African football’s head high after Cup of Nations success

rugby12 February 2024 11:20| © Mzansi Football

African football can hold its head up high after Sunday’s successful conclusion of the Africa Cup of Nations finals in the Ivory Coast, where the home fans were celebrating the success of their team after edging Nigeria 2-1 in the final in Abidjan.

While the Ivorians are revelling in the performance of their team, who came back against great odds and after sacking their coach to claim their third Cup of Nations success, there are also celebrations for the organisers, whose tournament went off almost hitch free and attracted much praise.

Not only was it smooth sailing, but the Cup of Nations set new standards for others to follow, notably with the application of the Video Assistant Referee, which has won worldwide praise for its practical application.

VAR controversies continue to dominate world football but there were few at the Cup of Nations, where the quality of refereeing was superb despite the Confederation of African Football taking a risk with a crop of young referees.

So too was the excitement of the football, helped not least by a high quality of pitches for the footballers to compete ion. Many past tournaments have been ruined by the inability to offer proper footballing spectacles because the playing surfaces have been below par.

But the efforts to ensure optimal conditions for teams at the Cup of Nations was rewarded with exciting matches as the tournament produced a record 119 goals, far surpassing previous record tally of 102 in Egypt in 2019.

They were played in the backdrop of fine stadia, five of which were built for the tournament, and one extensively renovated.

The Ivorians emerged as eventual winners as they fought back from a first-round crisis in an overall performance that will have Hollywood script writers sharpening their pencils.

They were not even sure of progress to the knockout stages after their horror loss to Equatorial Guinea but got a lucky escape as the last of best third placed finishers.

But even then, their path through the knockout stages was one of grim determination, having to come back from the brink of defeat to eliminate holders Senegal and then feisty neighbours Mali in the last-16 and quarterfinal.

They were behind in both matches but showed a mental fortitude worthy of champions.

Those were shock results but the tone for upsets was set almost from the start with the likes of Angola, Cape Verde Islands, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania and Namibia all upending the traditional order.

Many top sides tumbled out early, notably 2019 champions Algeria, Ghana and Tunisia after the first round, leading to the immediate departure of all their coaches. By tournament’s end there have been nine coaches who have lost their jobs because of their Cup of Nations performance.

Equatorial Guinea’s 4-0 win over the Ivorians in the last Group A game will go down as the greatest upset in tournament history. No home team has ever been so humiliated, so it was even more to the Ivorians’ credit that they were able to bounce back.

The Cape Verde Islands were the smallest of the 24 competing countries but most unlucky not to make it to the semifinal denied only by the penalty shootout saves of South Africa’s Ronwen Wiliams, elected the best goalkeeper at the tournament.

Player of the tournament went to William Troost-Ekong of Nigeria, who scored three goals and led his side in exemplary fashion. It is most unusual for a centre back to take the award. His teammate Victor Osimhen might have also won it for his application and work rate but he scored only once and has a poor performance in Sunday’s final with all Nigeria’s players looking tired.

Among the Ivorians, centre back Evans Ndika was their most consistent performer, but the hero proved Sebastien Haller, who scored a sharp winner as he completed a remarkable personal journey after recovering from cancer.

As always new stars emerged but few would have picked the 34-year-old Emilio Nsue to win the Golden Boot for the top scorer, with his five goals for Equatorial Guinea. It included three against Guinea Bissau, which was the first hattrick at the tournament since 2008.

Mohamed Salah’s hamstring injury put a dampener on Egypt’s chancers of extending their record number of victories at the tournament while the stars of Morocco failed to deliver for their country.

But they will have a chance again next year when they host the 2025 finals. CAF are expected to return to a mid-year date for the next finals in Morocco, but this is now up in the air because of the expanded Club World Cup which Fifa have launched.

Fifa announced in December the expanded 32-team Club World Cup would be held in the U.S from June 15-July 13, 2015, setting up a potential clash of dates.