AFCON 2015: Sometimes it’s Just a Game

When Yaya Toure lifted the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) trophy on February 8, it represented not only the Ivory Coast’s second success at the tournament – coming a long 23 years after the country’s initial success – but also the end of one of the most controversial and complicated championships in the history of the event.

Finally securing the title on penalties against fellow pre-tournament favourites Ghana in the final, the main event may mean the world to the numerous household names currently returning to their European clubs, but the main headline maker throughout the tournament’s entire 2015 cycle has been everything but football.

Morocco’s late withdrawal – or misunderstood postponement – as host nation is an ongoing saga which the country’s football federation continues to clear its name from, but sits sensitively upon a wider regional issue which nobody would argue top trumps the less significant matter of football matches.

The government of Morocco’s request for postponement due to the ongoing Ebola Crisis in West Africa was rejected, while the subsequent confusion around appeals, compromise or acceptance eventually led to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) relinquishing the country of the honour to host the tournament at all, as well as disqualifying them from the next two competitions.

The melee that has followed has seemingly lost sight of both the horrendous threat that the epidemic still has on the continent, and the successful football tournament that finally occurred over the course of January and February in the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea.

Step forward, Equatorial Guinea

With the substitute in place however, the continent’s premiere footballing occasion did finally get underway; the new host welcoming 16 nations across four cities, with 32 matches taking place over the course of 22 days.

With screening for Ebola provided for every member team, MalaboBata, Mongomo and Ebebiyín provided a much more than satisfactory setting for the tournament to go ahead as planned, leaving it to the region’s elite to fight it out for top honours.

The leading names failing to qualify for this year’s championship included Nigeria and Egypt; the former losing out in their playoff with South Africa, and the latter turning down the opportunity to host the tournament following Morocco’s disqualification.

This left the eventual finalists, Ivory Coast and Ghana as the pre-tournament favourites in what is traditionally an unpredictable championship. Algeria’s impressive World Cup performance also put them in the reckoning with many bookmakers while Burkina Faso and 2012 winners, Zambia were thought of as strong dark horses.

However, while the amount of Cinderella stories to be told within the tournament itself were limited compared to previous years, there were still small successes for the neutral to pull upon. South Sudan’s first ever involvement in the qualification process, as one of the 51 countries vying for a Finals spot, was a significant sporting step for them, while Cape Verde went one better and relished the prospect of their first ever AFCON championship.

In true wildcard fashion though, the people’s champions for this year’s tournament were Equatorial Guinea themselves, whose late inclusion came only as a result of their role as host but with the knowledge that, in this tournament, the title of ‘rank outsider’ is largely redundant.

AFCON 2015, as it unfolded

Remaining unbeaten throughout the group stages and delighting the home fans with a 2-0 win against Gabon to secure a place in the Quarter Finals, Equatorial Guinea’s subsequent extra time winner against former winners, Tunisia lit up the entire tournament and no doubt provided the CAF with much needed justification for its decision to hand the championship to the nation.

Their eventual Semi Final elimination at the hands of Ghana, and unfortunate penalty defeat to the DRC in their Third-Place Playoff in no way tarnished what was arguably the success story of this years’ AFCON.

This wasn’t to say that there wasn’t a fair share of drama elsewhere though, as giants toppled, closely fought draws reigned supreme and rivalries were renewed; the DRC and Congo’s Quarter Final proving especially popular among neutrals.

Historically, the expectation on countries comprising European-based multimillionaire footballers has not always correlated with victories, but the two finalists this year had clearly read the script and stuck to it as they largely coasted to the main event.

The rather dull stalemate that followed perhaps didn’t do the gravitas of the spectacle much justice, but a 9-8 penalty shootout contributed a vast portion of the drama that had been lacking for the previous 120 minutes.

And so it transpired that, after nearly 50 hours of football, Ivory Coast’s talismanic and experienced captain, Yaya Toure lifted the coveted trophy, putting the country in the same bracket as the DRC, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Egypt as multiple winners.

Back to the problem at hand

Now that the dust has settled and the likes of Toure have gone back to steamrollering European defences  every weekend, attentions have rightly turned back to the major problem at hand, and the wider uncertainty surrounding the future of the competition.

Being a biannual tournament rather than an annual one has alleviated some of the current pressure, with a host for 2017’s tournament yet to be announced, but with one of the leading federations in Morocco set not to be involved in the next two competitions, and the CAF under scrutiny for its handling of the sensitive situation, tensions are expected to get worse before they get better.

A US$1 million fine being compounded by a further demand for US$9 million in compensation from Morocco has been met with disdain by the country’s Sports Minister, Mohamed Ouzzine who argues that CAF falsely accused the country of refusing to host the tournament in light of it trying to protect its citizens in line with World Health Organisation protocol. 

Expected to rumble on for the foreseeable future, AFCON 2017’s success is already under threat on the face of it, but the competition can take comfort from a number of key factors expected to offset these external distractions for the good of the sport in Africa:

·         Sponsorship: Being supported by the likes of Orange S.A. – the title sponsor – as well as Pepsi, Doritos, Nissan, Samsung, Standard Bank, IFD Kapital Group and Pan Atlantic Exploration confirms the championship as a globally attractive corporate event.

·         Media interest: The globalisation of the AFCON continues to expand, with all continents represented among the broadcasting partners. From Saudi Arabia, to Australia, to Japan, the UK, Brazil and the US; the popularity within the global footballing community is also growing thanks to the notoriety of the players reaching world-class status.

·         Personalities: The likes of George Weah, Samuel Eto’o, Alex Song, Kolo Toure and Didier Drogba may be names for the wall of fame now, but there is a new breed of players gaining notoriety on an international level. This year’s player of the tournament, Ghanaian, Christian Atsu already plies his trade in the English Premier League, while, on the managerial side, Ghana’s manager Avram Grant was a Champions League runner-up years before this February’s equally painful defeat to opposing head coach, Herve Renard. The latter himself has now written himself into the history books after becoming the first coach to win the competition with two different countries; the first coming with Zambia – ironically against Ivory Coast – three years earlier.

The significance of battling to become the best football nation in Africa is reason enough to try and overcome – without ignoring - the messy surroundings that embroiled this year’s tournament. With Ghana and Algeria both making waves in World Cups in recent years, the gulf between Africa and the world’s elite is diminishing by the year, making AFCON every bit as competitive as its counterparts in South America and Europe.

For now at least though, the global football community can only pray and hope that the reason for 2015’s acrimony no longer exists two years from now, allowing the continent’s superstars to make their own headlines in 2017.