Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Togo party (slight return)

To complement the Group G overview below.

A lot of comment has been made in advance of the tournament as to the weakness of this World Cup’s African representatives. With Tunisia the only regular qualifier among the five and Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal all missing, many are concerned as to the potential humiliation for Africa as a continent. Even this years African Nations Cup champions, Egypt, will be in absentia.

Indeed, it was this year’s African biennial that alerted those outside the continent, and possibly many within it, to the potential catastrophe this summer. Zaire’s disasterous World Cup campaign of 1974, in Germany as it goes, currently holds the ignominiuous distinction of providing Africa’s nadir on the global stage, and many fear that something similar or worse could follow, particularly when you consider that Zaire went into the ’74 tournament as Cup of Nations holders. The sides participating this year all, with the exception of Ivory Coast, fell by that tournament’s quarter-finals.

Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Ghana look as though they will put up a respectable fight but you can’t help but feel concern for Togo and Angola who were in the same first round grouping in Egypt and neither could escape, despite the presence of the distinctly troubled, and ironically named, Democratic Republic of Congo. For my own blog purposes and because, like my main sporting loves in life (Havant & Waterlooville FC and Hampshire CCC, they are nicknamed the Hawks, I followed Togo’s games in the African Nations Cup and, to give you a glimpse of what we might expect from them this summer, let me take you through what went on.

African football wouldn't be African football without disrupted camps, arrogant high-earners amongst more modest internationals and general chaos. So, Togo might have felt quite relaxed in facing up to one of the more haphazardly organised countries in the Cup of Nations. In the prior months, DR Congo’s boss, le Compte de Frou-Frou (or Claude Le Roy, if you like), had been required to pay for team hotel bills himself while, more than once during training camp trips to France, members of the squad had absconded into asylum, never to be heard of again.

Despite this, in the lead up to their ANC opener, Togo appeared to wish to steal DR Congo's Keystone Kops thunder with a bust-up between coach Stephen Keshi and star man, the Arsenal bound Emmanuel Adebayor. With Adabayor having trained only twice pre-tournament, Keshi decided he wasn’t fit enough to play in the opener, although he eventually gave way to pressure from the Togolese Football Federation and named him in the line-up. Adabayor, however, refused to play, ending up on the sub’s bench where he sat cross-armed and pouting like a golden-goose-less Veruca Salt, having severly denounced his gaffer in the press. This led to team captain Jean-Paul Abalo to describe his team-mate as “unprofessional.” An ideal start then.

Once into the game, the pace and lightness of touch DR Congo showed highlighted why some of their players found it so easy to flee unnoticed in the night, and Togo by comparison looked utterly befuddled half the time and yet 'calm' to the point of chewing a length of straw whilst propped on a stile. They looked agog at LuaLua’s blurred legs as he, frankly, took the piss out of them for DR Congo’s second goal, a gorgeous solo effort that stormed through Kossi Agassa’s catflap fingers.

It was astonishing just how out of touch Togo appeared in comparison to DR Congo who rocked up with few expectations, a full complement (one would hope) of parental permission slips and a starting line-up for this first game that contained 8 strikers. Their extraordinary celebrations on the final whistle with their gaffer (looking like a snooty, foppish poet undergoing sustained tickling), raising him high upon their shoulders as they paired up and held hands for the walk back to the changing rooms, said a great deal about how much the win meant.

It was perhaps an unsurprising loosener for Togo, what with Adebayor mentioning prior to the game that at first the Togo squad "didn't get on, but now we are starting to respect each other". Starting? With their squad coming from 13 leagues on 3 continents, I guess team-bonding is hard to arrange, but DR Congo could clearly manage it despite their cash-issues and the Bermuda Triangle ambience of their French beanos. Indeed, at this stage it appeared that with Adebayor's I'm-a-Premiership-player-now arrogance now in full strut, Togo could well have been performing an elaborate Bowyer/Dyer tribute by the end of the group stages.

After losing to the rank outsiders, the last thing you need is to face a bunch on Indomitables, the wounded Lions of Cameroon, looking to atone for World Cup qualification failure. The summer holiday bound side had a pretty easy time of it during the game, summoning enough strength from coach Artur Jorge’s meaty, talismanic moustache to complete a fairly untroubled victory. It took 2 quality goals, including Samuel Eto’o’s whipped pearler from the edge of the box, to seal it but the manner of Albert Ze Meyong’s 2nd, dragging a pass from Eto’o back beneath his heel and between Kosi Agassi and Emmanuel Matthias, showed how straightforward it was for Cameroon to showboat and this in an international tournament. Thus, Togo became the first side in the tournament to firm up their return flight details.

Yet, they couldn’t relax, as with DR Congo now fighting with Angola for the second place berth that would see them into the next round, Togo owed it to the tournament to put up a decent showing in their final match even though, for them, it was all over. Thankfully, they did just that, but still couldn’t do enough to be able to leave Egypt with points on the board. That said, after very poor displays by the two World Cup qualified teams in the group, Angola and Togo did manage to hammer out a pretty entertaining finale. Flavio's first goal for Angola looked a touch offside, but Togo equalised in the 24th minute, Kader Coubadja scooping the ball over keeper Joao Ricardo. They made things difficult for themselves when Kassim Guyazou, one of the few Togo-based players in the squad, earned himself 2 yellows within the space of half an hour, both for deliverate handball and both stupid, particularly his second tunnel-inducing offence, which occured in the centre-circle with no danger immediately present.

Flavio regained the lead for Angola in the 38th minute, making the most of the shockingly haphazard defending. One of the BBC team remarked incredulously "I can't believe how ordinary Togo look defensively". It was fair comment, as during all the games they had looked like schoolboys picking their noses and flicking it absent-mindedly while a number of opposition players danced around their virtually comatose forms.

However in the 66th minute, Togo levelled again, Kader's quick, bustling run down the right ending in a lovely cross for Cherif Toure Mamam to lift the ball over Ricardo. With Angola needing a win, they induce 2 tremendous saves from Ouro-Nimini Tchangirou, which said a great deal for the integrity of Togo's performance, but in the 87th minute, they got the winner they needed via Maurito, and it finished 3-2 way meaning that they required DR Congo to ship 3 goals to Cameroon.

Despite having conceded twice in three minutes, a spectacular goal from Geremi Njitap and a fortunate one for Eto'o, whose shot hit the post and goes in via Congo keeper Pascal Kalemba's head, it remained 2-0 as the Dr v Cameroon match went into 4 minutes extra time. As this game began it's second half 8 minutes behind, Angola's score was able to filter through early, allowing Cameroon to pass it around their own half knowing that both they and DR Congo were assured of progress if they just pissed about. Not the fairest way to finish up, but Angola only had themselves to blame for their own disappointing performances in the first two games.

So, with these displays in mind, I can’t help but feel that Togo’s performances this summer will be best watched both between fingers and through a pin-hole in a piece of card. However, changes have occurred with the Adebayor bust-up costing Stephen Keshi his job after the tournament, a decision which Keshi apparently found out about via the media just as he picked up the African coach of the year award for turning the country’s footballing fortunes around.

The Togo players campaigned for Keshi’s reinstatement, that is all except Adebayor who slammed his colleagues for interfering with coaching matters. Another quality bonding effort. Togo will now be led to the World Cup by 67 year old German Otto Pfister, a name seemingly destined for ‘‘Allo ‘Allo: Late Night’, should they ever again find the key for the bawdy farce office at the BBC.

Pfister’s main task in the pre-tournament camp and warm-up games (which have seen a one goal win Leichtenstein and a defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia by the same scoreline) will have been to reinforce team unity. It seems to have worked as they, like DR Congo prior to the Cup of Nations, are currently threatening their Federation with a strike if their tournament bonuses are not paid.

This is not a new thing among African sides, Nigeria went through similar fraught negotiations in the build up to France ’98. Mind you, it didn’t seem to do DR Congo any harm so, who knows, perhaps we will see a fully together Togo side ready to overcome their limitations with hard work. Perhaps we should ignore, then, the fact that they had the exact same problem themselves before the Cup of Nations. Ahem.

Mind you, with a subsidised complement of Togo supporters financed by the Federation; the pre-tournament ‘Miss World Cup’ already in the bag and the Togolese chief voodoo priest, Togbui Assiogbo Gnagblondjro III, suggesting that “ancestral spirits say that Togo will go far at the World Cup”, a momentum of confidence may be building and a surprise could be sprung upon France, South Korea or Switzerland. Maybe.

I shall be watching with some fascination. C’mon you Hawks!

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