The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations was all that we expected and more, leaving lasting memories for any who keenly followed it or were actually involved in the action.
From the hilarious to the serious and everything in-between, here’s what we — at Ink & Kicks — gleaned.
DEATH OF THE UNDERDOG
If this edition of the AFCON had a theme, it was ‘the death — if not outright extinction — of the underdog’.
At least two giants of the African game failed to make it past the first round, finishing bottom of their groups, partly because they failed to overcome two sides at the lower end of the food chain.
Ghana and Algeria will rue losses — however narrow — to Comoros and Equatorial Guinea, respectively, while neither powerhouse did themselves any favours by drawing with Gabon (Ghana) and Sierra Leone (Algeria).
Gambia were arguably the most impressive of the lot that punched above their weight, excelling in a difficult group and making a decent run in the knockout rounds.
The likes of Madagascar and Benin provided inspiration at the last AFCON and, in their absence this time, other ‘minnows’ fearlessly operated in much the same spirit. That’s what you get especially with an expanded AFCON; and that’s what we’ve come to love about this competition.
HOST & WINCE
At the end of each edition of the AFCON, a flag — a symbolic baton of responsibility and of privilege — is passed on by a representative of the outgoing host to the next, as is the burden of trying to win the trophy while at it: only Egypt, in the last 16 years, have successfully done so.
Cameroon are the latest to fail, but they’d be consoled by the fact that they are only the second hosts since the triumphant Egyptians to have anything — bronze medals they had to fight hard for — to show for their efforts.
That, in part, could be attributed to the fact that some of the teams that have hosted the AFCON in the last 12 years — Angola (2010), Equatorial Guinea & Gabon (2012), Equatorial Guinea (2015), and Gabon (2017) — had no realistic chances of winning silverware.
Ivory Coast, the next hosts, would have to contend with that pressure in 2023, and they’d feel confident of pulling it off — but, hey, so did Ghana (2008), South Africa (2013), Egypt (2019), and Cameroon (2021).
EUROPE & AFRICA NEED EACH OTHER
For all the disdain and apathy with which some clubs and fans in Europe regard the AFCON, the tournament is inextricably linked with the best of European football.
Half of the players who started the AFCON 2021 final play in Europe’s top five leagues and for some of the biggest clubs — the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Napoli, and Paris Saint-Germain were all represented.
Europe, like it or not, remains the main reservoir of talent for many African national teams — the biggest ones, especially — and, while that reliance continues to be a source of friction, that is the reality.
Deal with it.
SMALL CRACKS, GREAT LOSSES
The AFCON may not be, as one bearded German infamously put it, “a little tournament“, but there always seems to be one thing or two — little or not — that leaves it short of the level of structure that you’d expect of a competition of this calibre.
Like not getting the seemingly simple matter of a country’s national anthem right (sorry, Mauritania). Or — if you saw the game between Nigeria and Egypt — not getting the weight and feel of balls right. Or — on a truly tragic note — ensuring that everyone attends the games safely and returns home unscathed.
And maybe Cameroon — given how long they had to prepare (longer, I reckon, than any other hosts in the competition’s history) — should have made the pitches better for football, and the hotels fitter for lodging.
Promise to do better, Ivory Coast?
TWISTS & TURNS
And, well, what’s an edition of the AFCON without moments of hilarity and a sprinkling of the unexpected?
Full-back Serge Aurier turned goalkeeper for Ivory Coast in the final minutes of their game against Sierra Leone; Chaker Alhadhur, another full-back (albeit one of lesser renown), did same for Comoros in the Round of 16, only for much longer and under different circumstances; and Egypt’s Mohamed Salah — had he accepted the offer of South African referee Victor Gomes — could have even taken over refereeing duties at some point in the final.
And as improbable as that last scenario sounds, nothing could quite be ruled out at an AFCON with as many unusual twists and turns as this one.