Nations League thrills and spills win over skeptics

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with teammates after the UEFA Nations League final football match against the Netherlands. (AFP)
Updated 11 June 2019
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Nations League thrills and spills win over skeptics

PORTO: Portugal's victory in the inaugural Nations League sparked celebrations long into the night in Porto on Sunday, but the hosts were far from the only ones happy at the end of UEFA's attempt to add more competition to the international calendar.

A complex format that saw UEFA's 55 nations split into four tiers with promotion and relegation on offer, as well as the chance of a playoff to qualify for next year's European Championships, took some time to get used to.

England's Harry Maguire even admitted before the Three Lions opening game of the competition against Spain that he did not fully understand the format.

Yet, that skepticism was washed away once the games got under way with competitive football between nations of a similar level replacing meaningless friendlies and often one-sided qualifiers.

"I think it is a great tournament," said Ronald Koeman, whose Netherlands side was beaten 1-0 by Portugal in Sunday's final.

"The intensity in the groups was really high and the idea to organize the Nations League was a perfect one. We are looking forward to the next one."

For all four sides who made the semi-finals in Portugal, the past week may well also prove to be the perfect launching pad to next summer's European Championships.

Portugal look a better side than when they won Euro 2016 with a host of young talent led by Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Ruben Dias to ease the burden on a 34-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.

After missing out on the last two major tournaments, the Netherlands gained some vital experience, even if they did fall at the final hurdle after beating world champions France, Germany and England to make the final.

England built on the success of reaching the semifinals at last year's World Cup by beating Spain and Croatia in the group stages, while Switzerland could easily have upset Portugal in the semifinals with better finishing.

"I am sure this tournament will become a classic because it is a tournament for the entire European family," said Portugal coach Fernando Santos. "To be the first winner will go down in history."

More than 20,000 travelling fans came to northern Portugal from England, The Netherlands and Switzerland in the past week to show that supporters had also been won over.

Yet, the success of the Nations League is likely to stir up more conflict in the continuous battle between club and country.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has been the most outspoken critic of adding a new competition at a time when top players are already being burned out by the demands of long, intense seasons at club level.

"If we don't learn to deal with our players in a better way, competition-wise, then it's the only chance to kill this wonderful game," said Klopp last month. "Because without the players, it's not a good one."

England's preparation for the past week was seriously affected with seven players in Gareth Southgate's 23-man squad involved in the Champions League final and all were left out from the start in defeat against the Dutch.

Yet, had England not reached the Nations League finals, they would have had two more qualifiers for the European Championships this week in a six-team group rather than five.

And having scored 10 goals in winning their opening two qualifiers, Southgate believes the Nations League is far more appealing to players, coaches and fans alike.

"We could be playing qualifying matches somewhere else tonight," he said after a second semi-final defeat in 12 months. "We weren't, we were playing another semifinal."


Kodjia fires Ivory Coast past South Africa in Africa Cup of Nations

Updated 24 June 2019
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Kodjia fires Ivory Coast past South Africa in Africa Cup of Nations

  • The Elephants set themselves up for a much improved display in Egypt after Kodjia scrambled home the winner on 64 minutes

CAIRO: Jonathan Kodjia struck the only goal as Ivory Coast defeated South Africa 1-0 in the steamy Cairo heat on Monday in a meeting of former Africa Cup of Nations champions.

Ivory Coast won the title for the second time in 2015 but crashed out in the group stage two years ago without a victory and are trying to rebuild a team to match that of their golden generation.

The Elephants set themselves up for a much improved display in Egypt after Kodjia scrambled home the winner on 64 minutes against the 1996 champions.

“It was a difficult match and the important thing for us was not to come a cropper in the opening game,” said Ivory Coast coach Ibrahim Kamara. “We needed to start well in the competition and that’s what we’ve done.”

South Africa boss Stuart Baxter said he had no complaints about the result after his side rarely threatened the Ivorian goal.

“Because of the lack of strikes on goal we can’t complain about losing the game, but I thought the players put in a great performance and it’s a great learning curve for us,” he said.

Talent

Kamara sees Nicolas Pepe as one the young stars who can banish the memories of a disastrous title defense, and the in-demand Lille forward soon demonstrated his talent with a jinking run that ended with Kodjia snatching at a shot from close range.

South Africa, who failed to qualify for the 2017 edition, on the other hand have arrived in Egypt as one of the most unpredictable teams.

Bafana Bafana scaled the heights at the outset of 2019 qualifying by winning 2-0 in Nigeria, then sank into mediocrity by drawing 0-0 away to lowly ranked Seychelles.

In the first half at Al Salam Stadium where temperatures again peaked around 37 Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit) they were largely limited to counter-attacks, captain Thulani Hlatshwayo going closest with a header that brushed the roof of the net.

Ivory Coast headed home early in Gabon after they were held by Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and lost against Morocco, but they nearly took the lead here twice in quick succession around the half-hour.

After a foul on the edge of the South Africa box Pepe, the 22-goal second highest French Ligue 1 scorer last season behind Kylian Mbappe, slammed a thunderous free kick against the crossbar with Ronwen Williams rooted to the spot.

The South Africa goalkeeper then produced a stunning reflex save to keep Kodjia out moments later as the Aston Villa forward ran clean through before needlessly opting for power over precision.

Amid the energy-sapping heat both sides made a labored start to the second half but it eventually burst into life when Kodjia atoned for his earlier miss.

Max Gradel was released into space down the left and the winger whipped a precise early ball across to an unmarked Kodjia who stabbed beyond Williams.

South Africa substitute Lars Veldwijk tumbled to the ground under pressure from Serge Kanon late on as they pressed for an equalizer and Sibusiso Vilakazi blazed over on the turn, while Pepe was denied a second for Ivory Coast from another free-kick following a flying save by Williams.