Reigning champions Cameroon will have to relinquish their Olympic title after a sensational final round of Olympic qualifiers in Africa. After clinching glory in Sydney four years ago, the Indomitable Lions were left to lick their wounds as unfancied Mali beat them to top spot in Group B. The Cameroonian fall from grace was unquestionably the biggest shock of a weekend that also saw the elimination of regular participants Nigeria and much-touted outfits from Senegal and Zambia. The Boys from Bamako will be joined in Greece by Tunisia, Morocco, and Ghana.
The senior Malian team had impressed in the 2004 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia, but very few observers had foreseen their Olympic side finishing ahead of the reigning champions and one of the continent’s great powerhouses, particularly after they were beaten away to the Côte d’Ivoire in the previous round of matches. Cameroon, however, failed to take advantage of that Malian defeat, and could only manage a draw at home to the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result, Thomas Nkono’s troops needed to get at least a point from the final game, away to Mali.
Though they were clear favourites, it was obvious before the match that the Cameroonians were not going to have an easy time of it. Indeed, Malian manager, Cheick Oumar Koné, even predicted a Malian victory: “I firmly believe we will qualify,” he told local newspaper Match, “We will make that great stride. I am very confident that Mali will go to Athens, God willing.”
Mali on the up
he Cameroonians were similarly optimistic, despite the disappointment of their draw with DR Congo a few days earlier. “Mali have a good team,” said assistant manager Martin Ndtoungou Mpile, “but we still have what it takes to go through.” Their chances were not helped, however, by the absence of several of their Europe-based stars, including Samuel Etoo and Eric Djemba Djemba.
Mali made the better start to the game when Dramane Traoré buried the ball in the back of the net after just 8 minutes. That opening burst was enough to seal victory over a Cameroon side that, following their premature elimination from the African Cup of Nations, now has to come to terms with playing the unaccustomed role of also-rans. Mali’s star, on the other hand, is rising fast. And having reached the semi-finals of the CAN, they can now look forward to taking on the world’s best in Athens.
The three other groups also went right down to the wire. In Group A, the supporters of newly-crowned African champions Tunisia were expecting their heroes to confirm their new status by beating the mighty Nigeria in Radès. Tunisia’s campaign had gotten off to a poor start, but they had recovered sufficiently to know that a win would see them through. The Super Eagles, who had endured an even more disastrous start but had made an even better recovery, knew that a draw would be enough for them. The home fans were not to be disappointed however, and they roared their approval when Khaled Mouelhi opened the scoring from the penalty spot just before half-time. Eleven minutes from the end, the golden boy of Tunisian football, Ali Zitouni, gave those fans even more to shout about when he hit his side’s second.
Nigeria, who won the Gold Medal in 1996, could find no way through the formidable home defence and will now miss the Olympic Games for the first time since 1992. Though clearly satisfied, Tunisia’s captain Khaled Mouelhi was not getting carried away, and told the website LaPresse.tn that “after qualifying for Athens, we mustn’t ease off. We have to do better than we did in our three previous appearances in the tournament. Staying amongst the elite is a big challenge.”
Morocco saved by Uganda
In Group C, Morocco went into their match knowing they needed a miracle to qualify. Not only did they require victory over Angola in Rabat – which they duly achieved thanks to two goals from Bouabid Moudden, with Antonio Mendoca notching a solitary strike for the visitors – but they also had to hope that bottom-side Uganda would pull off an unlikely victory over Ehtiopia. Godfrey Sserunkuma sent Uganda into the lead, but Ephram Zeru seemed to book Ethiopia’s ticket to Greece when he equalised just after half-time.
ive minutes from the end, however, Dan Wagaruka hit a winner for the underdogs, spelling dismay for the Ethiopians and joy for Morocco. “I had vowed we would win,” said Ugandan boss Charles Namakoola, “and this was an excellent result, even if we didn’t qualify.” Meanwhile, Moroccan manager Mustapha Madih expressed his gratitude to everyone who had kept their faith in him after his side’s loss to Ethiopia.
In Group D, Ghana and Zambia met in Kumasi (Ghana) for a match to decide which of the two would qualify for Greece. Nothing less than a win would do for the Black Meteors, who were determined to make up for recent disappointments, not least their failure to reach the last African Cup of Nations. Abubakari Yahuza sent the Ghanaians on the glory trail when he profited from a mix-up in the Zambian defence to open the scoring in the 10th minute. Zambia did their best to battle back, but the home fans could finally breath easy when substitute Kwadwo Poku latched on to a long pass to hammer the ball past Kakonji in the Zambian goal.
Ghana’s Portuguese manager was delighted with his team’s result, if not the performance, and has set his sights high for Athens: “We didn’t play especially well,” he said, “but I’m pleased we qualified. Now we have to get some good results in Greece.” The Zambians, on the other hand, were gutted, but remained dignified in defeat: “Only one of us could go through today, and Ghana got the goals,” said National Technical Director Kalusha Bwalya, “we wish them all the best for the Olympics.” And indeed, the Black Meteors are already acquainted with Olympic success, having won the bronze medal 12 years ago in Barcelona.
Results and standings: