FRANCEVILLE, Gabon – Ghana was the latest big-name contender to learn nothing can be taken for granted at the African Cup of Nations as the four-time champion narrowly held on for a 1-0 win Tuesday against a Botswana team at its first major tournament.
The teams are 68 places apart in the FIFA rankings but Ghana captain John Mensah’s 25th-minute goal only just separated them at Stade de Franceville.
Mensah also was sent off in the second half for a desperate foul on Jerome Ramatlhakwane, which could have robbed Botswana of a stunning draw as the striker bore down on Ghana’s goal.
Later on Tuesday, Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita and Mali matched Ghana’s narrow success with a 1-0 win over Guinea to join the Black Stars on three points. The two favourites took control of Group D — but not in convincing fashion.
While Ghana has won Africa’s top football prize four times and played in 18 Cup of Nations tournaments, Botswana has spent the last 20 years trying to qualify for its first.
But their differing football histories were swept aside as Botswana soaked up early pressure and nearly produced the biggest shock in an opening round of upsets as it pushed the World Cup quarterfinalist right to the end.
In Equatorial Guinea — where the co-host plays Senegal and Zambia faces Libya on Wednesday — Ivory Coast’s Francois Zahoui spoke for all coaches of top teams when he asked his stars to forget the pampered surroundings at their European clubs and embrace the harsher realities of Africa.
“You leave your clubs and all their comforts behind,” Zahoui said of the Cup of Nations. “Here we are in an African environment.
“In the dressing rooms where we have no windows or air conditioning, you are nearly in a microwave oven. This is a dressing room of the African Cup of Nations.”
Ghana had to tough it out for its opening victory in Franceville, where roasting hot temperatures dropped only just before kickoff in the first game in Gabon’s remote south eastern city.
Botswana’s players, meanwhile, have not been pampered and are reportedly each being given $30 a day for expenses at the tournament.
Written off before qualifying, and then given no chance against Ghana, they nearly finished on level terms with one of the continent’s powerhouses. The final whistle was met with relieved celebrations by Ghana’s superstars and coach Goran Stevanovic.
“We have learned that at this tournament it’s not easy to beat anybody,” Stevanovic said.
Ghana just escaped an equalizer a few minutes before Mensah’s straight red card when John Boye’s goal-line clearance kept a header out from Moemedi Moatlhaping — a midfielder with a second-tier club in South Africa — and protected the Black Stars’ slender lead.
Having nearly followed in the footsteps of Zambia and Tunisia, who upset Senegal and Morocco respectively, Botswana was already a little bolder after its first experience of the Cup of Nations.
“This is the first time that we’ve ever played this type of game and this type of team,” said coach Stanley Tshosane, a former army officer. “Ghana is a very good team, I think we all agree, but at the end (of the match) they weren’t that good.”
Defender Mompati Thuma — who plays for Botswana’s army club — marked Ghana’s star striker Asamoah Gyan for the whole match, and didn’t come away in awe.
“Gyan’s an ordinary player like everyone else,” Thuma said. “It’s just that he plays in Europe.”
Guinea created early chances and finished with a late surge against Mali. It just couldn’t find the final touch, to the growing frustration of coach Michel Dussuyer.
It was delight for Mali’s small band of travelling fans, however, who banged drums and chanted throughout the game and made as much noise as a group three times their size.
They were only challenged for attention at a half-empty stadium by a group of local students — all dressed in white — who sang and danced in formation throughout Ghana’s nervous win over Botswana.