Greg Lalas
Monday January 28th, 2008

ACCRA, Ghana -- As soon as locals here find out you don't live in Ghana, they have two questions: 1) How do you find Ghana? 2) Who do you think will win the Cup of Nations?

The answer to the first question is easy: Ghana is one of the nicest countries I've ever visited. The people are friendly and generous, quick to say hello to a passer-by or to give directions to out-of-towners trying to find their hotel in Takoradi.

The food, like fufu with goat soup and spicy kebabs grilled outside the Ohene Djan Stadium, is delicious. The beer -- I like Star best, I think -- is cold and crisp, and on a hot afternoon goes down more smoothly than water. The Ghanaian women ... well, I'll just steal the description used by a South African man interviewed on the radio the other day: "Wow."

The second question is a little trickier. My heart always wants to say, "The Black Stars will win the Cup, of course." Ghana has a very good team, even with the absence of Stephen Appiah's soulful creativity in the midfield. It has six points from two matches.

Unfortunately, ahead of Monday's do-or-die match with Morocco, the Ghanaian fans are hurling criticisms at their beloved Black Stars, afraid they will fail to get the draw they need to advance. If you ask me, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, I must ignore my heart and go with my head. In this case, it points toward either everyone else's favorite, the Ivory Coast, or my dark-horse pick, Mali.

"Are you sure?" they ask.

"No, I'm not sure," I reply. "But that's my guess."

(Aside: After Sunday's performance by Angola, I might put a side bet on os Palancas Negras. They're playing the jogo bonito to an African rhythm. Seriously, Manucho is awe-inspiring. His performance alone was enough to force the Senegalese coach's resignation, which came right after the Terranga Lions lost 3-1 to Angola.)

The Ivory Coast and Mali square off on Tuesday here in Accra. The Ivorians lead Group B and have already booked their place in the quarterfinals. But the result will decide the fates of both second-placed Mali and third-placed Nigeria. A draw, and Mali is in. A loss, and, assuming Nigeria takes care of whipping boys Benin, the Super Eagles advance.

Admittedly, the Ivory Coast is an easy pick to win the Cup. It's a stacked team, from scoring weapons Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou to defensive stalwart Emmanuel Eboué. The Ivorians (and Arsenal, too) suffered a major blow when Kolo Touré went down with a knee injury against Benin, but that shouldn't slow down the Elephants' stampede to the final. The harmony of their teamwork and dazzling improvisation -- the opposite of Nigeria's play -- reminds me of a great jazz combo in a jam session.

The Ivorians have displayed great passion as well. When Drogba scored the opener against Benin, he jumped around like he'd just won the lottery. He leapt the signboards, jubilated with the Ivorian fans and kissed the crest on his jersey. It was wonderful.

Mali, on the other hand, has yet to produce the scintillating performance I expected of a team that boasts such stars as Fredi Kanouté, Seydou Keita, and Momo Sissoko. But the optimist in me believes an explosion is coming. How can it not with all those weapons?

What's more interesting is that in this tournament, where 53 goals have been scored in the first 16 matches, the Eagles of Mali, led by Real Madrid's brilliant holding midfielder Mahamadou Diarra (check out for World Soccer's Q&A with the Malian captain), are the only team yet to concede a goal. Granted, they've only played Nigeria (no goal scored) and Benin (one goal), but still, a shutout in a major tournament is never anything to scoff about.

While slowly de-feathering the Super Eagles of Nigeria, the Malians switched to a defensive posture, realizing that a draw would suit them just fine. A loss would've been disastrous, but a draw put them on four points. This left them needing only to tie the Ivory Coast to advance to the quarterfinals.

Now against the Elephants, the Eagles will be without Diarra, who picked up his second yellow card in the group stages in the match with Nigeria. And Mali is having problems putting the ball in the net, having scored only once, on a penalty from Kanouté in the Benin match.

No matter. There are too many examples in soccer's history of teams from culturally related nations slyly colluding to get the necessary result, and I firmly believe the Malians and Ivorians will get that draw.

Now I'm not accusing anyone of swindling -- even though the Benin coach has claimed that he was offered a bribe to "manipulate" the score when his side faced Mali in its Group C opener. But somehow, the two Francophone countries will decide that they would like to help each other: Mali advances to the quarterfinals, while the Ivory Coast sees the potentially dangerous Nigeria ousted from the tournament.

Plus, there is Drogba's marital bliss to think about: The Ivorian striker's wife is Malian.

With all respect to Mrs. Drogba, I don't think Mali really needs much help. It has the talent to get the result on the up and up. In fact, it has the talent to win the Cup, something it has never done. Mail has only qualified for the Cup of Nations four times. Each time, it's gone to the semifinals.

Can it go even further this year? I'm not sure, but that's my guess.

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