Underdogs have their day in African Cup quarterfinals
BATA, Equatorial Guinea (AP) — It’s a list of pretty unlikely contenders.
Equatorial Guinea has just one previous appearance at the African Cup of Nations. Republic of Congo hadn’t won a game at the championship in over 40 years before last week. Congo missed out completely in three of the last four tournaments. Even Tunisia, the champion in 2004, has been humble about its chances in 2015.
Yet two of them will come through Saturday’s quarterfinals to play in the African Cup semifinals — and maybe even the continent’s biggest football game if the run goes on.
Helped by a lopsided draw which placed top-ranked African team Algeria, star-studded Ivory Coast and four-time champion Ghana on the other side, it’s one of the best chances in years for some of the so-called underdogs to have their day.
“I know we’re not the best. We’re not the most beautiful,” Tunisia coach Georges Leekens said after reaching the quarterfinals. “But we did qualify. We worked hard for it.”
That can be said about all four teams after scrapping their way to the knockout stages.
In the African Cup’s first quarterfinals on Saturday, Republic of Congo plays neighbor Congo, and host Equatorial Guinea and Tunisia meet later the same evening at the same stadium.
In front of its rowdy home fans, Equatorial Guinea has the chance to make the semis for the first time, a pretty good result for a team that wasn’t even meant to play at the tournament after being disqualified in qualifying for fielding an ineligible player. Ignoring the controversy of Equatorial Guinea’s reinstatement after it was chosen as replacement tournament host, the team has been worth the $4 ticket money for the thousands of Equatoguineans who have packed Bata Stadium to watch them play.
Tunisia now has the unenviable task of going up against that surge of home support.
“We know they are very dangerous,” coach Leekens said. “They have the public behind them. They are a dangerous team. We have to be at 200 percent. Then we have a chance. Otherwise we have no chance.”
Another team seizing their chance is Republic of Congo, coached by Frenchman Claude Le Roy, now a veteran of eight African Cups. The Congolese have won their first games at the tournament since 1974, left Gabon and 2013 finalist Burkina Faso behind in the group stage, and are promising to keep playing their carefree brand of attacking football.
Their quarterfinal opponents are the other Congo, once known as Zaire and once a power at the Cup of Nations, winning titles in 1968 and 1974 before a gradual slide out of African football’s elite. A win on Saturday would put the country into the semis for the first time in nearly two decades, and only the second time since the long-forgotten glory of ’74.
It would also set up a semifinal against top-ranked Algeria or Ivory Coast’s array of stars. And that really would be back in the big time.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP