Sport

SOCCER SPECTACULAR

Dazzling Afcon is a huge score for African football

Dazzling Afcon is a huge score for African football
Ibrahim Sangare of Ivory Coast celebrates victory over Mali in their Africa Cup of Nations match at Peace Stadium in Bouake on 3 February 2024. (Photo: ©Weam Mostafa / BackpagePix)

The success of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations was due to a number of puzzle pieces coming together cohesively.

Goals. Upsets. Flair. Tenacity. Comeback stories. Exceptional officiating. Drama. The recently concluded 34th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) had it all and it is one that will linger in the minds of football followers for a long time.

Even the fact that it took place six months later than originally scheduled could not dampen the success of the Ivory Coast-hosted tournament.

Similar to the 2021 showpiece in Cameroon, which took place at the beginning of 2022 and was won by Senegal, the 2023 tournament in Ivory Coast had to be shifted from its original dates.

In Cameroon, Covid-19 still lingered in the air in 2021, restricting the Cameroonians’ ability to plan accordingly to meet the set deadlines. So, the tournament was shifted to January 2022.

In Ivory Coast a concern about wet weather conditions during the months of June and July caused the delay of the 2023 tournament. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) feared that there would be rained-out matches.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Despite missed chances, Bafana’s superb Afcon run sparks hope for future continental glory

Thus, it temporarily reverted to the tournament’s traditional January/February kickoff, even though in 2017 CAF had resolved that it would now host all future Afcon tournaments over June and July to avoid pulling African players from their clubs during mid-season.

Afcon

CAF president Patrice Motsepe hands over medals after the Africa Cup of Nations final between Nigeria and Ivory Coast at Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan on 11 February 2024. (Photo: ©Weam Mostafa / BackpagePix)

Let the games begin

In hindsight, in spite of all the delays in staging it, the 2023 Afcon was well worth the wait. By all accounts, this Afcon was disruptive and trendsetting. It helped the so-called smaller nations to showcase their quality on the grandest stage for African football.

The results on the second day of the tournament, on 14 January, foreshadowed its overall theme.

In the three matches played on that day, Equatorial Guinea held eventual tournament runners-up Nigeria to a 1-1 draw. Then Mozambique fought ferociously to frustrate tournament star Mohamed Salah and his Egypt teammates during a two-all draw.

The biggest sign that this tournament would be one for the ages came in the last match of that second day when Minnows Cape Verde shocked four-time African champions Ghana 2-1. The tone was set.

Cape Verde, with a population of 600,000, went on to top their group ahead of second-placed Egypt and the eliminated Ghana – two countries that boast 11 African titles between them.

In another group, 2019 Afcon winners Algeria, boasting a plethora of overseas-based players in their camp, found themselves anchoring the four-team mini-league they were in.

Less-fancied Angola topped the group, followed by Burkina Faso. Even Mauritania, making just their third appearance at the tournament, finished ahead of Algeria’s toothless Desert Foxes.

A trend is set

The upsets, the unpredictable nature of the tournament and quality football continued into the knockout rounds. The Democratic Republic of Congo eliminated Egypt on penalties in the round of 16.

Hosts Ivory Coast squeezed into the last 16 marginally after finishing the group phase as one of the four best third-place finishers. By then, they had fired their head coach Jean-Louis Gasset, after a 4-0 thrashing by Equatorial Guinea.

His assistant Emerse Faé took over the reins, inspired a 5-4 win on penalties over 2021 champions Senegal and steered the Elephants to their third Afcon title as they edged Nigeria 2-1 in the final.

The biggest surprise of the tournament was probably South Africa beating heavy pre-tournament favourites Morocco 2-0 in the round of 16. Bafana Bafana rode that momentum all the way to their first semifinal appearance at Afcon in 24 years, before clinching a bronze medal via a penalty shootout victory over the DRC.

In terms of goals scored, this Afcon was also the best. A total of 119 found the back of the net, surpassing the 100 scored in Cameroon two years ago.

Andre Ayew of Ghana challenges a Cape Verde player during their Africa Cup of Nations clash at Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on 14 January 2024. (Photo: ©Weam Mostafa / BackpagePix)

Money equals mass appeal

CAF president Patrice Motsepe has been at the helm of the organisation since May 2021. When the South African billionaire businessman landed the post, he promised that he would leave African football in a better state than when he found it.

CAF hosting such an exciting and unpredictable Afcon, on the back of a highly successful inaugural African Football League in 2023, demonstrates that Motsepe is on the right track with regard to his mandate at CAF.

“We need to get the spectators to enjoy watching our football. It’s got to be appealing. It’s got to be attractive. It’s got to be exciting. Because then it has a commercial value,” Motsepe said in a press conference towards the latter stages of the Ivory Coast-hosted Afcon.

Thanks to Motsepe’s influence and global reach, CAF was able to increase the total pool of prize money of the 2023 Afcon by 40% compared with 2021. The winning nation in the recently concluded edition bagged $7-million, compared with the $5-million won by Senegal two years ago.

This Afcon also reached a large global audience, which CAF has estimated to be two billion viewers, although the official figures are yet to be released.

Matches were aired in about 180 countries, as CAF partnered with influential global broadcasters such as Sky, Canal+, beIN Sports, BBC and MultiChoice. The tournament was also shown via more than 40 free-to-air broadcasters.

“We can use some of that commercial value to pay our players and… technical teams and the coaches and the administrators – pay them competitive salaries and competitive wages,” Motsepe told journalists.

Team South Africa with their bronze medals after the Africa Cup of Nations final at Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on 11 February 2024. (Photo: ©Achille Ndomo Tsanga / BackpagePix)

This reach can only bode well for the continent. Over and above the millions that will be earned, the continent’s players were also able to showcase their talent far and wide. Scouts from European clubs are likely to have been following closely and will soon come knocking to recruit some of the players who shone in Ivory Coast.

The decision to expand the tournament from 16 to 24 teams as of the 2019 edition in Egypt has also bolstered its profile.

Teams such as Cape Verde and Mauritania have been able to qualify and grab an important piece of the financial pie for their individual development.

Hence the number of minnow nations that were able to upset the established powers, which have probably fallen into a trap of complacency. The 2025 spectacle, which is currently set to be held in Morocco, may be even better than Ivory Coast, though the target is sky-high. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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