AFCON 2021: Football Overshadowed

by | Feb 17, 2022

The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) involved some very important people, including Ndongo Luis Bruno Nzinga, Ndongo Marie Laure Nga, Ambassa Mandela Bilogue, Bernard Ebaneck, Beyene Donald Onana, Veronique Dorothee Djilo. The final, though, involved only two people. So we were told, almost incessantly, by the very BBC Three presenter Jermaine Jenas.

Sadio Mane’s Senegal 0 Mo Salah’s Gabaski’s Egypt 0 (AET, Mane wins 4-2 on pens)

I’m right so rarely that I shouldn’t hate being so. But this final might have had “win on penalties after a nil-nil draw” written all over it even if Egypt hadn’t arrived to write over those precise words with indelible ink.

There have been worse nil-nils, mind. Three days previously, in fact. Senegal made Egypt defend so well that the mix of full-stretch and last-ditch headed and booted clearances was almost entertaining in itself.

And I was better disposed towards them after this game than after any of their previous six at this AFCON. Especially, the hair-netted Mahmoud Hamdy (think “Ena Sharples” if you’re old enough…look that up if you aren’t). He’d have been outstanding even if the headgear hadn’t attracted attention whenever he was in the same camera shot as the ball. But I have to admit that I was also childishly entertained by BBC commentator Guy Mowbray calling him “El-Wench” throughout (Hamdy is better known as El-Wensh).

Of course, the final would have been a wholly different game, for a bit anyway, if Mane had thumped his seventh-minute penalty past, rather than almost straight at, charismatic, weak-groined Egyptian keeper Gabaski. The penalty save was a “Sliding Doors” moment, made better for not starring Gwyneth bloody Paltrow but made worse by letting Egypt settle into their semi-unwatchable defensive mentality, although this time with Salah looking a little closer to his Liverpool best than at any stage in Cameroon.

Nonetheless, Gabaski was the clear man-of-the-match, making as many brilliant saves as ones “for the cameras.” Extra-time was quite good, too. And subs on each side could have won it, Senegal’s Bamba Dieng denied by Gabaski, Egypt’s six-footer Manwan Hamdy denied by not being six foot two.

But penalties it was. And, having conceded the penalty in the match before hitting the inside of the post in the shoot-out, Mohamed Abdelmonem won’t cry if he never sees a penalty spot again. Gabaski saved the next shoot-out kick, from Bouna Sarr. But Edouard Mendy’s save from Mohanad Lasheen’s mediocre kick and Mane’s thump of thumps mercifully stopped the final being the Mane/Salah shoot-out Jenas kept burbling on about.

It was dispiriting to see Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly having to traipse from centre-circle to VIP box in the main stand so that Cameroon president Paul Biya could present the trophy, an illustration of Fifa’s craven attitude to tinpot dictators. But the impressive Koulibaly made the ‘presentation’ so awkward that it became useless as a PR stunt. And it contrasted to the max with the joyous trophy lift when Koulibaly returned to Senegal’s squad and staff, especially his dummy lift, which fooled everyone and amused everyone whose head wasn’t up their own arse. Such as, to pick an example purely at random, Paul fcuking Biya.

Cameroon 3 Burkina Faso 3 (Cameroon win 5-3 on penalties)

A doozy. It began spookily like the tournament opener; Burkina Faso leading with a cracking far-post finish from a flying left-back on 24 minutes, Gustavo Sangare then, Steve Yago here. Then everything going super-weird. Two ludicrously-conceded penalties on 40 and 43 minutes then. On ludicrously-conceded own goal on 43 minutes here. But this game got super-weirder still.

Watching the game ‘as live,’ I knew that the Burkinabes’ second goal was due on 43 minutes. But at that time, it had been credited to Issa Kabore. So, when I saw it, my first thought was “that’s not it.” It was my second and third thought too. But there it was, after video assistance. Kabore crossing a ball which was as much over the line as Geoff Hurst’s second goal in 1966 (LET…IT…GO – ED). And Cameroon keeper Andre Onana working it into the net more effectively than if he’d thrown it in (though when they say video assistance is “there for the howlers,” that’s not quite what they mean).

But Onana’s is not the keeper for which this match will be most remembered (and, unlike most third-placed matches, this one SHOULD be remembered). The Burkinabes seemed to take charge on 49 minutes with the previously hopeless Djibril Ouattara’s great diving header after Bertrand Traore’s languid but brilliant first touch and cross. But Farid Ouedraogo ,Burkina Faso’s number two (on more than one level) REALLY took charge. And as his team sat back on their three-goal lead, they frequently met Farid flying the other way, with, as they say in the film blurbs, “hilarious” results.

Farid was not at all at fault when Stephane Bahoken volleyed what still resembled a consolation goal on 71 minutes, having saved Karl Toko-Ekambi’s header from the pointest of point-blank ranges seconds earlier. And he athletically denied Bahoken again on 83 minutes. But from the corner, Vincent Aboubakar nodded home Cameroon’s second, with Farid touring the six-yard box as his defenders gave him looks which screamed “WTF are YOU doing here?”

He ‘saved’ the best until last, though, coming to the edge of the 18-yard box for a high ball, which he reached but dropped while clattering Soumaila Ouattara, leaving an embarrassed-looking Aboubakar to tap into the vacated goal. There were more than hints of an Aboubakar push on Ouattara, which probably part-explained his embarrassment. But Farid may well have got his man anyway. And his tournament was over, as his crash-landing was as painful as his keeping. He’d have been no good in the penalty shoot-out, though, as he’d likely have charged off his line then too. Man of the match in some eyes. Mostly Cameroon ones.

Overview

Brilliant tournament,” Jenas said, during BBC Three’s build-up to the final. My arse It was. The mostly under-performing teams had mitigation in the form of Covid-disrupted preparations. Many people cry “Denmark” at this point, the legendary late replacements for Yugoslavia who won Euro ’92 straight from the proverbial beach. But that’s an actual legend. They played the Commonwealth of Independent States, as part of that post-USSR incarnation’s Euro preparations. And Denmark were dire in their first two Euros matches. Disrupted prep disrupts the football. And the AFCON’s group games improved as they progressed.

But poor prep did not excuse the dire knock-out football. The final summed up the 51 games which preceded it. Partly good, mostly grim. Despite the 52 games, the 100-goal mark was only reached thanks to the third place play-off’s comedy of goalkeeping errors. And four goals in seven was a penalty shoot-out from being enough to win the whole thing.

Even a poor tournament can provide sources of wonder. But Comoros, Gambia and Equatorial Guinea were not always easy on the eye. Comoros were fab against Ghana and Cameroon. Equatorial Guinea were imperious in the second half against Algeria and expansive against Sierra Leone. But don’t forget Comoros/Gabon, Equatorial Guinea/Cote D’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea/Mali, Gambia/everybody they played…oh…you have? Exactly.

Burkina Faso’s run to the semi-final may have been a source of wonder too to their people, during last month’s military coup. It might be very naïve to hope, though, that the team’s exploits provided any practical counterpoint to the nation’s current woes.

Only Cameroon, Nigeria, Morocco and Algeria were more entertaining than not, with Algeria entertainingly bad. Setpieces largely stank when they weren’t hit by Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi, who edged Mane as my player of the AFCON, although even his efforts against Egypt were dismal. And the most creative midfield playmaker? Well, Mohamed Elneny got in the official “Best XI” of the tournament, so…erm… Salah did too, which was a victory for bullshit hype over substance. Because, apart from his admirable sportsmanship in consoling defeated opponents more than once, he REALLY wasn’t very good.

Goal of the tournament was Gabadinho Mhango’s 45-yarder against Morocco, the type of shot where the ball seems to gain pace through the air as it arrows two inches from the goalkeeper’s reach. Keepers shouldn’t be beaten from that distance. But every keeper would have been beaten by Mhango’s shot. ‘All ends up’ too. Youssouf M’Changama’s 35-yard free-kick against Cameroon would have been goal of most tournaments, even though the defensive wall inexplicably fcuked off seconds before he took it.

Highlights were rare, though. The pitches were not as bad as at some previous AFCONs. Except for Douala, which resembled Derby County’s Baseball Ground in the 1970s. But a lot of the football WAS as bad. And certainly not “brilliant,” whatever Jermaine Jenas’s PR-puffery said.

Match officiating

The International Union of Officious Twats was well represented in Cameroon. Yet the most officious twat was the least worst referee. There were countless “Mike Deans of” various nations. And South Africa’s Victor Gomes was the clear candidate for the biggest Dean, long before BBC pundit Dean Furman, a clear recipient of a number of cards (non-birthday) from Gomes, warned us about him. But Gomes, unlike so many others of his ilk, knew his job and was deservedly awarded the final.

Too many refs were over-keen “to stamp their authority on proceedings,” while not always waiting for offences to be committed. One tedious old scenario played out constantly. A referee’s assistant plonking themselves in front of a player taking a game’s first corner, as the ref admonished players in the penalty box for pulling and dragging, regardless of whether or not there was any.

Some refereeing histrionics stemmed from a need to communicate visually to players with differing first languages. Most were mere attention-seeking. The worst refereeing, Janny Sikazwe’s hash of Tunisia/Mali, was sunstroke-based. But there were more free-kicks than fouls, especially relating to aerial challenges. Stoppage-time was unrelated to actual, y’know, stoppages. Video assistance was little assistance. And, the biggest issue I’m sure you’ll agree, foul throws were routinely ignored, bar Carlos Akapo’s obvious, history-changing one, seconds before Sadio Mane’s Senegal opened the scoring against Equatorial Guinea.

Still…apart from that…

Telly

Sky Sports gave viewers the chance to see every game, live and/or as-live, as they could show lesser games on Sky Sports Arena or Sky Sports (little) Mix. They were also unhindered by any desperation for advertising revenue which led former AFCON broadcast rights holders, Eurosport, to prioritise show jumping puff-pieces over live football. And after taking the functional “world feed” commentaries in week one, their coverage improved immeasurably when they used their own commentary duos.

The BBC’s coverage was intermittent until the semi-finals and final. And their first studio presentations were for the two quarter-finals they showed. But they more than made up for this. Nigerian-born Nedum Onuoha was the breakout star, although he has been well-known to BBC Radio Five Live listeners for some time. While former Nigerian player Efan Ekoku, who also co-commentated (for the Beeb AND Sky), was calm and thoughtful.

Elements of their coverage didn’t quite work. Stadium presence Thato Moeng’s contributions were awkwardly inane, although Algerian journo Maher Mezahi was excellent. Kolo Toure was an entertaining and insightful pundit, but his brother Yaya chose enjoyable enthusiasm over cohesive analysis. And we REALLY need to talk about Jermaine.

It made sense for the BBC coverage to focus on British-based players. But not even Mane’s excellent displays validated the “Sadio Mane’s Senegal” tag, Jenas incessantly used. “Mo Salah’s Egypt” stretched credibility out of shape (did “Kalidou Koulibaly’s Senegal” win the tournament on German telly?). And when Jenas suggested that both players “lit up” the AFCON, he crossed over from hype to sh*te. No reasoned analysis of Salah’s AFCON could draw that conclusion. And Jenas should not have said it.

Do you reckon we could be on-site next time? Be rude not to, eh?” Onuoha cheekily suggested, hoping to bag a freebie to 2023’s AFCON, in Cote D’Ivoire. Jenas couldn’t see why not although the fate of the BBC licence fee might improve his eyesight. Onuoha and Ekoku certainly earned that, though. Jenas? Mmm…

Conclusion

But the important people, named at the start of this piece, were among the eight who died outside Yaounde’s Olembe Stadium on 24th January, including “two women in their 30s, four men in their 30s and one child,” according to a Cameroon health ministry’s preliminary report. Two victims have yet to be identified in global news reports.

The story, awful enough as it was, continues to have awful echoes of the Hillsborough disaster. Fans instantly blamed for “stampeding.” Then reports of stadium gate mismanagement. Cameroon sports minister Narcisse Kombi said the stampede “was caused by a reckless decision to open a gate in the face of a flood of people.” And the “number of security agents on duty was insufficient.” But he added that “some” fans “wanted to force their way into the stadium with already-used tickets.”

Safety” at the stadium (officially the Paul Biya Stadium, though not in current news stories, for some reason) was “assured” for the final. So why was it ever NOT assured? Eight sets of loved ones deserve to know. They deserve the justice denied by the UK’s legal system to the loved ones of the 97 fans unlawfully killed, apparently by no-one in particular, at Hillsborough.

And everything else at this AFCON really WAS only a game.