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.

AFCON 2021: Tragedy hangs over the next phase

THE AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS (AFCON) may have reached a crucial stage, but there is a very dark shadow hanging over it in the form of the loss of at least eight people at the Cameroon versus Comoros game. 

While the hosts were winning through to the last eight, there was a crush at the south end of the Olembe Stadium, allegedly caused by a closed gate, a rush of people and below-par policing. As one local journalist told the BBC: “I have been to football matches in seven African countries and every time I make the same observation: there are so many police officers and so little safety.”

Before the event even began, there were misgivings about AFCON being held in Cameroon, a country with a very low rate of covid vaccination and one with pockets of political and social unrest. They have gamely tried to manage a trouble-free tournament, but apparently, a similar incident was only just avoided in the early group games. It wasn’t the first time tragedy has hit AFCON for in 2010, Togo’s team bus was attacked in Angola and three people were killed.

In such circumstances, football seems relatively unimportant and trivial, but AFCON continues and CAF must be hoping that on-pitch events dominate the headlines in the next week or two. There have already been some bizarre incidents, such as the referee who blew for time with four minutes remaining and the brave display by a covid-hit Comoros side who had to improvise in order to field a keeper. Covid, of course, has been a major obstacle and more than 25% of the 24 participants have been hit by the virus. Furthermore, VAR seems to have taken an age at times.

There have been some premature departures from the party, such as holders Algeria, who earned one point from their three games against Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast. Ghana were also a group stage casualty, finishing below Morocco, Gabon and first-timers Comoros. 

So far, though, classic contests have been in short supply, but there has been no lack of enthusiasm from the spectators who provide the usual colourful backdrop for AFCON.

Goals have been very scarce, the average per game is just 1.82 which is lower than just about every major competition in recent times, but this is hardly a new development, the 2019 version had a sub-two goals average (1.96) and 2017 was just over two (2.06). There’s no shortage of decent strikers, but big names like Mo Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mané (Senegal) have only three goals between them. Larger-than-life character Vincent Aboubakar of Cameroon leads the way with six goals having scored in every game so far.

Cameroon’s hopes are growing by the day and they come up against debutants The Gambia in the quarter-final in Douala. They are favourites to go through to the last four but they will be aware that Tunisia were beaten 1-0 in their group clash with the Scorpions. 

Tunisia, the Eagles of Carthage, made it into the quarter-finals after beating one of the favourites, Nigeria in the round 16. They will play Burkina Faso in Guaroa.

Highly fancied Senegal, who have never won AFCON, face Equatiorial Guinea in the next round after disposing of Cape Verde, who had two men sent off, including a goalkeeper. Senegal have yet to concede in their four matches, perhaps understandable given they have Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy between the posts.

The tie of the round is arguably Egypt versus Morocco which takes place in the Ahidjo stadium in Yaoundé. Egypt, the most successful AFCON nation, have been a little goal-shy so far and have netted just twice in four games, relying on penalties to get through against Ivory Coast. Morocco, who have Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi in their squad, have scored twice in every game except their opener with Ghana.

Of the last eight, five of the countries are still in with a chance of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. One of the five two-legged ties that will determine who goes to Qatar later this year is Egypt versus Senegal, and that may well be the final of AFCON 2021 on February 6. Cameroon may have something to say about that, though.