Regularly ridiculed for the extent of its tenure this year – a tribute seldom reserved in recent editions – by ignorant, populist-pandering Western social media pages targeting materialism over credibility, we return to covering the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations again this weekend, hopefully in a considerably more accurate manner than the aforementioned. Afflicted in my own integrity as a source, however, by the simple fact I wasn’t able to catch any live action (despite expecting to do so, with the coverage being widely advertised as on ITV4 as usual this year, only to find out Eurosport had bought out the rights from this tournament onwards), I will attempt to utilise the limited information I have gathered over the course of the Gabon-based biennial celebration of African football – mostly from the BBC, in the form of radio coverage and reports – to recap an extremely telling three weeks. While the final ball of the tournament is yet to be played, with my pre-tournament favourites Egypt taking on surprise package Cameroon in Libreville tomorrow evening, and losing semi-finalists Burkina Faso and Ghana squaring off in the third-placed playoff tonight, with many lessons learnt in the 30 games to date in the tournament, there is plenty sufficient to discuss in this week’s Talking Points, which we will delve into straight away…
Firstly, I would like to apologise about my pre-tournament predictions, aside from Egypt’s resurgence, from a few weeks ago on this site. I misjudged Cameroon, Burkina Faso and DR Congo, while overrating Algeria, Gabon and, most prominently/shockingly, the Ivory Coast – defending champions, with an impressive squad, but ultimately, and mightily, over-egged by slapdash fans, who underestimated the severity of losing some of their senior stars. It is on this theme that we will begin. Form, especially, should’ve alerted me to such dips in the achievement of the Desert Warriors, and Les Éléphants, on such a high-pressure, immediate stage for the sides – one where their fans are the closest they could possibly be. But this is part of the unpredictability, the charm of the sport, that statistics, and recent performances, all too often mean nothing in the state of play in a tournament where a split-second occurrence can change the fate of a side for years, and despite not having the vast array of matches that the Euros, or the World Cup, can boast, this is one of the aspects that AFCON masters. In pitting such a competitive collection of physical, technical and managerial talents against each in other in such close proximity, in this case the current political hotbed that is Gabon – similar to that of Brazil in 2014, with the public protesting in the streets, and boycotting games – there was always bound to be drama. Disappointments for some, and heady heights for others.
Away from the tangerine and emerald-kitted assailants to the previous throne – dramatically ousting Ghana after a marathon penalty shoot-out in the 2015 final – ultimately toppled from such heights by my wildcard Morocco, suffering a debilitating 1-0 defeat after nervy draws against Togo and DR Congo, there were great successes in the early stages. Uganda, without an AFCON appearance since the late 1970’s, and the latter stages of Idi Amin’s truly tyrannical reign – far worse than that of Sepp Blatter or Richard Scudamore – lived up to their reputation as spirited defensive battlers, only edged out by a single goal by the rattled duo of Ghana and Egypt, before finding their delirium in Farouk Miya’s emphatic plant to give them the lead against Mali (only for their opponents to equalise with an equally stunning goal). Tunisia, also, while not in the same position as the Cranes, achieved where nobody imagined they would, roaring back into action after falling, by some fault of their own, to a defeat against a clinical Senegal side, with a deconstruction of rivals Algeria, and then a demolishing of brave minnows Zimbabwe, whereas Burkina Faso, a small country with clear footballing talent, pipped rattled hosts Gabon, and eventual finalists Cameroon, to top spot in Group A. Scoring in each of their matches at the tournament, with previously widely unrecognised journeymen strikers Aristide Bancé and Préjuce Nakoulma stepping up alongside the likes of Bertrand Traore, Paulo Duarte’s side could perceive themselves as the Gareth Bale-inspired Wales side of last summer incarnate, as they overcame huge obstacles to reach a stage where they could even take Egypt to a heart-wrenching semi-final penalty shoot-out.
In the heat, or rather humidity in the densely-forested Gabon’s case, of battle, however, there were always going to be those who failed to rise to the occasion. As the first round of matches paved the way for a decisively nervy subsequent two rounds of group stage football, with five draws from the eight matches played, and an average of 1.5 goals per game – six of the 12 goals scored in Group B – those with heaps of expectation on their shoulders largely crumbled. After Riyad Mahrez salvaged a point against a hard-working Zimbabwean outfit in the opening round, his efforts could ultimately not be matched – his Algerian team scoring in the last minute after being consigned to defeat against Tunisia, and failing to edge out a Senegal side who showed glimmers of their quarter-final failure to come, with Islam Slimani’s brace only ensuring a 2-2 draw - too little, too late for the North Africans.
For Gabon, the pressure was heavier than on any other nation, and especially fixated upon maverick forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who, despite taking on the Ronaldo-esque role as captain and catalyst, and scoring two inspirational goals in Les Panthères’ vital first two games, couldn’t conjure the necessary spark from his teammates in front of probably the largest attendances of the tournament in order to qualify. They will go down as the only side, other than the eventual victor, to have gone undefeated at the tournament, but, unable to provide the requisite attacking goods, such a trivial detail will be of little solace to their less-than-quietly discontented supporters. The same could also be said of defending champions, arguably the best known of Africa’s many footballing jewels, the Ivory Coast, who flattered to deceive on such a magnitude that even Leicester City’s shocking season to date was made to look a minor blip. Ultimately, losing the Touré brothers, alongside Gervinho and Boubacar Barry, was evidently too heavy a series of body blows for boss Michel Dusseyer, who resigned in swift fashion following the group-stage exit. Understandably, too, but when provided with the likes of Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou, Eric Bailly, Serge Aurier and Wilfried Zaha, albeit the latter on an incredulously short-notice call-up, the test of a position should be smoothed considerably, especially when you note the Frenchman had built the side over almost two years. Stifled by a tenacious Togo and following up the stalemate with an end-to-end draw, arguably lucky against a well-plotted DR Congo XI, the expectation to eliminate Morocco in advancing themselves was burgeoning across the globe, and after dismally petering out with a late 1-0 defeat, the embarrassment on their hands was unanimous, national legend Kalou retiring just days before Dusseyer handed in his notice. They will rise again – after all, they are the modern institution of true African football -, but the recovery will be a painful one for the likes of Bailly, Aurier, Franck Kessié and Assane Gnoukouri (20 year-old Atalanta and Inter Milan midfielders respectively), as well as Zaha, providing he has the guts to stay on board.
Ghana, arguably the long-serving bridesmaids to the Ivoirians during their assent to the peak of African football from the mid 2000’s, as a more consistent, highly organised alternative to their rivals’ explosive, clinical style personified by the likes of Didier Drogba and Gervinho, certainly demonstrated the flickers of promise during this tournament, but as their reliance on the Ayew brothers and Asamoah Gyan as spearheads increased, it became all too clear their hopes were extinguishing. Something I did pinpoint prior to the tournament’s outset, the lack of overall squad depth available to outgoing boss Avram Grant was a telling factor, alongside the importance of key figures currently so desperately lacking form.
While both Ayew brothers, alongside Christian Atsu – devoid of a goal or assist to his name, but demonstrating he was no one-trick pony after 2015’s commanding performance – and Gyan, a victim of the lack of competition in the leagues of the UAE, all brought close to their A-games with them on the plane to Gabon, the overall make-up of the side featured few in terms of real stars. Cordoba goalkeeper Brimah Razak, unfortunate enough to have had his penalty saved by his Ivoirian counterpart Boubacar Barry, before having the dagger plunged deeper when conceding Barry’s subsequent kick, and the trophy itself, in the final action the 2015 final, had a disappointing few weeks, perhaps affected by returning ghosts – an unsettling presence for his defence, one largely built on youthful promise, between the sticks throughout. Perhaps, for Razak – at 29, still with a few tournaments left in him - along with the likes of Daniel Amartey, Frank Acheampong, Thomas Partey and Baba Rahman – so unlucky to have been ruled out of the remainder of this year’s edition after just 39 minutes of their opening match -, the future is bright, with a number of opportunities for them upcoming, especially in enemy territory, the Ivory Coast, in just two years’ time.
Another quietly favoured, and richly talented, West African nation, Senegal, appeared; at one point at least, likely victors of this winter’s championship. Blossoming under the control of home-grown coach Aliou Cissé (a rare breed amongst most African federations, favouring a European approach), the tough-tackling defensive midfielder who plied his trade in France and England during his playing days – with spells at PSG, Birmingham City and Portsmouth featuring on his CV – appeared to have reignited the once-holy reputation of a nation with little glory since their runs to the final and quarter-final of AFCON and the World Cup respectively in 2002. Sporting a perfect blend of experience and youth in all the right areas, and an extensive range of skillsets within his squad, Cissé, having tested his tactics during a duo of friendlies in the build-up to the tournament, set about dismantling the defences of first Tunisia, then Zimbabwe, while remaining regiment at the back in two 2-0 victories, before understandably rotating his squad in the final fixture, having already qualified after announcing themselves as the most exhilarating attacking side in Gabon, securing a 2-2 draw with their desperate Algerian opponents.
I have no qualms in admitting Senegal, with Mané appearing the business while his presence was lazily targeted as the sole factor lacking in Liverpool’s poor run at the same time, were my reworked favourites for the tournament at that stage, having demonstrated the requisite flair and rigidity at the correct ends of the pitch to even topple the likes of Egypt – without hardly even utilising Moussa Sow, Moussa Konaté and Mohamed Diame, as the talents we respect them, from the bench.
Alas, it was not to be for Les Lions de la Teranga, perhaps the expectation raised from having qualified for AFCON the knockout stages, unbelievably, for the first time since 2006, seeping into their psyches, as their defeat to the hands of Cameroon, in the first set of 90, and 120 minutes alike in which they hadn’t found the back of the net for 353 days – a 2-0 friendly defeat to Mexico – consigned their efforts again to eventual failure. Failure, not just because of the lofty ambitions targeted for them by onlookers such as myself, but in the long-term view, in which many will regard this as a generation of footballers arguably equal in ability to that of 2002, and a painful one I’m sure for Cissé, the captain of that early-noughties side, to take after such considerable improvements recently.
With Cameroon – depleted by a number of high-profile withdrawals in the build-up in a persisting case of an unorganised payment structure on their FA’s part – having to turn to hungry, uncredited second-choice players of questionable quality just to compete at the championships, such a response from Hugo Broos’ reserves would’ve been unexpected, to say the least. Exceeding the expectations set out in the group stage, notably avoiding a defeat even when defending an onslaught against Gabon in their final game where many would’ve crumbled, their defence grew into a respectable unit, despite only featuring a single individual of continental competition standard, Lyon defender Nicolas Nkoulou. Teamwork, surprisingly enough for a side only assembled in the wake in a series of short-notice withdrawals – much in the theme of the tournament, Gabon having only been announced as hosts after Libya, unsurprisingly, were stripped of the rights in April 2015 – was the bedrock, the key quality demonstrated by Broos’ mightily impressive pack of Indomitable Lions, befitting of their tag this time. Ridden of the infighting, hostility and pay disputes that shackled their 2014 World Cup campaign, with prima donnas Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Alex Song, Benjamin Moukandjo ditched in the fallout, and big-time Charlies Joel Matip, Henri Bedimo, Eric Choupo-Moting and Allan Nyom axed from the 35-man January squad after proving themselves as nothing but egocentrics solely motivated by pay, a new platform was built for Broos, a highly experienced former Belgian international, and veteran of the 1986 World Cup, to rework the side.
Once made glorious by Roger Milla’s exuberance, in a tradition continued by Rigobert Song and Samuel Eto’o, the West African state was once the cradle of African football, before undergoing a brutal implosion from 2010, it appears that with the cool head of Broos at the helm, a team of effective nobodies, built on the very foundations of footballing ethics, will ensure the revival of their nation’s sporting scene having just reached this stage; the final. Displaying serious mettle, some said reminiscent of the 2002 final, in which they also defeated Senegal on penalties after 120 minutes of stalemate, to edge out a side otherwise destined for another final appearance, their defensive organisation – one of the intrinsically challenging projects facing modern day managers – had been exemplary ever since they fell behind to minnows Guinea-Bissau in what was a decisive second match. In keeping consecutive clean sheets against Gabon, Senegal and Ghana; or if you prefer star names, the qualities of Aubameyang, Mané and the Ayew brothers, they have proved their rightful status as one of Africa’s top modern beacons of footballing light currently, on their biggest stage. I give them little chance of replicating such ground-breaking efforts against by far the leading side of the AFCON scene in Egypt, but I had also expected, when planning this blog on Thursday evening, to be discussing Ghana’s success here, before being shocked just a minute after tuning in to BBC 5Live’s coverage of that semi-final to be struck with the far-post finish of Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, certainly the find of the tournament with two goals and three clean sheets from centre-back, so anything is surely possible.
Egypt, for what it’s worth, haven’t quite yet lived up to my own expectations of their quality, despite seemingly easing their way to the final. I had expected the Pharaohs to tear up a few defences in the tournament with the blistering pace of Mohamed Salah and Ahmed El Mohamady, but having been centred on the Stade de Port-Gentil for their first four fixtures at the championships, they haven’t particularly found their shooting boots, scraping three consecutive 1-0 wins against the tenacious Uganda, battle-hardy Ghana and plucky Morocco after a dreary 0-0 opening with Mali. With much of the focus instead fixated upon truly veteran goalkeeper Essam El Hadary’s exploits in becoming the oldest player ever to grace AFCON, the side’s defensive qualities were never placed in significant doubt, but when released from the wrath of the Port-Gentil stadium for the semi-final against Burkina Faso, they fared little better in squeaking a victory on penalties, El Hadary unsurprisingly the hero in saving two of the West Africans’ efforts.
Another stalemate, dare I say it, is likely against a Cameroonian outfit similarly unsupportive of attacking freedom, and it could well take another snippet of brilliance from Salah, be it a free-kick, late assist or thundering 20-yard effort in the ilk of his individual contributions to this point, to separate what are likely to be two incredibly nervy sides when push comes to shove on Sunday night. As Mohamed Elneny hopefully returns to fitness after missing both knockout stages to date, softening the blows of losing Braga forward Ahmed Hassan and Al-Ahly marksman Marwan Mohsen to injury, and with no fitness concerns for their opponents, it appears a tight final, one to relish in the anticipation of as two sides so seemingly unalike, from alien spectrums of African environment, footballing culture, socio-economic and politics standpoints, go head-to-head for a history-defining prize; the rule of African football.
When peering back at this tournament, however, it may not be the football that is best remembered. The political unrest, demonstrations and boycotts from Gabonese citizens, the half-empty stadiums, the parched pitches, especially that of Port-Gentil, lack of overall enthusiasm generated throughout the lucrative markets of Europe, North America and Asia, and the painful pandering to mockery by numerous media stations may be the lasting memories, which would be a great shame in my opinion. Yes, the games admittedly haven’t been to the standard of yesteryear, but with a number of stunning free kicks, pulse-raising penalty shoot-outs, romantic tales of underdog achievements and long-standing records broken, in the circumstances of Gabon taking over from Libya with less than two years’ notice, the CAF having immeasurably less resources to aid organisation than UEFA, for example, would, and with only 16 sides of the requisite quality to make an occasion of the championships, I would argue that AFCON has made the best of a bad lot. Compared to the 2.12 goals scored per game at last summer’s Euros, there has been, to date, a healthy 2.06 flying in at this winter’s AFCON, although admittedly with 21 of the 62 goals coming in Group B alone, perhaps action was limited to a few sides.
That, particularly, isn’t the argument we’re having here though. I believe the scepticism, and cynicism, towards AFCON comes from a gross ignorance. I am a great advocate of the draws of international football, especially in regions such as Africa; perhaps its due to the fact the real eye-opener to football for me was the 2010 World Cup, which typified so much of what makes international football great. It’s far from a parade of patriotism, instead a celebration of common beliefs, and goals, bringing such divergent forces together in one space, in one time. If anything could be more uplifting than this, utilising the transcendent power of sport to unite, rather than divide, then surely it would’ve already come to fruition. Moving onto qualification for Russia in 2018, these African nations will be forced back to the drawing board in a challenge which offers the pinnacle of achievement in their sport as a prize; a spot in the World Cup finals, a carrot many can barely contain themselves for. Either Cameroon or Egypt will compete in the Confederations Cup this summer in the formerly Soviet state, something that will prove the other extreme from the humidity of Libreville tomorrow night, with opposition of vastly differing quality scheduled. Let battle commence for a place in history, then, with the next page in the history of African football awaiting a scribe, for the future to be shaped by one of these two astonishing sides.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!