The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon is over. A good tournament football-wise and a fascinating sport event politically. Here are ten points I took from the tournament which ended this Sunday in Libreville, Gabon.
Gabon 2017 tournament was conducted in the midst of a generational change in African football, from north to south and from east to west. This has affected the football level, especially in games of national teams that the average viewer is accustomed to see with mega stars that provide football displays.
Just like that Europe does not produce more Zidanes, Baggio’s and Laudrops, Africa no longer produce Jay-Jay Okocha’s or Kanu’s, nor Samuel Eto'o’s or Didier Drogba’s. And you know what? That’s actually fine. Football, like life, is changing. It is not less interesting this way.
One family who runs the country for decades; petroleum; Chinese; popular opposition and a lot of money on the table. This AFCON tournament took place in Gabon, a country in a deep but unseen political crisis that is only getting worse. Few months ago that nearly turned into a civil war.
The tension between the Gabonese opposition and ruler Ali Bono has affected even before the tournament started, and the empty stands at most of the games, which created an alienated atmosphere, were the biggest evident. If that were not enough, the Gabon national team, with superstar Aubameyang from Dortmund and a quite promising support crew with Mario Lamina from Juventus, broke to pieces in this political turmoil, which penetrated the dressing room and caused a rift between the players. Gabon became the fourth hostess ever in AFCON history not to qualify from the group stage. That’s not a good souvenir for Bongo, what so ever.
One of the most overrated but still expected discussions in African championships is the one debating the identity of the coaches. This year, only four of the 16 coaches in the tournament were local Africans. Cisse in Senegal, Florent Ibenge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pasuwa from Zimbabwe and Guinea-Bissau's Candé, have all done a great job with their teams.
However, heads of states and associations still prefer foreign coaches to coach African national teams. The administrative and cultural effects of colonialism cannot disappear so quickly, and the issue of coaches is just one of them. If some of the governments of African countries are still begging for France and the United States to send troops and generals to conduct their territory resource disputes, then football coaches are small money.
Names Exist Only on Paper
Algeria and the Ivory Coast, who came to the tournament as the big favorites for triumph, completely shattered even with the quality players on their roster. The glorifications we tend to impose on players who play Champions League or Premier League football, is excessive and exaggerated. Often, the number of such players is not even indicating the quality of the team. The AFCON has its own rules, and we saw that significantly in the tournament.
Guinea-Bissau had a historic debut with an emotional and inspiring group stage; the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Fimbu dancehave thrilled everyone for four games until they ran into Avram Grant and the Ayew Brothers; Herve Renard’s Morocco showed excellent football, not less, despite injuries and absences; Cameroon the winner was the biggest surprise of all, but it deserves its own section. We’ll get to it right away.
The team that was playing the best football in the tournament was Burkina Faso. Powerful and organized defensively, fast, dynamic and creative on attack. Burkina Faso 2017 was the fulfillment fantasies of nostalgic fans of African teams like Nigeria 1996/1998, Cameroon in 2002 and Ghana 2010. The Burkinabe team was great fun to watch, and only a bad luck and one El-Hadary, had prevented them final appearance. Oh, and Aristide Bancé. What an idol.
The MVP and the Revelation are the Same Guy
Christian Bassogog. The 21 years old, who played in the second division in Cameroon, moved to a fourth division in the USA and today plays for Aalborg in Denmark, was invited to the team two weeks before the championship and simply burnt the grass. Technique, speed, strength , sacrifice, assisting, leadership and what’s not. He had it all and he gave it all. A true MVP. Simple as that.
Goalkeeper is a Profession
What haven’t been written on Egyptian goalie Essam El-Hadary. A 44-year-old (!), who became the first choice thanks to the injury of the other goalies in Egyptian squad, and became the oldest footballer in history to appear in a major tournament. He recorded a particularly heroic display in the semi-final versus Burkina Faso penalty shootouts. In the final though, he disappeared and was pretty weak, what influenced a lot on his team.
Ah ya Misr
Héctor Cúper and Muhammad Salah Egypt was a very strange creature that demonstrated a rare intensity on defense, while the attack did not functioned consistently well. In the knockout things got together, and the Pharaohs brought the element of deterrence back that was so missing in past years. Salah was great with two goals and two assists, El-Nenny was dominant and scored a beautiful goal in the final, and we’ve mentioned El-Hadary already. One thing is certain: No matter what country, no matter what stage, Hector Cúper is a loser. He had everything it takes to win the title, and again, it did not happen. I smoked one cigarette for him Sunday night.
See them at the World Cup 2018 in Russia? Hope so, mainly for El-Hadary.
A national team that eight of its stars refused to join the AFCON just few weeks before the tournament, that its first choice on goal is 21 from a reserve team in Spain, that its star playing in a small club in Denmark and its leader is at tiny Lorient from France, won the title. And not while playing ugly football. The opposite. A Talented, high quality, stubborn team, with great personal ability of each one of its player. Cameroon eliminated the hosts in the group stage, favorites Senegal in the quarter-finals, Ghana in the semis, put up a strike in protest over bonuses from the association, came to the final against mighty Egypt, and from goal down scored a beautiful goal with two minutes left to win the title. A worthy African champions that took part in a fascinating final, and won it. Chapeau.
There are many more names that deserve mention here as Junior Kabananga (RD Congo), Jjukko (Uganda), Khama Billiat (Zimbabwe), Kara Mbodje (Senegal), Naim Sliti (Tunisia), Moukandjo and Oyonge (Cameroon) and Mendyl (Morocco).
The Africa Cup of Nations that ended Sunday in Gabon was not a sexy and attractive sport event. It have not attracted many viewers (not on TV and certainly not in the stands). But along with this, it was also a fascinating, mesmerizing and exciting football tournament. Football mixed with history, culture and politics, money and respect. Everything you would like to find in a tournament.