AFCON 2017: The Story So Far

by | Jan 28, 2017

“Mixed” puts a fractionally positive spin on the last week-and-a-half’s AFCON football in Gabon (and a huge spin on the football BY Gabon). And must hope for rather than expect the on-pitch spectacle to improve. Largely because there has been a direct correlation between quality of pitch and match.

On paper (possibly a better surface than Port-Gentil), Groups B and D were of comparable quality. On Port-Gentil’s crumbling sand (all-the-more-infuriating as it is the best of the four tournament stadia), Group D was horrible. On Franceville’s relative carpet, Group B was the best-in-show.

Group B winners Senegal are thus tournament favourites, with Group B runners-up Tunisia its (pleasant) surprise package. While Group D winners Egypt haven’t received due acclaim for not conceding a goal, despite losing two goalkeepers during the tournament, at least one to Port-Gentil’s pitch. And runners-up Ghana have been written off by sensible pundits (yes…I’M still tipping them), having lost full-back Baba Rahman because of it.

Ghana coach Avram Grant, who doesn’t wear a stubble well, suggested that the African Football Confederation (CAF) should allow squad reinforcements for pitch-induced injuries. But however CAF decide to do nothing about that, they are shamed by the playing conditions.

Goodbye…

…to eight teams who leave with varying honour. The disappointments were the hosts, the reigning champions and Algeria. Gabon only had one genuinely class player. And Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang simply didn’t perform, as star or skipper. Cote D’Ivoire are, their fans must beg, at a “transitional” stage, as clueless as they were Toure-less.

Algeria boss George Leekens’ glasses gave him the appearance of a minor middle-aged high-society character in The Saint or The Persuaders. Looking incongruous alongside a genuinely suave Roger Moore and slightly too many glamour models for a credible plot was, sadly, not enough to keep Leekens his job, after his team snarled their way to comprehensive under-achievement.

Meanwhile, Guinea-Bissau and Uganda go home in credit, having done themselves justice in all six of their games and with two of the goals of the tournament to date to their names, Piqueti’s stunning run and strike against Cameroon my current favourite. Uganda certainly deserve far better than to still be in dispute over alleged unpaid wages, which could yet make their Serbian coach, Milutin Sredojevic (“Micho” to his mates) AFCON 2017’s second managerial casualty.

Mali were massive but ultimately not massive enough, bar Yves Bissouma’s thunderstruck free-kick against Uganda. Togo had Emmanuel Adebayor and bags of heart. But ultimately that just meant bags of heart, as their talisman missed every good chance which came his way, two of them at vital times. And Zimbabwe were mental, Khama Billiat briefly threatening to be the unexpected item in the tournament’s bagging area, until drifting like his team, into semi-violent non-contention.

The officiating

…has been good, surprising many observers accustomed to Eurocentric appraisals of referees from “small” footballing nations, such as when an Egyptian official was lambasted for lacking experience of the “big occasion,” despite having refereed Al Ahly/Zamalek “Cairo derbys,” possibly the most intense “big occasion,” in front of among the biggest crowds, in world club football.

The AFCON finals I’ve watched have, admittedly, been a go-to place for barmpot offside decisions. And CAF continue to appoint referees and assistants from different countries, rather than Fifa’s choice of compatriot officials, a policy whose wisdom was so well-demonstrated by Howard Webb and co at the 2010 World Cup Fin…ah…

Anyway, much has been made of the “liberal” officiating in Gabon, or, to quote a befuddled-sounding Tim Caple on Eurosport: “the quality of the refereeing has been not particularly confrontational.”

However, a refreshing lack of petty bookings for petty offences (the phrase “Mike Dean would have given it” cropped up in commentary at least once and has sprung to mind many more times) hasn’t always worked. Alongside the mystery of Costa Nhamoinesu reaching the end of Zimbabwe/Tunisia, the non-caution of his Warriors skipper and serial-fouler Willard Katsande against Senegal defied rational analysis.

It has mostly worked, though. Quarter-finalists’ line-ups will not be decimated by suspensions. And the games themselves have been well-controlled, disciplined and played in reasonable spirits.

Crowds…

…have been affected by boycott calls from Gabonese opposition groups, although whether Aubameyang or president Ali Bongo turned-off more people remains unclear. In my childhood, Ali Bongo was the resident magician on the Sooty Show. Many Gabonese currently attach more credibility to the magician than the politician, although Bongo’s most recent, tracing-paper-thin, election victory was allegedly trickery of some sort.

Staging the tournament was considered unsustainable, given Gabon’s oil-dependent (therefore shrinking) economy. It is little surprise, then, that crowds have mostly been gatherings (at least sparing us the execrable Mexican wave, which would have been non-bloody-stop at the poorer games). And staging group matches as double-headers has not encouraged enough fans to stay for both.

The best atmospheres have come from strong ex-pat support, especially the Malians making a racket-and-two-thirds in Port-Gentil. Camera-friendly dancing, singing supporters have contrasted wildly with VIP sections full of men slumped in over-size chairs, either in sunglasses (at night) or looking as bored as CAF chief and perma-grump Issa Hayatou, an “enchanting sexagenarian,” says the, just-published, official tournament guide.

Fortunately, there’s been sufficient song-and-dance troupes for the TV coverage, “inspiring” comments which have somehow sounded respectful, admiring AND patronising (“it’s why we love it”).

Eurosport…

…have provided pass-by-pass coverage of every game, thanks to the 60%-cheaper-than-usual Eurosport Player. And they have done themselves justice with comprehensive, informative coverage by commentators and analysts whose increasing tournament experience has been very evident.

Caple remains the voice of Eurosport and still treats Motson-eques stats as common knowledge (“he’s struggled in France’s second-tier, only making nine appearances…of course”), while being over-keen to pretend he’s in Gabon. Wayne Boyce, Jon Driscoll, Dave Farrar and Jon Loder are expert off-the-TV-screen commentators, with Driscoll’s natural faintly-sarcastic tone ideal for terrible matches on terrible pitches. And “what did he say?” moments have been rarer than during Mark Bright-attended tournaments (possibly not co-incidentally).

Even these have been harmless. Bryan Hamilton insists that “The Congo” have played well. Adam Virgo thought Guinea-Bissau keeper Jonas Mendes was “cleaning windows” as he punched crosses clear. And Farrar’s rendition of “That’s Amore,” with lyrics about Burkinabe skipper Charles Kabore…shall not be spoken of again.

Leroy Rosenior is not the most mic-friendly voice. But his evident research has made him a very shrewd analyst. Nevertheless, Stewart Robson wins the plaudits. He is tactically astute, witty and the least phased by the limitations of the Eurosport studio. No-one knew if Burkina Faso’s opener against Guinea-Bissau was an own goal until Robson, working on Gabon/Cameroon, instantly spotted the referee giving the goal it before the rebound was netted.

The quarter-finals…

…scream “Senegal/Egypt final.” The caveat being the North African predominance of one side of the draw.

Egypt should have the talent, defensive robustness and, vitally, Port-Gentil experience to overcome Morocco, although it IS a North African derby. And another one, probably, awaits in the semis, against Tunisians who have so exceeded expectations that forecasting their progress is fraught with danger. Tunisia’s Burkinabe opponents are Jonathan Pitroipa-less and Bertram Traore has only shown flashes of Pitroipa-esque brilliance.

If Ghana don’t hit form on their first decent pitch of the tournament, DR Congo may complete a second consecutive surge to a surprise semi-final spot. Probably a second semi-final defeat to the eventual winners, though, unless the Indomitable Lions shock those of Teranga. Farrar suggested that Cameroon were “no great shakes this year.” And his instant contrition, “remind me of that in two weeks when they win it,” was probably unnecessary.

My moment of the group stages…

…wasn’t on the pitch at all, but the tears of a besuited but unidentified member of the Bissau-Guinean backroom team as their national anthem rent the Libreville night air before they kicked-off against Cameroon. That kick-off went horribly wrong…and went viral. The proud man’s tears should have.

Shameless plug…

…for the regular CAFka-esque podcast, introduced by fellow Kingstonian fan Taimour Lay, who has swapped the “delights” of Needham Market away for the “delights” of Equatorial West Africa to introduce words of wisdom from the Guardian newspaper’s Jonathan Wilson and many, many more. And to travel on the “Hayatou Express,” which sounds an alarming concept but apparently works.

Taimour is also rather stronger on the political surroundings to AFCON 2017 than I, as can be verified by his contributions to the Africa Report magazine.

Key “twitter handles,” as I believe the kidz say, are @jonawils and (imaginatively) @TaimourLay.

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