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- Aug 1, 2010
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An Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final spot was secured in spite of bizarre refereeing, an awful pitch and difficult memories
Togo secured the draw they needed against Tunisia and so made it through to the quarter-final of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in their history. Those are the bald facts, but they don't begin to tell anything like the full story of an extraordinary night at the Mbombela. It might not have been great football, but it was magnificent drama.
The Sparrowhawks, exploiting Tunisia's shambolic offside line, broke through again and again in the early stages and eventually took the lead after 13 minutes, Emmanuel Adebayor laying in Serge Gakpo, whose firm low shot from just inside the box beat Moez Ben Cherifia. Replays showed that for once the offside trap had worked and Gakpo was a foot or so offside. That was tight, though, so you could forgive the officials that one. The penalty the South Africa referee Daniel Bennett then awarded Tunisia on the half hour, penalising Dare Nibombe for a push on Walid Hichri, seemed harsh but was at least explicable. Khaled Mouelhi rolled in the penalty to level the score.
But in the second half, Bennett's decisions became increasingly bizarre. He denied Tunisia a clear penalty when Vincent Bossou clattered through the back of Oussama Darragi. He ignored two decent Togolese shouts and then waved play on when Ben Cherifa blatantly tripped Adebayor as the Tottenham forward wandered round him. When the 5'10" Serge Akakpo chopped down Youssef Msakhni, he booked the 6'5" Nibombe, who'd been about 10 yards from the incident. And then, with 13 minutes remaining, he awarded a penalty to Tunisia as Saber Khalifa tumbled in the vicinity of Nibombe.
As the two Togolese journalists sitting next to me, having passed through anxiety to anger to resignation, giggled at the sheer preposterousness of it, Togo's players reacted furiously. Floyd Ayité was booked for his protests, Adebayor for knocking the yellow card out of Bennett's hand and the goalkeeper, Kossi Agassa, for standing in a protracted shrug next to the penalty spot. If a penalty can be embarrassed, Mouelhi's was, and he dinked his kick against the post.
Tunisia, who had started with a weird timidity, piled forward. Togo held firm. Shots were blocked and shots flew wide and then, in injury time, a free-kick cannoned off the excellent Komlan Amewou and fell for Fakhreddine Ben Youssef no more than four yards out. Agassa hurled himself at the substitute, whose shot hit the shins of the keeper and spun wide.
Tunisia's exit means that, for the first time since 1992, there will be no north African presence in the quarter-final. Given Morocco, self-destructive as ever, went home unbeaten, that Algeria were staggering unlucky, outplaying Tunisia and Togo, but losing to both, and that football in Egypt, the most successful team in Cup of Nations history, has fallen victim to the political upheaval there, it would be premature to declare a significant trend of decline in the north African game.
As Bennett blew the final whistle, he stood awkwardly with his officials in the centre-circle as players from both sides ignored him.
People who see him referee regularly in the South African Premier League and the African Champions League say he is usually reliable but this was a performance of staggering awfulness. When we talk of bad refereeing performances we usually mean two or three bad decisions plus a couple of borderline ones he got wrong; Bennett made at least four absolute howlers.
The two coaches, Didier Six of Togo and Sami Trabelsi of Tunisia, both declined to comment on the refereeing in a farcical press conference which was almost aborted before it had begun by a row over translation. Trabelsi threatened to walk out before being convinced to stay by Six, who had himself stormed out 22 seconds into the press conference that followed Togo's defeat to Ivory Coast in protest at what he, slightly bafflingly on that occasion, saw as inadequate refereeing. "If we had money, we would pay for translators," a Confederation of African Football official later said; perhaps, if the allegations in France Football this week are true, it's something Qatar could help out with.
"I think the referee was not seeing our penalties, but at the end of the day I told the players on the pitch that we had to keep going, and keep enjoying ourselves," said Adebayor. "I cannot blame him. Today was not his best day. What do you want me to tell you? He had a bad day, but fortunately we found a way out and we're just happy that we're still in [the tournament]. We just have to enjoy it, and he has to watch the game a little bit better and try and find a way that if you give a penalty [for something] to one side, then you give it to both sides."
He was scathing too about the pitch, reduced to compacted sand because unusually heavy rain brought on a fungal infection. "The stadium is one of the best I have played in, but to be honest with you – I'm very sorry – but it's a disgrace for our continent to be playing on this pitch when it's on the TV around the world," he said. "CAF have to sort things out, to solve the problem. At the end of the day, we are all African and we have to be honest with ourselves: it's a beautiful stadium but the pitch is not happening. Those people that watch the game in Europe, they'll be sending SMSs to me asking, 'Are you playing in the bush or what?' It's a disgrace to our continent. We can do better."
What makes Togo's progression to the quarter-final so impressive – in which they will meet Burkina Faso, themselves in the last eight for the first time on foreign soil – is the chaos that surrounded their preparation.
"I'm very proud of my country, of what we have been through," said Adebayor. "I think you guys know better than I do that two months ago when we qualified against Gabon, we went through a lot of difficult moments, of me coming to the Africa Cup of Nations or not coming.
"Today I'm here and I'm very happy – I'm part of the history. It's a good thing for the country and a good thing for me. We can even go beyond what we think we can do and I hope now we have a chance to win the cup. We just have to go for it now."
Adebayor was undecided for a long time as to whether to join the squad, understandably given what happened last time Togo qualified, three years ago. Then, driving from a training camp in Congo into the Angola exclave of Cabinda where they were scheduled to play their group games, the team bus was attacked by gunmen who left three people dead, including Adebayor's close friend, the press officer Stan Ocloo.
In an interview in l'Equipe this week, he spoke movingly of how the tragedy had affected him. "He was like an older brother," Adebayor said. "He counselled me; I called him when I was sad at my clubs. I spent a year and a half [trying] to digest that he had died in my arms. I collapsed in tears, I saw everyone crying. I thought for a very long time. When I was home in Manchester, if something fell down, I hid under my bed … The sound has remained registered in my head.
"When I returned home from Cabinda in Lome, for the funeral, I did not really eat for three weeks, I drank water and tea. In Manchester the same. The club took me to a psychologist, it was really decisive. When a brother dies in your arms, it's very, very hard…"
Given CAF's response to Togo's withdrawal from the tournament was to ban them from the 2012 competition – eventually readmitting them after the qualifying draw had been made – it's no wonder if Adebayor has little faith in their capacity to provide security. He's had problems with his own federation as well, frustrated at the lack of organisation, the inadequate hotels and medical facilities and at constantly having to pay to rescue team-mates stranded at airports.
In the end, though, patriotic spirit and the desire to honour the dead of Cabinda won through. "It's a historic thing," Adebayor said. "We feel very sorry for those people. We had a nice team together, and some of those people have gone. It's tough. But this is a special moment for our country."
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