It’s not very often that a new champion is crowned at an edition of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON), so regardless of who wins Saturday’s final at Rabat’s Moulay Abdellah Stadium, between Morocco and South Africa (more on both later), the occasion would be pretty special.
The tournament has, in fact, been won by just two countries in its 24-year history.
Equatorial Guinea were twice champions, in 2008 and 2012 – the only years Nigeria, the sole superpower, didn’t emerge triumphant. The Super Falcons had nine titles going into the latest WAFCON, and a tenth felt like a formality. Randy Waldrum’s team came armed with all the big names they needed – chief among them being, of course, Asisat Oshoala – and all the relevant slogans/hashtags, too.
It took just one game, however, for the record winners to realise they wouldn’t have it all their way. Not that the opening defeat to South Africa felt like a major setback, though: Nigeria had lost to the Banyana Banyana at the start of the last tournament yet recovered to beat the same opponent in the final.
A similar process of recovery seemed well underway after Nigeria won their two remaining games to qualify as Group C runners-up. By then, however, they were already operating sans the services of Oshoala, after the Barcelona star forward – Africa’s best-ever – suffered a bad injury against the South Africans and got ruled out for the rest of the showpiece.
Nigeria still had enough in the tank to overcome, narrowly, rivals Cameroon in the quarter-finals and ensure they’ll keep their run of FIFA Women’s World Cup participations unbroken. Against hosts Morocco, however, Nigeria turned out depleted and drained, down by two women by the time a drawn game was settled with a shootout.
For the Atlas Lionesses, the prospect of being 90 minutes – or 120, maybe more – from coronation is truly unprecedented. Even as hosts, it’s a bit more than they’d have realistically aimed for. Morocco had only ever featured in a couple of WAFCON editions before this one – most recently at the turn of the century – winning just one of six games.
Still, it’s impossible to begrudge them these gains.
It is, indeed, just reward for rich investment in the domestic game – seen especially in the meteoric rise of AS FAR, a club that has 14 of its players in the 26-woman Morocco squad – and the ability to bring in quality foreign-born/based talents like Tottenham Hotspur’s Ayane.
There is yet an extra slice of history on offer – at least for one Moroccan player.
Leading the FAR contingent is skipper Ghizlane Chebbak, daughter of former Moroccan international Larbi Chebbak who won the Africa Cup of Nations in his time. Some 46 years after the senior Chebbak, now deceased, conquered the continent, Ghizlane seeks to complete a rare family double.
And if she does score in the final, the 31-year-old, currently joint-top on three goals with Nigerian Rasheedat Ajibade, would also claim outright the top-scoring honours. Ajibade’s suspension denied her the opportunity to add to her own tally in Friday evening’s third-place match with Zambia, which Nigeria lost in rather comical fashion.
Evarine Katongo’s long-range strike, just before the half-hour mark, came off the woodwork onto the chest of goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie – who had lost, not just the ball, but also her own bearings – and over the line for the game’s only goal.
Finishing fourth for only the second time at the WAFCON would be no matter of pride for Nigeria, considering how lofty their pre-tournament hopes were, but they at least maintained their record of never losing a final. The Zambians’ pride, though, comes with zero asterisks.
Then there is the other member of the last four, South Africa, favourites ahead of their fourth final since 2008. They, quite clearly, have far more experience in these situations – only that none of that is particularly fond experience. No other team, in fact, has gone the distance so often without having at least one title to show for it. This, though, is as good a chance as they’d ever get to end that run of anti-climaxes.
And no-one needs it more than head coach Desiree Ellis, recently crowned Africa’s best women’s coach for the third time but with no major silverware on her résumé to back it up. Miss this shot – even in the absence of her most important player, Thembi Kgatlana – and Ellis’ mettle in the games that matter most would be seriously questioned.
But the identity of the winner, whichever finalist that turns out to be, would fit only too well into the narrative of this thoroughly thrilling tournament.
It’s arguably the best we’ve seen, and unarguably the biggest yet. With a dozen teams featuring, for the first time, it was always going to be quite open; following the elimination of the Oshoalas and Kgatlanas from the knockout stage equation, things got even less predictable.
It’s why underdogs Zambia have been able to score a couple of firsts, and why similarly unfancied Morocco – even South Africa, bridesmaids for so long – are on the brink of the ultimate first.