Afcon: Eagles soar, Stallions buck trends
Expect the best. This Africa Cup of Nations is hurtling towards a compelling climax at the National Stadium on Sunday, after two pulsating semifinals. Neither Nigeria's Super Eagles nor Burkina Faso's Stallions were backed by many neutrals before this tournament, but few can dispute that the two finest attacking teams in the competition are now on a collision course.
For the Burkinabes, getting this close to the continental trophy would have seemed scarcely imaginable three weeks ago. Only once before have the Stallions reached the semifinals, in 1998, as tournament hosts, but in every other Nations Cup they have either failed to qualify or been evicted in the group stages.
But if they are to send Ouagadougou into raptures by ruling the continent, they will surely need their star winger, Jonathan Pitroipa. By the time you read this, justice may have been served. Pitroipa's scandalous second yellow for simulation might be rescinded on appeal.
Tunisian referee Slim Jedidi's noxious performance at the Mbombela Stadium suggested that the Nations Cup conspiracy theorists may well have a point about the standard of officiating at this tournament. Refereeing errors are normal and will remain inevitable until football embraces video officiating reforms but for an experienced referee to make three calamitous errors in one game, all of them favouring one side, reeks of shameless bias or worse. An investigation of Jedidi's and other blunder-filled performances is needed.
The Stallions have won the affection of millions of South Africans with their exuberant, fearless football. But the Super Eagles have also earned plenty of respect by sinking the Ivorians so convincingly and showing such merciless attacking against the hapless Malians. The most populous nation in Africa is at last reclaiming its traditional football might – after a decade or more of decline and discord – and that can only be good for the continent's challenge on the global stage. This Super Eagles side look capable of doing some damage at next year's World Cup, should they qualify.
And in Stephen "Big Boss" Keshi they have found an inspirational showman coach – one who combines hard-earned experienced with mischievous charisma. In the press conference after the semifinal, he held court over the repentant Nigerian media, who had pilloried his team's slow start to the campaign.
Mediocre white coaches
The former Mali and Togo coach added a dash of spice to Sunday's clash by reiterating his objection to African national sides' long-standing habit of appointing "mediocre white coaches" – or "carpenter coaches", as they are known in Nigerian football parlance. It's not clear whether he includes Paul Put, the coach of Burkina Faso, in that category but, if so, the Belgian does seem to be a competent carpenter. His side are fluent and organised, with a laudable attacking spirit.
Put was recently banned from Belgian football for three years after being found guilty of involvement in match-fixing when in charge of Lierse. Previously in charge of Gambia, he took over Burkina Faso last year.
Keshi's language might be a bit too racialised (there are black European coaches and white African coaches in this world) but he speaks the truth. For decades, too many European carpetbaggers and nutjobs have mismanaged African teams. One cannot generalise too much – there are some expert European tacticians at work in this continent. But for every Claude le Roy (the hugely respected Frenchman who guided the DRC at these finals) there is an Otto Pfister and an Henri Michel – men who are either incompetent, socially handicapped or unable to stay long enough in any given position to leave a legacy of any value.
The appeal of these operators is declining but it's a stubborn legacy of a time when a colonised consciousness dominated the continent and white coaches were seen as neutral, expert and incorruptible. And the cohort of "Africa hands" used to hog the available jobs so thoroughly that one of their number usually won the Nations Cup, thus perpetuating the myth that they were likelier to succeed than their African counterparts.
Many of the "carpenter coaches" also provide abundant comedy value but Keshi didn't find it funny when his job in charge of Togo was given to Pfister after he had secured a stunning qualification for the 2006 World Cup. Pfister proceeded to fail miserably at the finals, losing all three games.
Thankfully, that sort of travesty is much less likely now. And the success of Keshi is likely to hasten Africa's brain gain and open the way for other young talents. Africa's World Cup quarterfinal barrier needs breaking next year – and Keshi and his young marauders might be able to smash it.
But first, they have some Stallions to break in.