At first glance, it’s hard to pick out a single, unifying theme from the opening slate of group games from the 2013 African Cup of Nations.
After all, a stylistic diversity, both in terms of tactics and quality of play, is part of what makes the event so unique.
Nigeria v. Burkina Faso, for example, prized physicality over skill, while the preceding Zambia-Ethiopia match stood out with its patient, flowing pace. There have been pulsating moments – the second half of Ghana v. DR Congo – and stretches of mind-numbing staleness – the entirety of the South Africa-Cape Verde opener.
But after a stretch of eight matches that produced a surprising quality of draws, the defining quality of this tournament thus far has been the quality of the transcendent individual performances that have occasionally broken the deadlock.
There were three draws in the entire group stage of the 2012 tournament. This edition has already had five, and the opening day set the tone.
Cape Verde lacked the quality to push for a result, while the hosts were a toxic combination of inept and tentative. With the disappointing setback of the 2010 World Cup still lingering over the team, Bafana Bafana seemed paralyzed by fear of mistakes. An expectant, impatient crowd did little to encourage them. By halftime, it became clear that the two sides could play for 180 minutes and never score.
The following match also finished nil-nil, but at least both Angola and Morocco were willing to push forward. Hulking Angolan striker Manucho personified the ultimately fruitless but admirable perseverance, hurling himself at every half chance and trying to will the ball into the net.
Manucho failed to compliment his exertions with a goal, but Malian captain Seydou Keita built on the theme of the one-man difference maker a night later with greater success.
Stubborn Niger was six minutes of normal time from holding favored Mali and producing the fourth draw out of four for the tournament. Keita had been omnipresent throughout, even hitting the bar in the 77th minute, but looked destined for Manucho’s fate until he pounced on a fumbled shot to produce the lone goal. It was no less than he, and balanced, spirited Mali, deserved.
Earlier on in the day, Ghana and DR Congo had produced the match of the tournament to date as the Congolese fought back from two goals down. The game showcased the tantalizing potential of this event at its best – uninhibited attacking, fearless underdogs, inexplicable celebrations, even more audacious kits.
But any hopes that the result would spark an outpouring of free-flowing soccer elsewhere was doused by the Niger-Mali nightcap and the tense matches the following day.
Defending champions Zambia looked uncomfortable in the role of favorites. The 2012 title was built on discipline and a lethal counterattack, and Zambia looked even more out of sorts after Ethiopia’s first half red card than when their opponents were at full strength. Allowing the Ethiopians to come from a goal and man down to snatch a draw was a demoralizing result – though the sting was lessened when Nigeria allowed Burkina Faso to create an equalizer out of thin air in the 94 minute a few hours later.
The final day brought the return of the one-man wrecking crew to breakup the string of draws.
Yaya Toure scored Ivory Coast’s opening goal in the 8th minute and, when Togo was in place to somehow emerge with a point after an equalizer on the stroke of halftime, put Gervinho’s winner on a dime with a swinging free kick assist in the closing minutes.
The winner game even later in the closing game of the opening slate. North African rivals Tunisia and Algeria added a much needed shot of edge and intensity to the competition, but the match was petering out toward a goalless conclusion before Tunisian attacker Youssef Msakni wrote his name into the growing ledger of tournament heroes with the curling, pin-point goal of the tournament in the 90th minute.
In last year’s group stage, nearly three goals were scored per game. This year’s edition is averaging around half that. The negativity has stemmed from a variety of sources – from overbearing expectations to lack of quality.
The void has been filled by singular moments of decisiveness.
The 2012 Cup of Nations developed into the tournament of the underdog. There is still plenty of soccer to be played – and the number of draws means most groups remain there for the taking – but if this trend continues, the 2013 event is shaping up defined by the individual.