SO far the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) has been a soccer tournament of equilibrium. The overwhelming feature of the first round was draws – there were 13 of them, more than in any other group stage since the tournament adopted its present format in 1996.
The odd side-effect of that is that three sides – champions Zambia, DR Congo and Morocco – all went home without losing a game. The only side that has happened to previously under the present format was Tunisia in 2010.
The temptation is to see that as evidence of the levelling-out of talent of which the Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi and others have spoken. You only have to consider the former giants who now struggle to qualify for the Cup and the teams once considered minnows who have qualified for the World Cup to recognise that the pyramid is getting broader, if not higher. But if draws are reflective of that, why were there only three in the group stage last year?
The issue seems rather to be the dearth of goals. While Mali in 2002, with just 35 goals spread across 24 group games – a pitiful 1.46 a game – still holds the prize, this tournament, with 49 goals in 24 games is comfortably in second place, surpassing the 2.17 goals a game of Ghana-Nigeria in 2000. The fewer goals there are, of course, the less there is to differentiate sides and it's no coincidence that the two tournaments with the fewest goals also have the most draws.
The question then is why there are so few goals. In part it is down to that process of evening-out: the more evenly matched sides are, the less chance there is of a five or six-goal shellacking.
In Mali, the issue was largely the pitches. In the World Cup here in 2010, the lowest scoring since the switch to a 32-team format, the problem was the Jabulani ball. This time, the pitch in Nelspruit, reduced to a sandy mess by a fungal infection, has contributed, and Zambia's frustration that their quick counter-attacking game was held up by the slow surface was understandable.
The heavy rain and soggy conditions perhaps contributed to the drab opening pair of matches at Soccer City, but the pitches in Port Elizabeth, Rustenburg and Durban have been excellent. The Katlego ball, which has essentially the same structure as the Comoequa used in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon last year, and the Tango 12 used at last year's European Championship, seem blameless. So what's the issue? It's dangerous to read too much into one tournament, particularly as trends within a tournament are often self-perpetuating – early draws make teams more cautious later in the group stage, whereas an early win may lift pressure or a defeat force a more aggressive strategy. But it seems Zambia's success last year has demonstrated how effective sides can be if they get the defensive organisation right and strike on the break.
That seems to have led to a generally more cautious approach. With many creative players not fully fit, the result is tightly-locked defences with little to unpick them. That does not necessarily mean poor football, but it does mean a lack of goals.