AFCON 2017: The Final Reckoning

by | Feb 6, 2017

Mark Murphy sums up an indifferent three weeks of African international football.

FINAL: Cameroon 2 Egypt 1

“Terrific final.” “Fabulous, thoroughly entertaining tournament.” Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce was in a generous mood, or applying for the job of writing the quotes on the advertising posters for the AFCON 2017 finals’ DVD, as Cameroon’s weakened squad produced a happy, fulfilling ending to a tournament which was neither.

“Terrific second half,” would be a better assessment of a final that was only “terrific” overall in comparison to the previous six finals which finished either 1-0 or on penalties after a 0-0 draw. At half-time, Egypt looked almost certain winners and almost certainly 1-0 winners too, which would surely have made them the only international tournament champions to become so without scoring more than one goal in any single game.

Then…an epiphany. Boyce and co-commentator Stewart Robson (the man of the tournament in the absence of an outstanding player) had pondered at length during the half-time interval (the first-half highlights gave the ample time to fill) whether the quite domitable-looking Lions would use a “Plan B.” They did. And it was simple. Play with more pace and dynamism, get more crosses in and bring on a better centre-forward to help get on the end of them.

Ghana had a similar epiphany during the third-placed play-off after Burkina Faso scored, and they created both chaos and chances…albeit a TOUCH late (see below). Cameroon had 45 minutes during which to play at a pace that Egypt “don’t like,” as Robson said every two-and-a-bit minutes during the final quarter. Half-time sub Vincent Aboubakar, even though he scored the winner, wasn’t the huge game-changer Robson suggested. But he wasn’t Robert Ndip Tambe. And, on the night, that could only help.

Cameroon were not lucky winners. At all. But luck was strewn all over their goals. Nicholas N’Koulu would not even have been on the pitch to head the 59th-minute equaliser from Benjamin Moukandjo’s wonderful left-wing cross if beardy, near-hipster centre-back Adolphe Teikeu hadn’t succumbed to a disturbing-looking first-half injury (let’s say pictures of him rubbing the injured part of the body should NOT have been shown before the watershed…it didn’t look like a “groin” strain to me).

And there was a suspicion of offside, handball and dangerous play about Aboubakar’s fabulous winner. In fairness, it almost certainly wasn’t offside. It probably wasn’t handball. But it definitely was dangerous play, his right-foot inches from repositioning Pharoah centre-back Ali Gabr’s nose closer to his eyebrows. Yet the colour and passion of the occasion, once Cameroon’s fans and players had taken over their bits of Libreville’s Stade de l’Amitie was in such joyous contrast to the colourless first-half control exerted by Egypt, that the laws of the game felt like petty considerations.

Egypt did briefly play with a certain colour and passion. Abdallah El Said’s low right-foot drive brought a fine save from Fabrice Ondoa on 90 seconds. But they reverted to cautious type long before they did score. Well-worked goal, though. Amr Warda, probably a third-choice for his role in the final, behind the injured Marwan Mohsan and suspended Kalhabra, broke Cameroon’s L-shaped offside trap and cleverly found Mohamed Salah. He even more cleverly found (Arsenal’s) Mohamed Elneny, whose thumping right-foot drive beat Ondoa for sheer pace at his near post.

For a while, it looked as if Arsenal might actually win something this season. There were the inevitable moments of creakery from 900-year-old keeper Hassam El-Hadary. But he’d got away with them before now. So why wouldn’t he again? Well, his dive in embarrassing instalments as N’Koulou’s header passed him by was merely a gesture. And he barely creaked into movement at all when Aboubakar’s shot headed for the same corner of the net. But he was at fault for neither goal.

Even though five minutes’ playing time remained, Cameroon striking legend Samuel Eto’o hugged the pink-dressed woman behind him in the VIP area with a certainty about Egypt’s chances of equalising. Even Cameroon-native CAF president Issa Hayatou looked fractionally less bored and miserable for a bit, which was the equivalent of the unbridled joy around most of the packed-at-last stadium. Until then, Mali’s fans in a three-parts empty Stade de Port-Gentil had pushed the biggest noise through the host broadcaster’s effects microphones.

The sight of crutches among limping Egyptians allowed a little sympathy to slip through. Cameroon’s Collins Fai looked extremely glum during the celebrations, unless an Egyptian had swapped shirts AND shorts with him. And the white guys’ dad-dancing among groups of rhythmically-gyrating Cameroon players was a sight to CAUSE sore eyes. But it was a very happy ending. Robson called the final “worthy of the tournament,” which was harsh on the final or generous on the tournament. Boyce said it was “no less than Cameroon deserved” and you knew what he meant.

Dave Farrar’s thoughts (he who reported that “Cameroon are no great shakes this year…remind me of that in two weeks when they win it”)? Unknown. But if he is a football fan at all, I’m sure he was pleased too.

THIRD-PLACE PLAY-OFF BRONZE MEDAL MATCH: Burkina Faso 1 Ghana 0

Commentator Andy Bodfish, in his first AFCON 2017 game, spent considerable time claiming he meant “Ghana.” But with seven minutes of the third-place play-off remaining he DEFINITELY declared his “sense of the whole thing winding down.” Robson disagreed, as he often has with commentators this past three weeks. Correctly, as he has often has been this past three weeks.

It worked as an attempt at a reverse commentator’s curse to enliven a semi-dire game (“low-wattage,” said Bodfish at half-time). But Bodfish and Robson had a stronger sense of destiny, asking “is this the moment?” and suggesting “this could be the moment” as Burkina Faso’s lesser-spotted Traore, Alain, lined-up an 88th-minute free-kick on the corner of the penalty box. It was the moment. Traore arrowed his shot into the top corner and all talk was of a game won.

Yet, WAY too late, Ghana suddenly discovered the virtue of pacy attacking and getting “bodies in the box.” They got a cross in, rained a shot in and oh-so-should have equalised. Unfortunately, the unmarked Daniel Amartey’s head-and-shoulder effort from five yards was as dreadful his Leicester City colleagues’ season, which gave Ghana’s display a certain symmetry as Agyemang Badu headed a semi-sitter wide from a similar distance after three minutes.

New Black Star Bernard Tekpetey, who intermittently looked like he could BE a new star, also fluffed a good headed chance. And Ghana’s half was neatly encapsulated by Jordan Ayew’s shorts nearly falling off as he went on a run shortly before half-time. The Burkinabes were the better side, though, despite their weakness at defending crosses, and the most popular with neutrals, as Aristide Bance, Bertand Traore and Prejuce Nakoulma did their stuff to pleasing effect.

Ghana rested players, leaving Jordan Ayew without a brother to pass to for 70 minutes…before being replaced himself four minutes later as coach Avram Grant “brought the big guns on” in a press for victory. But the game was more competitive than English commentators tied to the “meaningless game” narrative could handle. Bodfish was especially unsure about a match “to decide who wins the bronze medal, if you will” for “effectively a bronze medal.” ACTUALLY bronze medals, Andy…actually.

So, how was it for me?

Better than some AFCONs. Mediocre football, poor home team, crowds and pitches but good officiating and comprehensive Eurosport coverage. The slide-tackling art hasn’t died out in Africa as it has in England. The goals-per-game ratio was dire but a good sign of the paucity of the “naïve” defending (cue stereotype klaxon) of African teams of yore and of a genuinely out-of-depth/how-the-f**k-did-they-qualify team. And Cameroon defending their title at home in 2019 is an enticing prospect for armchair viewers and travelling fans.

My match of the tournament remained Algeria/Zimbabwe on day two. Among stiffer competition, my goal of the tournament remained Piqueti’s 70-yard run, cut inside and piledrive for Guinea-Bissau against Cameroon. And my player of the tournament was Burkina Faso’s Bakary Kone, a choice which just survived the Burkinabes’ afore-mentioned problems defending setpieces.

Commentator of the tournament remained Stewart Robson, despite his descent into Mark Lawrenson-ese during the bronze-if-you-will-medal match, announcing Burkinabe sub Cyrille Bayala as “Big Cyrille” because he had “B. Cyrille” on his shirt. You’re better than that, Stewart. As he was when winning the “withering assessment” award. “He certainly doesn’t look athletic…his foot movement isn’t great, he’s got a strange way of trying to deal with crosses,” Robson said of a certain ageing goalkeeper.

Another double award-winner, over-used fact and real-life-unaware observation, was “Egypt failed to qualify for three finals after winning three-in-a-row”; huge “in-all-the-papers” political upheaval reduced to an unexplained “tale of woe and success.” And best name for a referee’s assistant was Cameroon’s Elvis Guy Noupue Nguegoue, a tribute to the great Elvis Costello. No?

And there were numerous candidates for “tale” of a tournament which echoed Euro 2016 in having better stories than football. Cameroon winning without a third of their “first-choice” squad. El-Hadary keeping clean sheets at his age. Guinea-Bissau and Zimbabwe contributing greatly. Egyptian boss Hector Cuper losing his sixth (count ‘em) major club and country competition final. DR Congo boss Florent Ibenge advancing the cause of African coaches enormously. And many others which I’ll doubtless remember the very second after I press “send” on this article (I can hear you shouting them already).

However, the final masked a tournament which partly re-inforced the negative, part-xenophobic views of AFCONs past and probably didn’t quite boost Africa’s case for larger future World Cup representation. And my enjoyment of the very concept of international tournament football masked the multiple frustrations of watching three-hours-plus-stoppage-time of it for twelve consecutive days.

Missing it already, though.

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