1. Ivory Coast (beat Equatorial Guinea 3-0). Ivory Coast, meanwhile, continues a progress that has come to seem inexorable. Repeated failures in previous tournaments have spread a mood of caution. This is a generation that has been too good for too long not to succeed, and it has cut all fripperies, any slackness, from its play. The result has been four clean sheets, the most recent of them coming in Saturday’s comfortable win over the co-hosts Equatorial Guinea.
It was a performance that yielded just one chance for Equatorial Guinea, and that a snatched, half-hit volley from Randy that really only looked threatening because of Boubacar Barry’s cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof style of goalkeeping. Ivory Coast, meanwhile, created little itself. That has, historically, been the Ivorian weakness: great power and physicality, but not a great deal of guile; it had been hoped that Gervinho would provide it, but his decision-making in vital areas remains abject.
This Ivory Coast simply waits, knowing mistakes will come. Equatorial Guinea obliged, gifted the Elephants a penalty (missed) and the free kicks in dangerous areas from which Didier Drogba headed the second goal and Yaya Toure whipped the third. The first, finished by Drogba with almost exaggerated precision, results from an error from the Equatoguinean center back, Rui. So far, the policy has yielded eight goals without reply in four games, but the question is whether better teams will be so generous.
2. Mali (beat Gabon on penalties after 1-1 draw). As forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was led weeping from the field by his father, Sylvie Bongo, Gabon’s first lady, stood and applauded. The president himself, Ali, sat legs apart, right arm resting on right thigh, a sigh billowing out from under his mustache. It is one of soccer’s crueller habits that the burden of missing decisive penalties so often falls on those whose ability has lit up a tournament. In that regard, Aubameyang joins a proud club that includes Asamoah Gyan, Roberto Baggio, Chris Waddle and Dragan Stojkovic.
Almost unnoticed, the Mali team performed a celebratory dance in front of its small pocket of fans. It felt fitting for the way it has edged into the semifinal almost without a trace. It was, frankly, fortunate against Guinea and then outplayed by Ghana, but when it needed to against Botswana it shifted through the gears to come from behind and win 2-1.
On Sunday, against Gabon, it was again a combination of courage and good fortune that carried it through. Luck as Aubameyang and Daniel Cousin both struck the post; but great resolve, having gone behind to Eric Mouloungui’s strike to fight back, twice drawing fine saves from Didier Ovono before Cheick Diabate swept in Modibo Maiga’s knockdown.
Alain Giresse’s team hasn’t truly convinced at any stage, but it’s still there. And, as a tearful Keita said, the team is inspired by the desire to do something for a country tormented by the threat of Tuareg rebels in the northeast.
3. Zambia (beat Sudan 3-0). Zambia threatened at the last Cup of Nations and was unlucky to lose on penalties having outplayed Nigeria in the quarterfinal. Manager Herve Renard left after that tournament, lured away by the money on offer with Angola, but after a brief stint as a club coach in Algeria, he is back and he has brought his lucky white shirt with him. He changed it for a blue one against Cameroon two years ago and the result was the only loss Zambia have suffered in finals matches under him. “I wash it after every game,” he said. “It’s clean — no problem.”
Zambia’s progress, though, is about more than lucky totems. It has a clear, coherent, intelligent style, a togetherness that transcends the fact that only one of its players, the forward Emmanuel Mayuka plays at a top-flight European club (and then only at the Swiss side Young Boys). Renard has no hesitation in cracking down on ill-discipline, as he showed in sending the midfielder Clifford Mulenga home last week after he refused to apologize for breaching a curfew with two other players, but he has fostered a spirit reminiscent of that created by Oscar Washington Tabarez with Uruguay in last year’s Copa America.
This is a side that clearly enjoys each other’s company, and respects its coach to the point that adherence to plans is instinctive.
Renard has said his biggest problem is stopping his side over-attacking, but so far it has got the balance right. The policy of sitting deep and striking Senegal on the break was the most stunning success — essentially eliminating the third-favourites for the tournament within the first 25 minutes — but even the restraint with which it held Equatorial Guinea at arm’s length before picking it off in the second half of the third game was impressive.
4. GHANA (beat Tunisia 2-1). Ghana’s method is very simple. Asamoah Gyan roams up front as a loan forward, looking to hold up the ball for the three attacking midfielders to break. Dede Ayew and Kwadwoh Asamoah have been excellent in the role so far in the tournament and if Goran Stefanovic has cycled the other member of the three — Jordan Ayew, Sulley Muntari and Samuel Inkoom have all had a chance — that suggests the depth of Ghana’s squad rather than any weakness. The real strength, though, is the holding midfield pair of Anthony Annan and Emmanuel Badu, who have been unyielding.
Perhaps most of all, this Ghana has spirit, none more so than Ayew. In quick succession against Tunisia he was elbowed in the face — by Aymen Abdennour, who was sent off — and then kicked in the chest — by Khalil Chemmam, who mystifyingly wasn’t His response to being targeted wasn’t to flinch, but to run gleefully past three challenges into the box before laying the ball off with a backheel. His father, Abedi Pele, could hardly have done it better.
The odd thing is that, while this is a Ghana set up to absorb pressure, it probably has more individual creative skill than Ivory Coast. It too have given the impression throughout that there is more to come.