Mali Serves up 1st Win; Ghana, Congo Draw 2-2
The African Cup of Nations returned to something more like its normal order on Sunday when sunshine, empty stands, reckless yet eye-catching football and politics were all thrown in at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Seydou Keita ensured Mali was the first team to win at the tournament then called attention to his conflict-torn country by wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a slogan calling for peace.
Mali's 1-0 win over Niger through captain Keita's late goal also ended a run of three straight draws to start the African Cup, although Ghana's pulsating 2-2 result against Congo in Sunday's other game was nothing like the drab scoreless encounters on a rain-dampened opening day of nil-nils in Johannesburg.
Instead, under blue skies in Port Elizabeth, title contender Ghana blew a 2-0 lead against a bold Congo team to open Group B in a flurry of attacking enthusiasm and defensive naivety from both.
Defending champion Zambia begins its tournament in Group C on Monday against Ethiopia. There, the continent's youngest champion faces one of the oldest as 1962 winner Ethiopia returns after a 30-year absence for one of African football's founding members.
Keita pounced on a goalkeeping mistake in the 84th minute to eventually break down a defensive Niger and put Mali top of its group. He then donned a white t-shirt with the French words "Paix au Mali" in red letters across the front: "Peace in Mali."
The midfielder had also forced Niger's Kassaly Daouda into a flying save and rattled the crossbar before finally giving his West African nation a glimmer of joy.
As much as Keita's performance commanded attention, it was Ghana and Congo that really grabbed the fans that did make the game on the second day of the African Cup.
From the time Ghana skipper Asamoah Gyan nearly connected with a cross in the second minute up to the final seconds when his header was stopped inches short by flamboyant Congo 'keeper Muteba Kidiaba, the teams attacked and attacked.
And the defenses faded and faded in the South African sun.
Among a near never-ending supply of chances on goal, Lomana LuaLua cracked a shot against the bar for Congo and Gyan missed out when bearing down on goal.
Emmanuel Agyemang Badu made one of the openings count after a high-class buildup from the Ghanaians involving Gyan and Kwadwo Asamoah. Asamoah made it 2-0 from a corner.
Congo pulled a goal back after only four minutes. Tresor Mputu skipped through from a pass by Cedric Makiadi to flick a shot with the outside of his right foot into the far corner. Dieumerci Mbokani's penalty in the 67th, which the tall striker won and buried with a languid stroke, ensured Congo ended on level terms even after another glut of attacks in the final stages.
"It's not possible to get a better image of African football than the game between these two teams," Congo coach Claude Le Roy said.
The game also revived the bizarre goal celebration of Congo's pony-tailed and bearded 'keeper Kidiaba, which he first showed to a captivated world when TP Mazembe reached the final of the Club World Cup.
The goalie greeted Mbokani's success from the spot by bouncing around his penalty area on his backside.
It probably won't be remembered that unfortunately the 45,000-seat stadium was less than half full.
On Monday, Zambia starts its defense less than a year after an emotionally charged triumph in Gabon and in the same city where the country's national team perished in an air crash.
"We have tasted the sweet, and now it's time to try and taste it again," captain Christopher Katonga said, recalling last year's fairytale tournament. "We know what the African Cup can do in our lives."
Also in Group C, Nigeria's new generation will play Burkina Faso.