AFCON 2021: Great for Senegal, but a competition for the committed

NO MATTER how you examine the Africa Cup of Nations 2021, it is hard to conclude this was a riveting tournament full of entertainment. For the neutral audience, the lack of goals and quality marked many games as dull and uninspiring. Some segments of the media tried to convince us this was a wonderful event, using terms such as “colourful” to describe the crowds and players. True, the strips of the 24 nations are very vivid and there are characters in the stands that make for good TV, but if you are uncommitted to a nation, and therefore don’t really care too much how your team gets results, then you want more than binary number results to keep your interest.

Senegal were the best team in the competition, but they could have done so much more with the squad at their disposal. For them, winning AFCON was the priority and they did it, via that unsatisfactory decider of penalties. Senegal scored nine goals in seven games and the overall goals-per-game ratio was 1.92 – a paltry sum for the continent’s premier international competition.

Egypt, their opponents, had slalomed their way to the final with the help of two penalty shoot-outs and had scored four goals. Considering these two teams had Mo Salah and Sadio Mané out on display, the misuse of such talent was something of a crime. It was very clear that this final was not about the clash of the two Liverpool forwards, if it was, then the outcome would have been so different.

Finals in any competition are tense affairs, so perhaps it is unfair to expect a goal-fest, but at times it looked as though Egypt didn’t particularly want to win in open play and Senegal didn’t quite have the savvy to break down their defence. However, Senegal were more attack-minded than a rather dour Egyptian team. It might have been so different if Sadio Mané had scored a penalty awarded in the fourth (and taken in the seventh) minute after Abdelmonem brought down Senegal defender Saliou Ciss in the box. Mané hit a powerful spot-kick, but Gabaski pulled off a spectacular save. At that point, there seemed to be a narrative suggesting the keeper, who had been the hero of two penalty shoot-outs in the round of 16 and semi-final, was shaping-up to be the hero of the hour.

Senegal had started well, but they lost some of their verve after the penalty miss. Egypt came to life and Salah’s superb left-foot shot in the 42nd minute was acrobatically saved by Édouard Mendy.  Into the second half, the game became more scrappy, which suited Egypt as it broke-up Senegal’s flow. 

Gabaski denied Famara Diédhiou when he bravely dived at the big forward’s feet, while at the other end, Egypt central defender Marwan Hamdy should have done better with a header. Inevitably, the game went to extra time and Senegal’s Bamba Dieng had two headers saved by Gabaski. Egypt had a very late opportunity but Hamdy saw his shot tipped over by Mendy. Despite a renewed effort from the Senegalese, the game ended goalless.

And so, the TV spectacle of penalties. High in the stand, the guests from FIFA looked pretty bored behind their masks, but the real drama was to come. For reasons known only to the elite group of players around whom the game revolves, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah were listed to take the fifth penalty for their respective teams. There’s something quite egotistical about this process, one that has been perfected by players like Cristiano Ronaldo – the hero stepping-up to win the game. Why teams allow this to happen when true leadership is shown by starting the shoot-out, is a mystery. Whatever happened to the idea of setting an example?

It backfired for Egypt, but Mané proved to be the matchwinner for Senegal, scoring to make the scoreline 4-2 and making Salah’s kick superfluous. After a tepid evening, he came to the party and wasn’t used.

Senegal deserved their victory but this was their time and the team may not have a long future ahead of it. Skipper Kalidou Koulibaly is 30 and four other members of the starting line-up were over 30 years of age. The two Mendys, Édouard and Nampalys (unrelated), Mané and Diédhiou are all 29. Furthermore, they may not make the World Cup later this year as they face Egypt in their play-off to decide who goes to Qatar. 

AFCON 2021 has received its share of criticism, but given the problems facing Cameroon in getting the competition underway, its completion was no mean achievement. The pandemic, the refereeing, VAR and behaviour might seem very critical issues, but the tragedy of January 24 means there will always be a cloud over the past few weeks. Senegal have their triumph, Cameroon had their AFCON, but people lost their lives. Football is never more important than life and death, wherever you are in the world.

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