WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
The Africa Cup of Nations is feted as a stage for artistry, creativity and improvisation but the opening game of the 2013 tournament turned out to be a dull and predictable affair, as South Africa looked anything but “the hosts with the most” on the pitch. We ponder whether the flair is yet to come…
However, after watching the opening game of the 2013 competition in Johannesburg, I can’t help wondering if my assertion was, at best, naive and romantic and, at worst, woefully misguided. For, while eccentricity was easily found among the enthusiastic crowd in Soccer City (where Timmy Mallet-style oversized novelty glasses and vuvuzelas were in vogue), it is fair to say that improvisation, creativity and artistry were precisely the virtues missing from a 0-0 draw between hosts South Africa and debutants Cape Verde – a game that showed up more deficiencies than anything else.
South Africa, currently as weak as they have been in the past two decades, were all too willing to bypass midfield with long balls into channels, which continually proved fruitless as Cape Verde’s defeders dealt effortlessly with the home side’s aerial threat – if you could call it that.
Hope for South Africa, in this department, may yet come in the form of exciting talent Thulani Serero, the Ajax playmaker who was introduced, in this game, on the hour. Still on the comeback trail after injury absence, there must be an almost-desperate sense of hope in the host nation that he can start the next game and get on the ball in the middle of the park because the lack of creativity from his team-mates in Johannesburg was painful to watch.
Meanwhile, Cape Verde’s forwards – particularly Heldon and Ryan Mendes (named as one to watch on TheInsideLeft last week) – showed themselves to have smooth ball control, ambition and technical skill but they didn’t show the improvisation or imagination to make their ability count. An attempted overhead kick by Heldon hinted at his side’s underlying flair, but the reality was that both sides were blunted by their own predictability.
Cape Verde were also lacking presence in central midfield areas, but they took a different approach, playing out from the back and relying on the willingness of their wide players to run at opponents and try to get in behind. They were not forceful enough in the centre of the pitch to ram home the advantage they had between the lines and in wide areas.
The introduction of powerful centre-forward Julio Tavares gave the islanders a focal point, a presence in the South African penalty area but, considering the ease with which possession could be turned over against their technically poor opponents, Cape Verde showed very little creativity. They were gifted the ball time and time again by a team who looked like they had a collective boot deal with Breeze Block but they failed to turn possession into potency. When Cape Verde coach, Lucio Antunes, introduced a player named David Silva with 15 minutes remaining, ITV co-commentator Jim Beglin joked, “That’s just what this game needs!”
He had a point. If Manchester City’s Spanish creator had entered the fray, sadly he would have been in a class of his own in Soccer City.
This, however, was only the first game of the tournament and more tantalising prospects await us. As ever in recent years, Ivory Coast’s line-up offers hope to fans of traditional African artistry, justifying the optimism myself and Drogba shared about the competition before it began and the host of creative players in the squads of North Africa’s representatives will surely entertain us as well.
I, for one, remain optimistic, believing that this Cup of Nations will improve markedly on its whimpering opening exchange. But, whether the magic of previous generations – from the likes of Jay Jay Okocha and Mustapha Hadji – will display itself as prominently in the coming fortnight, we will have to wait to see.