x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

North Africa in a downward spiral at the African Cup of Nations

Ian Hawkey looks at reasons why teams from North Africa are going through a lean patch at the tournament.

Tunisia national football team's players react after Togo qualified into the quarter-final at the end of the Africa Cup of Nations 2013 group D football match Togo vs Tunisia on January 30, 2013 at the Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit. AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO *** Local Caption *** 379962-01-08.jpg
Tunisia national football team's players react after Togo qualified into the quarter-final at the end of the Africa Cup of Nations 2013 group D football match Togo vs Tunisia on January 30, 2013 at the Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit. AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO *** Local Caption *** 379962-01-08.jpg

The head coach of Tunisia, struggled to keep his cool.

It was Sami Trabelsi's final press conference of the African Cup of Nations, his team had just been eliminated and, in the absence of an official interpreter - required but not supplied by the organisers in Nelspruit on Wednesday night - he was asked if he might translate his own comments from French into English.

No, he said curtly, he could not because he hardly speaks English.

Football in Africa has several lingua francas. At the 29th Nations Cup, Arabic is no longer one of them. Tunisia, held to a 1-1 draw by Togo in Group D, were the last country to fall out in the opening stage, eliminated by Togo on goal difference on an evening in which Trabelsi had more to fume over - like some poor officiating, although it compromised both teams - than badly planned post-match rituals.

Algeria, with losses in their first two games, had been the first country condemned to go home, five nights ago. Morocco, their head coach Rachid Taoussi in tears, terminated their adventure the following day.

How to explain the malaise of the Maghreb?

Look at the Fifa rankings and Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco came into the tournament as the second, seventh and ninth best teams of the 16 who lined up in South Africa. Consider North Africa's club football - six of the last eight African Champions League winners were from the Arabic-speaking region - and the Mediterranean should be dominant.

Rewind over the last decade, and it looked as if it might be. In 2004, Tunisia and Morocco contested the Nations Cup final in Tunis, the hosts the narrow winners.

Later that year, Tunisia and Libya submitted a joint bid to host the 2010 World Cup, among their rivals Morocco and Egypt.

The event went to South Africa, but the Egyptian and Moroccans bids were praised. Egypt looked forward to the small compensation of hosting the 2006 Nations Cup. They won that, the first step in a soaring, unprecedented run of three successive Nations Cups.

The decline Egypt's fortunes has been sudden and stark. They failed to even qualify for the 2012 and 2013 Nations Cup finals. The suspension of the Egyptian league following last year's tragic loss of life in Port Said, where over 70 spectators died at an Al Masri-Al Ahly fixture, has clearly hampered the national sport.

In Libya, meanwhile, a consequence of the Arab Spring would be the removal of the current Nations Cup from their county. Libya had been awarded hosting rights to the 2013 finals when the Muammar Qaddafi regime still held power. Under a new government, it is hoped Libya will be ready to stage the 2017 event.

Were this tournament taking place on the northern rather than the southern tip, might the Maghreb nations have fared better?

In African football, there is an age-old belief that teams from the north travel badly. Egypt seemed to dispense with that when they won the 2008 Nations Cup in Ghana and the 2010 tournament in Angola. Here, nerves have very evidently preyed on the Maghreb teams.

Tunisia fluffed a penalty against Togo; Algeria had accumulated numerous chances against the same opponents and panicked in front of goal. Morocco twice let a lead slip in their 2-2 draw against South Africa.

A common fault identified across the Maghreb teams has been lack of on-field leadership.

Both Morocco and Algeria left stalwart individuals out of their squads for this tournament, talking of rejuvenation and Tunisia lost the experienced striker Issam Jemaa to injury 15 minutes into the tournament.

But as one seasoned observer of the African game, the Senegal-born former president of Olympique Marseille, Pape Diouf, said: "These North African countries that use to be in the vanguard of African football no longer are, and I am not sure there is enough talent coming through in the near future to make a difference."

Morocco's coach Taoussi, wiping his eyes, tried to leave South Africa upbeat. His team, after all, were unbeaten, having drawn all three matches.

"Our priority has always been the World Cup qualifiers and the 2015 Nations Cup, where I am confident this group of players will do well," he said.

The next Nations Cup is in Morocco. Travel sickness cannot be cited if the countries of the north stumble again there.

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