South Africa is hosting the 2014 African Nations Championships with all of the matches taking place in just three cities, Cape Town, Mangaung and Polokwane. We live about three hours drive from Polokwane and so that was the easiest option for us to see one of the group games.
We booked into a bed and breakfast place on a farm just outside of town. There was plenty of land to walk around although they didn’t seem to have much in the way of ‘big’ wildlife. Over the course of a couple of hours all we spotted was the arse of an antelope disappearing behind some bushes and a few stray porcupine needles.
The lack of large animals wasn’t a big deal though as I’m still at the stage where I find the small stuff fascinating. At one point we paused for a few minutes to watch a dung beetle being attacked by ants.
The beetle was stuck on its back and appeared to have had most of its underbelly eaten away. I know you aren’t supposed to interfere in these matters, circle of life and all of that, but I gave it a nudge to put it the right way up. Pointless really as although it could still crawl around it was bound to die before long.
A little later we spotted the largest grasshopper we’ve seen so far. I know it doesn’t rival the Big Five, but it was impressive nevertheless.
Ok, football. The African Nations Championship is a different competition to the better known African Cup of Nations. The main difference is that only players who play in their countries home leagues can participate in the African Nations Championship.
The lack of overseas stars has meant that the tournament hasn’t really captured the imagination of the South African public. Maybe after the 2010 World Cup and the 2013 African Cup of Nations, it’s a bit of an anti-climax.
The tickets for the games have been on sale for a couple of months now and seem realistically priced. We paid the early bird price of fifty five rand for ours which compares very favourably with the prices charged by, say, Kaizer Chiefs for their PSL games. In addition, we could watch a second game for free if we wanted. The other Group D game between Burundi and Mauritania was taking place in the same stadium at 8pm and admission covered both matches.
We arrived at the Peter Mokaba Stadium about half an hour before kick-off. We didn’t have parking tickets and so despite the main car parks being virtually empty we had to park on the nearby grass. As we passed through the turnstiles we had the tops of our Coke and water bottles confiscated. This happens at Boro games at The Riverside too although I’ve learned my lesson there and just take replacement caps with me. Maybe I’ll have to get into that habit over here too.
Whilst the tickets were for allocated seats, nobody appeared to be taking any notice. We headed for the covered stand on the tunnel side just in case it started to rain. There were a group of Congo fans directly below us waving their flags and blowing vuvuzelas.
I don’t know too much about Congo as a country, except that there’s two of them and both countries had qualified for this tournament. Today’s team was the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I don’t know whether they are ‘Good Congo‘ or ‘Bad Congo‘. Perhaps neither of them are ‘Good Congo‘. Maybe ‘Bad Congo‘ and ‘Even Worse Congo‘ are more appropriate labels. I don’t know. For those of you who know your history, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the place formerly known as Zaire.
The Gabon fans were congregated over to our right. There were probably a few more of them, but maybe they hadn’t had so far to travel. Or perhaps they’ve had fewer civil wars to distract them from second-tier football tournaments. The rivalry between the supporters was friendly enough, although it always seems that way over here. Perhaps having the tops removed from their Coke bottles convinces everyone not to kick each others heads in.
So, on to the game. Gabon were wearing Brazil strips which, as kits go, are generally regarded as being as cool as it gets. When they are worn by Brazil that is. When teams like Gabon or Crystal Palace wear them, then it just makes me smirk. Particularly when it’s Palace.
Congo out-cooled their opponents in the fashion stakes with a shirt based upon their sky blue with diagonal red stripe flag. Red shorts and blue socks completed their stylish look.
Gabon opened the scoring in the second minute. Congo’s pony-tailed keeper had needlessly given away a corner with a theatrical tip around the post and when the ball was floated over Nguema headed his team into the lead.
Congo’s best chance in the half was squandered when some bloke ballooned a free-kick so far over the bar that I think even his Mam and Dad would have found it hard not to laugh.
I was a bit disappointed with the overall standard of play. There was too much first time hoofing and not enough occasions when someone would put his foot on the ball and have a think about what to do with it.
At half time we had a wander through the concourse on the way to a change of seat. In the toilets someone had just restocked the supply of free condoms and I spotted a fella helping himself to a couple of dozen. I doubted that he’d be staying for the second game as I assumed that he had other plans.
The catering stall didn’t seem very popular, perhaps not surprisingly with the main dish being described as meat and pap. I don’t know about you but I prefer a description to be a little more specific than just ‘meat’.
Gabon opened up the second half with a couple of decent chances. The first of which gave the Congo goalie a chance to redeem himself when he got down well to thwart a shot from a quick break. This was soon followed by someone wasting a free header after being left unmarked at a corner.
As time went on I noticed a few new fans arriving in different colours, presumably supporters of Burundi or Mauritania. I’m not even sure that Mauritania is a real country. I’d always thought it was one of those places in fairy tales that always had a Crown Prince or where you went through passport control via the back of your wardrobe.
The final throes of the game saw plenty of pressure from Congo as they tried to force an equaliser, countered by even more time-wasting by Gabon as they tried to run the clock down. They brought a chubby bald bloke on for the last few minutes who, as a consequence of his Brazil strip, bore a certain resemblance to Fat Ronnie. Or at least he did until he got anywhere near the ball.
The early goal turned out to be the only one of the game and the victory took Gabon to the top of the four-team table. A few days later both teams won their final group matches to progress to the quarter finals.