Tuesday, May 09, 2006

#30: Les Eperviers


Where? Western Africa, facing south.

How big? Not too big. About the size of West Virginia, population about the size of Tennessee.

Something interesting about Togo I didn't know before reading the entry in the CIA factbook... Well, there's not much interesting there, actually. It's a small country, even in comparison to its closest neighbors. Like Angola, Togo has an incredibly low median age - under 18. That means half the population can't vote. Otherwise, it's a pretty standard West African nation - high debt, not especially important or useful natural resources.

Well, is there any reason to learn anything about this (geopolitically)? Well, there is kind of an interesting historical happening over the last year or so. About a year ago, the longtime (almost 40 years) president of the country, Eyadema Gnassingbe, died of a heart attack. The constitution provided that the Speaker of Parliament would become President. However, the military had a different point of view of the rules of succession. And just Speaker Natchaba's luck, he happened to be in France at the time. The military closed the borders and declared Eyadema's son Faure to be the new President, with the argument against Natchaba being, well, he was out of the country. Natchaba hung out in neighboring Benin while his supporters started yelling. Then the military leaders pushed parliament to remove Natchaba as speaker and replace him with, surprise, Faure Gnassingbe, who would then properly succeed his father. The rest of the world started yelling and withholding foreign aid. So then Faure stepped down as President, in order to run for President (elections were scheduled for a month later). And Faure won 60% of the vote, though lots of people disputed the results - so much that the EU continues to withhold economic aid, though the African Union and the US have resumed. And all this happened during some important Cup Qualifiers.

Anything actually interesting about the country, other than a strange succession and military coup (and that's one of a kind in West Africa, sherlock)? I looked, and, well, not really. I guess it's sort of interesting that, at one time or another, Togo had been a colony of Denmark, Germany, Britain and France.

Soccer, Soccer, Soccer?

Like the others I've covered so far, this is Togo's first time qualifying for the World Cup final. They've never even gotten past the first round of the African Nations Cup. This is a nation with not much of a footballing history.

Like Angola, Togo lost their initial qualifying match - on the road to Equatorial Guinea - but won the return match to make the group stage. Like Angola, Togo qualified over a strongly favored, highly respected opponent in their African group - Senegal. Senegal were among the darlings in Korea/Japan 2002, and were prohibitive favorites to qualify again. Togo, on the other hand, was considered an also-ran at best, and their opening game loss to Zambia made the supposed experts look like they knew what they were talking about. But then something happened, and Togo didn't lose again, starting with a 3-1 upset over Senegal, from which Senegal never recovered.

The team itself is not considered on a high professional level, or at least not many of the players have made it to Europe. A few play in the top flight in France, and another plays in Italy. Then there are two under contract in the UK: Souleymane Mamam at Manchester United (on loan to Antwerp) and Emmanuel Adebayor at Arsenal. Mamam is an interesting player because allegedly he was the youngest player ever to play in a World Cup qualifier, back in 2001, when he was supposed to be only 13.

But the guy to watch is Adebayor. He's big and quick and knows how to find the net. For Arsenal, he's scored 4 times in 12 games since coming over from Monaco in February. For Togo, he's been better. He led all African teams in scoring during qualifying. He's drawn comparisons to Nwankwo Kanu. High respect.

But it'll probably not help much. Togo has never faced this kind of pressure, and rarely have they seen opponents like their group.

They open against Republic of Korea in Frankfurt. Korea's speed and efficiency should give plenty of trouble to Togo. But really, Korea's experience factor should have the biggest effect. I see a 2-0 victory for Korea.

Expect a big crowd in Dortmund for Togo's second match against Switzerland. I'm thinking Togo feels a hangover, but finds the net. 2-1, Switzerland.

Togo's last match will look like their most impressive performance, but it's as much due to circumstance as Togo's talent. France will have already secured passage out of the group stage and will be saving players for fear of injury and cards. Togo, on the other hand, will have nothing to lose. Well, nothing except the game. France's backups still outclass Togo's first team. 3-1 France.

So Togo finishes the tournament at 0-0-3, -5 goal differential, 2 goals scored. Which places the "Sparrow Hawks" in 30th slot.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Togo would be... a pretty weak mid major with one stud center that a 1 seed will allow to hang around for a while, but will inevitably wear down.

Let's hope Togo doesn't "mail it in" in Germany. OK. Terrible pun, but totally sweet stamp. Dinosaurs rule. I'm eight.