African Cup of Nations 2012: Niger
Intro into team
Niger are not a country synonymous with football. Indeed, they are ranked 98th by FIFA Their surprise qualification for the African Cup of Nations 2012 will be the first time Niger have qualified for either the ACN or the World Cup. Consistently referred to as “minnows” or “underdogs”, the west Africans have no superstars, no big names or even smaller names playing in big leagues. However, they’ve shown through qualifying that they have a spirit and attitude that turns them into a force greater than their status suggests. Though that may not necessarily imply they’re team that could act as a dark-horse for the trophy, they’re certainly a team whose mentality could see them upset the big teams.
How Did They Qualify?
When the groups were drawn, Nigeriens undoubtedly presumed it would be another year of heartbreak. 1996 champions South Africa, a team in high spirits after hosting the 2010 World Cup were drawn into Group G also containing the current ACN champions, Egypt, and the ever-growing Sierra Leone. Their qualifying chances were bleak, seemingly impossible in fact. Yet, Niger did not let the draw get to them and instead set about building a fortress at home. After a 2-0 loss to South Africa away from home, Niger pulled out a shocking 1-0 victory over Egypt at home before adding an equally impressive 3-1 win over Sierra Leone, rounding off the first half of their fixtures with two wins from three.
Their trip to Sierra Leone would not be as profitable, suffering defeat thanks to a Teteh Bangura goal. Home advantage was clearly essential to any success they would have. South Africa were next, travelling to Naimey to be beaten 2-1. Surely Niger couldn’t actually qualify? A final 3-0 loss to Egypt left Niger with three wins and three losses, tied with both South Africa and Sierra Leone on nine points. Despite their inferior goal difference, Niger qualified through head to head results, making history.
Harouna Doula is not a famous name, or even a semi-famous name. Yet, he’s the name on the lips of Nigeriens. This is Doula’s second stint as manager of his nation, forced to step down in 2002 to allow Ivorian Yeo Martial to take the reigns, Doula was re-hired at the end of 2009.
Doula is quick to claim he is not the reason Niger have been successful. A Physical Education professor, the 45 year old is humble and instead thanks his players’ humility and the overhaul of the Nigerien football federation in the past few years.
That’s not all, folks. In November 2011, Niger appointed a more experienced man than Doula as the sporting director. Frenchman Rolland Courbis stepped up with the former Marseille coach set to help Niger in their first big tournament.
Ouwa Moussa Maazou
Maazou was essential in qualifying for Niger and is the nation’s posterboy. Currently playing for Belgian side Zulte Waregem, Maazou started his career at ASFAN before moving to Lokeren. There, he set the Belgian league alight and earned a €5m move to Russian giants CSKA Moscow. Maazou has spent the majority of his time with CSKA on loan to various clubs (including Monaco and Bordeaux). A strong, pacy forward, the majority of Niger’s play will revolve around Maazou.
The team captain, Idrissa is a central midfielder currently plying his trade in Burkina Faso with ASFA Yennega. There, the 28 year old has helped his side lift three league titles in a row, as well as the Coup du Faso and Bukinabé SuperCup. Experienced and a natural leader, Idrissa will be relied upon to keep things ticking over in the middle.
A versatile player, Lancina is equally comfortable in defence as he is in midfield. Currely plying his trade for Cameroonian Champions Coton Sport FC, the 24 year old has experience of the tough games, featuring often in Coton Sport’s African Champions League campaigns. May look to use the tournament as a way of playing himself into the view of European teams.
How Far Can They Go?
Who knows? The expectations were so low for qualifying and yet, here we are. The obvious downside is that they’ll be playing every game away from home, a factor that they struggle against. On the other hand, that fighting spirit and humility will stand them good stead as other nations potentially struggle with egos. A tough group awaits, with Gabon, Morocco and Tunisia. Personally, I can’t see this fairytale going beyond the group stages but this is their first venture into a major tournament so you’d think the fans will be happy regardless.