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What Happened to Africa’s Soccer Giants? –

Nairobi — The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations will be interesting. Or not so interesting, depending on how many goal post wood works are rattled. You see, the five big guns of African soccer will be missing in action.

Nigeria’s Super Eagles did not soar. Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions were mauled. The Rainbow Nation’s Bafana Bafana were reduced to ball boys. Egypt’s The Pharaoh’s were dethroned. And Algeria’s Desert Foxes were outfoxed.

Let us start with Nigeria, two-time champions.

They were held — on home soil, no less — to a two-all draw by Guinea’s the Sily Nationale, who were clearly not so silly in front of goal in Abuja.

That draw saw Guinea sail through and book a slot in the Orange Africa Cup of Nations that will be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea from January 21 to February 12 next year.

Guinea’s Ismael Bangoura gave the visitors a 54th minute second-half lead. But the home team responded with goals from Obinna Nsofor and Ikechukwu Uche. The Super Eagles appeared home and dry.

But Ibrahim Diallo equalised with a minute left in the 95th minute of extra time, eliminating Nigeria from the tournament for the first time since 1996, when they boycotted for political reasons.

That was the year Kenya was to host it but the head of the Kenya Football Federation at the time was in the opposition. The Kanu government chose to pay the Confederation of Africa Soccer a fine than host the tourney.

The Nigerian fans were raving mad at the exit of their team. They attacked the media centre, broke doors, shattered glass, and demanded the head of coach Samson Siasia, who offered profuse apologies for the debacle.

“We want to apologise to all Nigerians,” he red-carded. “We did our best, we dominated the game, we created but failed to take chances…. We take responsibility as a team… football can be cruel.”

Nigeria only needed a 1-0 goal lead to qualify. Former Nigerian international Sunday Oliseh, best remembered for the rifled, half-pitch thunderbolt past Spanish goalie Andoni Zubizaretta in USA ’94 that saw them win 3-2, was remorseful: “Not qualifying for the World Cup is one thing, but when we don’t qualify for a Nations Cup, that hurts as it means we don’t belong to the best teams in the continent.”

Nigeria have a game in hand against Madagascar, but it will not help. Madagascar were thrashed 4-2 by Ethiopia in Addis, meaning even if Nigeria wins by 100 goals, it will not count.

With Nigeria out, the 2012 Nations Cup will star soccer minnows: Gabon and Equatorial Guinea qualify as co-hosts. Senegal, Botswana, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Zambia, Morocco, Libya, Ghana, Angola, Tunisia, and Niger — who, despite going down 3-0 to The Pharaohs, are qualifying for the first time since Creation.

So, what happened?

Well, Nigerian pastor TB Joshua saw it all coming six days earlier.

“I was just sitting down and God showed me the game between Nigeria and Guinea,” he told a live service audience on Emmanuel TV, his Christian station. “What I saw was not favourable towards Nigeria. Anyone who scores first takes the day. I am seeing the Guinean side shouting.”

Pastor TB was remorseful: “If I could do it alone, I would pray and fast to ask God to change the result. But that is not possible for me to do,” clarified the owner of My People FC, who has made other predictions regarding the Nigerian soccer team.

Asked what went wrong, West Bromwich Albion striker Osaze Odemwingie said the team was affected by the negative predictions before the game. He was unhappy the team did not see pastor TB before the game.

“We thought we could meet him to see how we could overturn the negative prediction but the officials came with another prophet who prayed for us and told us that all was well.”

CAF banned the use of “advisers” in the 1996 Nations Cup, hosted by South Africa, but Fifa allowed witchdoctors to be part of the technical bench during the 2010 World Cup, also in South Africa.

South Africa would have qualified had it won against Sierra Leone in Group G. But alas! it drew 0-0. Funny how the head of its FA had congratulated the team on television… before learning the bad news.

Four-time champions Cameroon will also be watching Drogba&Co televisions in Younde and Douala. The Indomitable Lions played Senegal in June and drew. Fans, aware of the slim chances of qualifying, broke windscreens and tore T-shirts off the backs of fellow angry fans. Police had to use water cannons to scatter them.

Striker Samuel Eto’o, who plays for Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala, would have seen them through had he not missed a penalty. He asked for forgiveness.

“When I score goals so often you hoist me up there, I missed the penalty that would have made us qualify and I take full responsibility,” he pleaded.

Walloping Mauritius 5-0 did not help the Lions either. There were riots in Dakar, the capital, even as the Senegalese were qualifying. Reason? A power blackout halfway through the match.

Record seven-time winners Egypt, also the current champions and three-time winners back-to-back, will have to contend with a “Soccer Spring” this time round.

Ghana booked their place after a 2-1 away win to Sudan, with goals from striker Asamoah Gyan and defender John Mensah.

There is political strife in Libya. But the team brushed off the upheaval to draw away in Zambia and book a runner-up place in Group C.

Mali were winners in Group A despite allowing an equaliser in injury time for the 2-2 away to Liberia.

We all know what happened to Kenya. It needed to win away in Uganda. The Cranes and Harambee Stars drew 0-0, ensuring that Uganda’s 33-year drought from the Nations Cup stood as the score line put it a point a drift in second place.

Bouna Coundal, the Senegal goalie who plies pro soccer with New York Red Bulls, summed it best when he said the 2012 Nations Cup will mean that “all the teams that qualified are big teams now”.

“Names nowadays,” Coundal told BBC Sport, “don’t mean anything. You’ve got countries like Sudan and whoever else qualified, they’re very dangerous… The team you underestimate will give you a hard time.”

One hard team is Senegal. They never qualified for Angola 2010. But this time round the Lions of Teranga qualified unbeaten in Group E.

The team has been to the semis and finals of the tournament before. Could this be their chance?

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Libya, now in their third final, has Brazilian coach Marco Paqueta. They were dogged by lack of a domestic league due the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi and most of the players are homespun. Despite such off-sides, could this be their time too?

The fields of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea will also be Mali’s third onslaught at the continental fiesta. Do they, too, have a stake?

Well, there is a lot at stake in 2012.

The rivalry of Egypt and Algeria is out. So are World Cup quarterfinalists Nigeria. But will the Cup of Nations be boring?

We don’t think so. Ghana and Ivory Coast will provide the fireworks. Senegal, with its 14-point goal difference in qualification, will, together with Ghana, provide the entertainment. Botswana and Niger will come with an edgy contention. But will Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Zambia, and Sudan provide the star power?

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