Monday, January 21, 2008

African Triple Header.

Last night I drank a beer and a bottle of wine and won trivial pursuit and got to bed at around one in the morning still feeling pretty drunk. I point this out, not trying to brag about my fast-lane lifestyle, but to establish, roughly, how I was feeling when I woke up at 6:45 this morning to get prepared to watch the first of three soccer matches. My head hurt, I was tired, and I was starting to get hungry.

Morocco vs. Namibia
Apparently there were only two thousand people in the stands to watch this one, after 45,000 watched the home team Ghana vanquish Guinea yesterday. I guess there are only so many people willing to wake up at 6:45 in the morning, hungover, ready to watch --if the experts at the FIFA rankings department would have you believe-- a likely rout. I put my faith in the experts and make it a point to believe what they'd have me believe and I was rewarded with having an idea of what I was in for.

Soufiane Alloudi scored two goals in the first five minutes and a third in the 28th minute that effectively ended it with an hour to play. Namibia's Brian Brendell scored in the 24th to make it 2-1, but that would be their only score. I went to Wikipedia a couple of minutes after Alloudi scored his hat trick and his profile had already been updated to reflect what he'd done in the match, I didn't check to see how quickly whoever is doing that fine work would mention the injury he sustained in the second half, but I do know that it's up there now.

Considering how much of their offense came from the feet and head of the forward, it'll be interesting to see how they'll fare in their next matches against tougher opposition without him if he's unable to perform. He was walking with a distinct limp and grimacing with each step as the cameras showed him walking toward the dressing room after full-time. It's difficult to know just how good he was, and how much of his production was the product of the performance of his teammates, the first and third goals were set up brilliantly, requiring him to do little more than be in the right place at the right time, but I suppose he does deserve credit for being there, and that second goal was superb.

Delightfully, Claude LeRoy made another appearance on my computer screen as he was shown scouting his group opponents. In a tournament with few compelling-enough-for-me stories, so far, I'm pleased to see as much of him as possible.

Nigeria vs. Ivory Coast
At halftime of the first match, I was considering dozing off, Morocco was effectively running the clock and Namibia wasn't about to make it interesting, but I stayed awake and alert for fear that if I did nod, I'd miss the start of this match. I realized as the lineups were announced that all three of the players I specifically cited in my first entry were playing in this game, and it figured to be an exciting match. For the most part it wasn't, but how much of that was due to my own condition could be debated.

Through the first half, Ivory Coast excelled in controlling possession, but it was Nigeria that had the chances. The cliched allusion of two heavyweight fighters, perhaps, feeling each other out before throwing hay-makers came to mind, but that seemed rather hopeful until around the end of the first hour, when both teams traded strikes on goal. Ultimately, it was Salomon Kalou, taking on the entire Nigerian defense who put the only score on the board in the 66th minute. It was a fantastic goal, I wouldn't be surprised to see it go down as the best of the tournament.

Ivory Coast had a few more attacks in them, but eventually the pace would slow back down with Nigeria unable to find an equalizer late. I assume that frenetic pace of Morocco's attack in the first game was largely due to the inferior quality of their opponent, and that they wouldn't fare as well if they were going against a class side like either of the two in this match, but it was still disappointing that the first twenty-five minutes of the earlier game, when Namibia appeared to still have a chance, were more exciting than all but a quick stretch of this heavily touted showdown.

Mali vs. Benin
I assumed Mali would roll here, not because I know anything about African soccer, just due to the disparity between the two in the CAF rankings. Benin mounted serious attacks infrequently, mostly relying on a bend-not-break defensive approach, I imagine in hopes of trying to steal a 1-0 decision or, at the worst, a point. Going against a much better side, it makes sense, I know when I play video games (it doesn't matter the sport) against significantly higher rated opponents, I like to play ball control offense and limit possessions, but unfortunately, Mali received a penalty and that would be the only goal for either side.

There's a widely held belief that the best tournaments, the best finishes, are when the perceived top powers meet in the finals. The most recent occasion I've heard someone say this was in reference to March Madness, that it's ultimately better when it's North Carolina meeting Duke meeting UCLA meeting Georgetown than when there's a George Mason or an Evansville or a what-have-you. It's a theory I'm not sure there's much to.

I watched Super Saturday last year, when four big conference powers and top seeds met up, and it was horrible basketball. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I had been convinced going in that both games were "must see" action, when they wound up both being extraordinarily (they went above and beyond) boring.

I guess what I'm getting to, with this aside, is that I'm really rooting for an underdog to come out of this first round. The last ten minutes of this match, in which Benin was peppering the Mali goal, was pretty fantastic, and I was really hoping they could even it up and perhaps be that energy drink with the black horse on it (if you're not watching African television, you're not getting that reference). I imagine that if, and likely when, the top clubs advance that there will be some great action, with one complete game on par with the best moments of the first two days, but it will feel like something is missing if a mild upset doesn't occur.

I firmly believe that on the right day George Mason can make for better basketball than UCLA (and I've seen UCLA on the wrong day, so I feel like I know what I'm talking about there) and I hope this tournament has one.

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