v Nigeria

Posted in Uncategorized by 00000000 on January 12, 2010

I (and possibly Steev as well) will be here from around 11:00 AM (5:00 PM Angola time) onwards with LIVE updates on this clashing-together of The Giants Of Group C™. Judging from the Copa’s results so far, this one is likely to end up with the Super Eagles the winner by 17 goals to 12. Or it will be 0-0.

While you’re waiting, admire these thrikers from today’s probable national heros, Mohamed Zidan and Obafemi Martins:

SV: Grey text updates mean its me, Steev, nudging into the frame and offering up some realtime commentary. Here are the team sheets for both squads:

Egypt: El Hadary, Fathallah, Said, Moawad, Gomaa, Fathi, Abd Rabou, Ghaly, Hassan, Zidan, Moteab.
Subs: Abdoul-Saoud, El Mohamady, Salem, El Sakka, Eid, Tawfik, Gedo, Wahid,
Shikabala, Abdelshafy, Raouf, Hamdy.

Nigeria: Enyeama, Yobo, Taiwo, Nwaneri, Mohammed, Mikel, Yussuf, Uche, Etuhu, Obasi Ogbuke, Yakubu.
Subs: Ejide, Apam, Echiejile, Kaita, Kanu, Martins, Obinna, Odemwingie, Odiah, Olofinjana, Shittu, Aiyenugbu.

And we’re underway! Egypt are confidently stroking the ball around these first 5 minutes, and Zidan has just slapped in the first shot on goal…parried over the bar by Enyeama.

12 min: 1-0 NIGERIA!!! …after a confidence-building pinged pass move from Nigeria, Hoffenheim forward Chinude Obasi Ogbuke loses his man, pushes the ball off to his left foot and THUMPS, yes THUMPS it in from the top of the box. EAT THAT!

32 min: (here’s Nate in black) I’m just popping in here late, but the action is looking pretty lively. Zidan does some great work down the left and almost thrikes one into the back of the net, very similarly to the above-posted youtube video. Apparently Obi Mikel has been peppering his forwards with very pretty passes.

33 min: EGYPT 1-1 NIGERIA!!! Moments after Taiwo got forward on the left side and Uche flashed a shot wide, it’s Egypt on the counterattack! A quick bit of service from the Egypt keeper finds Emad Moteab loitering just on-side near a dithering Nigerian centerback…Nigeria keeper Vincent Enyeama came waaaay out trying to beat Moteab to the ball, but he jinked right past him and tapped into an empty net.

Jink! Egypt 1-1 Nigeria

45+1 min: Obi Mikel aims a free kick from the far right towards the near post, forcing a smart save from Egypt keeper Al-Hadary. And that does it for the first half.

HALF TIME Egypt 1-1 Nigeria- And I’ll spend this little break seriously considering getting this pay-per-view thing, having seen VERY LITTLE of this game, at VERY LOW resolution so far…

A more robust crowd for the first match held in Benguela

For instance, Steev just informs me that was Taiwo and not Mikel with the half-ending free-kick. Geeeez. No, worries about the confusion Nate…similarly spikey heads, both players lacking necks, it could happen to any commentator really.

2ND HALF! and it appears as though Egypt are playing their 3-5-2 formation, giving them lots of midfield coverage. Nigeria are so far doing well to minimize the benefits of this midfield monopoly/overpopulation.

53 min—GOAL! Egypt 2-1 Nigeria: Despite their robust midfield, Egypt have had a hard time passing their way through the sturdy Nigerian formation, and are so far doing much better with a Liverpudlian long-ball-to-brilliant-frontman approach, with Zidan playing the Egyptian Torres. Zidan receives a pass, tricks his way around the Nigerian defender before neatly cutting back for Hassan to smash it into the far corner, thanks also to a deflection off Taiwo.

59 min: The Pharaohs should have had a third there, as Yobo plays Moteab onside, who receives a pass nicely before blazing over the bar when he really should have scored.

59 min: What Nate said, basically! Zidan is starting to thread some really smart balls through to the forwards. A sneaky chipped through ball (admittedly NOT from Zidan) sneaks Moteab in (behind who I thought was Taiwo?) but he sails his one-on-one chance over the crossbar. It’s good to tackle this from multiple viewpoints, surely between the two of us we’ve gotten a few things factually correct, god bless.

70 min: Nigeria manager Amodu is doing a bad impression of insouciance on the sidelines.

71 min: A couple of minutes ago Nigeria made their first change…striker for striker swap with Uche (who had his moments) making way for Victor Nsofor Obinna. Now Egypt bring on Gedo for defensive midfielder Hosni…coach Hassan Shehata trying to kill things off here?

75 min: “Viertel stunde noch,” says my German commentator. Taiwo BLAZES a DAISY-TRIMMER (as I think they might be called), a rolling, tumbling scythe of an herbicidal ball from 20 yards out that El-Hadary does well to fall onto. The Egypt keeper then rolls about as if he ate too much cake. Maybe he pulled something? Ah, he looks OK now.

78 min: Here comes Kanu to save his countrymen! “Who needs Abutreika when we’ve got Kanu”… or something. Mikel makes way.

79 min: Is there a Nwankwo Kanu birther movement? Supposedly 33 years old, he won the European Cup with Ajax back in 1995! LET’S SEE THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE!!!

88 min— GOAL! Egypt 3-1 Nigeria: Nigeria are really looking without direction or focus. Kanu lets himself be easily robbed of the ball in the Egypt half, starting a counter-attack as Nigerian defenders scramble back. Moteab is left unmarked and is easily found with a lateral ball, this time on target with a simple finish into the far corner.

90+2 min: Timewasting. My English announcer informs me that Egypt keeper Essam El Hadary is famous for his celebrating and that he is known for “dancing on the crossbar”.

PEEEEEEEEEEP!!! That is that…Egypt grab 3 points and come back from a goal down to win their CAN debut. Zidan and Emad Moteab looked particularly impressive, and a nice confidence builder for Gedo to score as a substitute. The Nigerians had most of the ball and looked stronger for 20 minutes or so, but didn’t look particularly incisive in attack. Though Nigeria are without points, one would think their fortune will improve against Benin and Mozambique…

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CAN 2010 — Group C

Posted in Uncategorized by 00000000 on January 9, 2010

EGYPT

For reigning champions, Egypt are surprisingly lowly-rated to defend their title in 2010. A recent poll on myafricanfootball.com had 83% of voters anwering “NO” in response to the query, “Can Egypt win for the third time in a row?” This could simply reflect the desire of the sub-Saharan majority to see a sub-Saharan team come away with the cup; but many have also doubted Egypt’s chances following Mohamed Abu Treika’s exclusion from the squad due to injury. Many will be looking to Dortmund striker Mohamed Zidan, one of only two Egypt players who play their club football in Europe [a testament to the economic strength of the Egyptian league, NOT the weakness of the Egyptian squad], to make up for Abu Treika’s absence.

Shikabala

However, the lesser-known Zamalek winger Shikabala may be the surprise star for the Pharaohs this year. At 23, Shikabala has had a rocky start to his career, suffering a one-year ban from the Egypt national team due to “inappropriate behavior” as well as a six-month suspension from club football due to an illegal transfer to Zamalek from PAOK. He’s been in great form lately, however, showing good pace, technique, and a great left-footed shot; he’s also adept at free-kicks. Look to Shikabala to be Egypt’s secret midfield weapon, who may thrive in the absence of Abu Treika.

Bristly Egyptian strikers are becoming a cliché, but Mohamed Nagy Gado, aka “Geddo,” may step up as a worthy replacement for excluded star-forwards Mido and Zaki, partnering Zidan up front. Geddo, 26, plays for Egyptian team Al-Ittihad, has been in great form all season, scored a cracker against Mali last week in a pre-CAN friendly:

Geddo also apparently found out about being named for the squad while surfing the internet.

Having been dumped out of the World Cup by arch-rivals Algeria, Egypt will have an added incentive to make amends with some silverware in Angola, and are surely not to be counted out.

NIGERIA

Expectations are very, very low for Nigeria’s current team. A recent commenter on worldcupblog.org states, simply: “In my estimation, the current team is the worst Nigerian national soccer team I have had the privilege of seeing in my life.” The Super Eagles should be in high spirits after having secured World Cup qualification, although questions may be asked as to why it required a last-minute Obafemi Martins winner against Kenya as well as a simultaneous surprise victory for Mozambique in Tunisia.

Dan Ngerem, president of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, addressed such questions by declaring Nigeria’s qualification a divine miracle: “This is the hand of God, it wasn’t based on our performance. If you look at the whole show from the beginning to the end of the qualification, I can tell you that nobody ever thought the Super Eagles could pick the sole ticket in our group. But God’s way is different from man.” Indeed, and punters who are inclined to take the divine into consideration may do well in backing Nigeria’s chances (which can be got at fairly long odds for such a legendary team).

Manager Shaibu Amodu has been openly criticized in the media, with many Nigerians hoping the NFF will bring in someone new before the World Cup. The prolongation of Amodu’s reign will surely depend on Nigeria’s performance in Angola.

The Super Eagles lack a real shining star around which their team may be organized, but nevertheless the squad has impressive depth. Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Obafemi Martins, and Peter Odemwingie, if they link up well, could prove to be one of the most prolific strikeforces at the cup.

Taye Taiwo celebrates in Ghana, CAN2008

On the defensive end, Olympique Marseille left-back Taye Taiwo is a superb talent, tricky with a tackle, and with a lethal left foot capable of strikes like this one:

In midfield, Nigerian fans will be looking to Jon Obi Mikel to prove his dedication to the Super Eagles, which is often questioned with seemingly half-hearted performances. At Chelsea Mikel has had periods of excellent form, punctuated by frequent disappointing displays. Mikel seems to typify this Nigeria team, as a semi-star, capable of great skill, but often failing to convince. It will be up to Amodu to prove his worth by bringing out the best in this somewhat formidable collection of players.

Nigerian fans can hope the Super Eagles’ appearance at CAN 2010 resembles Greece’s Euro victory in 2004—that is, as a well-organized and competent team that grinds out the results, rather than relying on the flair and brilliance of a few isolated superstars. Also, watch for the Hand of God to make the necessary intervention, like in the case of Nigeria’s WC group-mates Argentina. Nigeria are going into this CAN as a dark horse, and the Super Eagles could use this to their advantage, becoming Angola’s sleeper champs.

MOZAMBIQUE

The Mambas of Mozambique come to Angola ranked 98th in the FIFA world rankings, ahead of only Benin and Malawi at the CAN. However, it was the Mambas’ surprise victory against Tunisia that ensured their group-mates Nigeria’s World Cup qualification. Struggling Nigeria will be unlikely to do Mozambique any favors, but such a victory will do good for the southerners’ confidence. Mart Nooij has done superbly well so far as coach, surpassing all expectations, and is held in high favor with the team. Nooij will be looking to continue his success with a strong showing in Angola.

Tico-Tico

Totemic juju-figure (just kidding) and slinky striker Manuel “Tico-Tico” Bucan will captain the Mambas, hoping to inspire his team to a repeat of their surprise success in Tunisia.

Many will be watching young defensive midfielder Simão, who currently plays for Panathinaikos, hoping to see sparks of talent that justify his inclusion in Tuttosport’s list of the top 40 young footballers of the world. With several clubs looking to emulate Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation, many scouts should be watching to see if Simão could be the next Touré Yaya. Right-winger Elias “Dominguês” Pelembe, a slight fellow with great ball control, is also worth watching.

Grouped with Nigeria and Egypt, Mozambique’s chances of advancing from the group stage are slim. However, if Mozambique continue their good form, they might be able to capitalize on a slip by either of the two faltering giants, and become the surprise success in Angola.

BENIN

Allez les Ecureuils! The Squirrels of Benin come to Angola to make their third CAN appearance, after an impressive World Cup qualification run in which they narrowly missed out to Ghana, coming in second in their group ahead of Mali.

Razak Omotoyossi

The Squirrels will be captained by FC Metz striker Razak Omotoyossi, who has an impressive international record so far, scoring 14 goals in 28 games. At 24, Omotoyossi may still hope to prove himself as a world-class player, and the Squirrels will certainly rely on his goals if they hope to progress beyond the group stages. Omotoyossi has been bullish regarding Benin’s chances of causing an upset in Group C: “We consider ourselves strong contenders for the quarter-finals […] All the guys know we are in with a chance and will strive to give their best.”

Young striker Mohamed Aoudou scored twice in his only two appearances for the Squirrels during qualifying matches, and looks likely to continue his good form in Angola. Keep an eye also on Reda Johnson, a 21-year-old central defender who has been in stellar form playing for Plymouth Argyle in the English Championship. Apparently he’s good with a tackle, and adept at passing, which is more than can be said for many top-flight defenders.

No one expects Benin to beat out Nigeria, Egypt or high-flying Mozambique for a quarter-final spot, but a convincing display in Angola may establish the Squirrels as a rising African footballing force, no longer to be cursorily written off.