The final say

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Despite loads of upsets early on, the traditional powerhouses in AFCON 2024 upheld the status quo, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Cote d Ivoire

Cote d’Ivoire’s extraordinary run in the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) ended in their third continental crown in front of a delirious home crowd and capped a month of thrills and spills and high drama.

What will in fact be most remembered at the 34th edition of this biennial tournament is someone coming out of nowhere playing way better than anyone anticipated. In other words, the commanding theme of this AFCON was many heavyweights limping out early, knocked out by many upstarts who took the tournament by storm.

Consider that World Cup semi-finalist Morocco, defending champion Senegal, seven-time champion Egypt, five-time winner Cameroon, four-time champion Ghana and former winners Algeria and Tunisia were all left with egg on their face, reaching only the round of 16 at most.

Believe it or not, none of the eight quarter-finalists from the last AFCON in Cameroon in 2022 – Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Cameroon, Egypt and Morocco – made it to the last eight this time, probably a first in tournament history.

Just as remarkable, none of the five African teams that played at the 2022 World Cup – Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia – made it to the quarter-finals, probably a first in tournament history.

None of the five top-ranked African nations were present in the quarter-finals. Incredibly, the three most successful teams in the history of the competition went out early -- Egypt, Cameroon and Ghana have 16 titles between them but the first two were sent packing in the last 16 after the Black Stars were dumped in the group stage.

Indeed, the last three champions were all eliminated - Senegal, Algeria and Cameroon.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with up and coming teams battling the old guard. Upsets are the spice of sports. It’s what the games are made of, and made for.

But in this particular AFCON, not only did David trounce Goliath; he bashed him over and over and over.

It’s worth pausing to see how and why the small fries upended the big boys.

For one, the increase of teams in AFCON from 16 to 24 since the 2019 edition in Egypt definitely helped the weaker squads. Playing against stronger opponents, they themselves became better and along the way garnered priceless experience.

Conversely, the seniors believed the increase in teams would only dilute the field. They played the young studs with an air of overconfidence and didn’t think they needed to play their best in order to win. With that attitude, they lost more times than they will care to remember.

The 40 per cent increase in prize money must also be factored in. Winner Cote d’Ivoire will now pick up $7 million. Losing finalist Nigeria will pocket $4 million. Losing semi-finalists took home $2.5 million and $1.3 million went to the losing quarter-finalists.  

All that extra cash has contributed to the success of lower-ranked teams at the AFCON, according to the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Patrice Motsepe. Speaking ahead of the quarter-finals, Motsepe said that many of the players [at AFCON] “don’t earn the same money, and I have learned over the last 20 years, if you increase the money that goes into the pockets of the players, and tell them ‘We have increased the prize money’ it inspires them immensely.”

With a personal wealth of over $3 billion from the sale of minerals, Motsepe should know the power of money and how it can galvanise the folks who don’t have much of it.

Then there was the weather. Most people know the African continent to be hot and humid but there is humidity and there is humidity. In Cote d’Ivoire, stifling humidity in cities like Abidjan and San Pedro easily reached 70 per cent, making breathing difficult. Most matches were played at temperatures hovering around 32-33 degrees Celsius. Not all Africans are used to playing on fields so muggy and airless.

The uniforms of some countries were also too tight and contributed to playing in slow motion. Some players sweated so profusely that they looked like they had just come out of Lake Tanganyika. Their jerseys, obviously not made of the right absorbent material, were so glued to their dripping skin that they weighed them down and made for heavy legs.

There is also a willingness by many young African players to start from the bottom and work their way up. Many are playing in division three leagues in Spain and division four in France. They don’t mind going up the ladder gradually, step by step the good old-fashioned way. Many others, though, wanting immediate results because of fat egos, balk at such low-level amateurish starts. They want the fame and lights and fortune right away. It’s either Real Madrid or Manchester United or nothing.  

It might also be easier to train so-called beginners from scratch. Cape Verde, Guinea and Mali were examples in this AFCON of relative novices that played seamless soccer, transitioning smoothly from defence to offense and vice versa. This school of football shuns individualism and goes for group effectiveness. A team, so the concept goes, is a sum of its parts. Playing as one achieves better results than when it’s every man for himself.

The result of this one-for-all-and-all-for-one was that four of the remaining teams – Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea and Mali – never won the Africa Cup before. Three of the last eight got into the quarter-finals after winning an AFCON knockout game for the very first time.That doesn’t mean group work should dull the shine of football stars. What would the game be without the individual brilliance of superstars like Messi and Ronaldo? It wouldn’t be worth much but the important thing is that talent is offered for the good of the team, not the cameras.

Speaking of luminaries, this AFCON showed that players in huge European clubs, including Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mane and Achraf Hakimi, four of the biggest stars of African football, did not carry their excellent club form into the tournament. Inversely, William Troost-Ekong (Nigeria), Emilio Nsue Lopez (Equatorial Guinea), and Ronwen Williams (South Africa) - putting where they come from in brackets shows how little-known they are - were all examples of players with mediocre club careers but who performed at a high level in Cote d’Ivoire.

Perhaps another factor that did not help most countries but helped Cape Verde: players of Cape Verdean heritage were born in countries such as Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Ireland where they could learn to play proper football.

The premature demise of some big-name nations led to a few casualties: coaches and computers.

Nine coaches were either fired or quit: Adel Amrouche (Tanzania), Jean-Louis Gasset (Ivory Coast), Chris Hughton (Ghana), Djamel Belmadi (Algeria), Jalel Kadri (Tunisia), Tom Saintfiet (Gambia), Rui Vitoria (Egypt), Baciro Cande (Guinea-Bissau), and Hubert Velud (Burkina Faso).

Fast-firing coaches in the heat of the moment has never been conducive to building good teams.

And, so much for computers.

Before the tournament began, Opta’s artificial intelligence prediction model said holders Senegal were the narrow favourites to lift the trophy. Senegal could not get past the round of 16.

Opta was close when it said Cote d’Ivoire would finish second. But it short-circuited when it forecast that Morocco, Algeria and Egypt would come in third, fourth and fifth. Not even close.

Rounding off the top seven teams in Opta’s predictor model were Nigeria and Cameroon. Nigeria did much better and Cameroon much worse.

Two of the biggest glitches had DR Congo and South Africa placed at 11 and 12 respectively. DR Congo reached the last four while South Africa took third. Another malfunction.

Ranking-wise, the established order finally took their place in Sunday’s final as the appearance of two of Africa’s footballing giants, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria, now with six AFCON titles between them, brought back some normalcy after all the shocks and stunners. Even still, Cote d’Ivoire’s victory could be considered an upset in itself. They are an unlikely champion. They were on the brink of elimination after the group stage, barely squeezing to the knockouts with only three points and a -3 goal difference. They then fired their coach even though they made to the round of 16, overcame defending champions Senegal in a thrilling penalty shootout, secured a cliff-hanger 2-1 victory against Mali, followed by a tight 1-0 win over DR Congo in the semi-finals before coming from behind 2-1 to edge out Nigeria, to go down in history as one of the greatest comeback stories in African football.

And what could be a more powerful comeback story than Sebastien Haller scoring the winning goal with just nine minutes left a year after beating testicular cancer.

Returning to the new kids on the block, they are not that new. They have been around, getting better and doing so in plain sight but the big guns never took them seriously, probably because none of them have yet to win an AFCON or enter a World Cup. But they are fast approaching those landmark goals, as well as parity.

Sooner than later, a nobody will win the AFCON, next in Morocco in the summer of 2025, and some will go to the World Cup, almost surely the next one. The 2026 World Cup will have a record 48 countries, expanded from 32. Africa could have as many as 10 teams instead of the usual five.

At that time, the underdogs would have reached their final destination.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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