AFCON 2021 Group Stages: John Salako’s Wow Factor

by | Jan 23, 2022

The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) usually enters UK consciousness only in so far as English clubs were “affected” by “losing” players to it.

Last November, the 2021 AFCON took a slightly different route, when Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp ironically referenced “this little tournament in Africa.” Nigerian journalist and “content creator” Ojora Babatunde took unwarranted offence and demanded a Klopp apology. Which was strong…content creation. But nothing more.

The latest AFCON is a delayed event, though still AFCON 2021 “for sponsorship purposes.” It was originally set for last summer in Cote D’Ivoire, then rescheduled for January 2021 in Cameroon. And then…the Kent, sorry, ‘Delta’ Covid variant. So, here we are.

Despite qualifying as hosts, Cameroon participated in a qualifying group, to which their results counted. They won it anyway, handily. The other group winners were mostly the usual suspects, the exception/surprise being Gambia, who reached their first-ever AFCON finals with a game to spare. Comoros were the only other finals debutants.

The dual debutants have starred. But the performance of the AFCON to date has come from a referee. In the Tunisia/Mali game, a sun-stroked Janny Sikazwe gave ultra-harsh penalties to each side, blew ‘a’ final whistle on 85 minutes, didn’t rescind his 87th-minute dismissal of Mali’s El Bilal Toure despite VAR advice, and blew ‘the’ final whistle 12 seconds before stoppage-time. Added time is “decided by the referee,” oft-interpreted as “at the referee’s discretion.” But there were multiple substitutions, two VAR checks and a water-break. Six minutes’ stoppage-time…MINIMUM.

Attempts to finish the game, by playing three minutes’ stoppage-time, failed. Mali were halted mid-press conference and returned to the field. But some Tunisia players were in the bath. Thus a presumably unwashed Mali were awarded the one-nil win, a result which withstood Tunisia’s understandable appeals.

The football has improved, though, since the first 12 matches produced 12 goals, EIGHT from open play.

Group A: Cameroon 7pts, Burkina Faso 4, Cape Verde 4, Ethiopia 1

Burkina Faso led the tournament opener until Cameroon were propelled into a 2-1 interval lead after Andre-Frank Anguissa and Nouhou Tolo were propelled into space by Bertrand Traore and Issoufou Dayo’s penalty-box insanity. And there should have been second-half goals.

Ethiopia dealt well with Yared Bayeh’s red card after…EIGHT minutes against Cape Verde. Their inventive close passing and off-the-ball running masked their numerical disadvantage. But in first-half stoppage-time, Mignot Debebe just watched as Garry Rodrigues acrobatically set up Julio Tavares to head home. And their second-half was encapsulated by Aschalew Temene’s 40-yard effort, with the game’s last kick, which landed in Nigeria.

Cameroon/Ethiopia was fabulous, helped by Ethiopia’s ill-advised attacking strategy, which meant that Cameroon boss Toni Conceicao could substitute Karl Toko-Ekambi and Vincent Aboubakar before either could complete hat-tricks, match balls clearly too expensive for Cameroon’s FA. And Burkina Faso edged Cape Verde with the greatest tap-in in international football history, Hassane Bande chesting Isa Kabore’s cross in from five yards.

So, draws in the final group games all-but-ensured three qualifiers from it. Not that they were played for. But we didn’t learn over-much from them, except that Cameroon and Cape Verde’s change kits are better than their first-choices.

Group B: Senegal 5, Guinea 4, Malawi 4, Zimbabwe 3.

Zimbabwe’s delight after beating Guinea suggested that their full ill-fortune hadn’t sunk in. Because without conceding a penalty, three seconds from the end of stoppage-time against Senegal, and without Sadio Mane netting it, Zimbabwe would have WON THE GROUP and Senegal would be OUT. Guinea’s non-delight suggested they didn’t know they’d finished second, despite not getting the draw they needed and demonstrably played for.

The most energy during Senegal’s squeak past Zimbabwe came from referee Mario Escobar’s angry VAR sign to Zim’s players after penalising Kelvin Madzongwe for handling Pape Gueye’s shot. Guinea’s one-nil win over Malawi was a better affair, with Malawi’s relative enterprise meriting their future reward.

Senegal, my title tip, had a good second-half spell against Guinea, started by a wonder-turn in the centre circle by Mane, who is playing OK-ish. But that apart, they stank again. So, after losing to Malawi, Zimbabwe were the first team knocked-out, which seemed unfair. But they were wasteful profligate in front of goal, possibly distracted by Malawi’s shirt numbers, which are visible from the Great Wall of China. After every missed chance, the TV cameras focused on Zim boss Norman Mapeza turning away in disgust. This happened a lot.

Less so against Guinea. Two-nil was only a slightly flattering interval lead. Guinea produced a hyper-active third quarter topped by Naby Keita’s stunning 20-yarder. But they needn’t have bothered. Senegal drew 0-0 because…well…. So Malawi finished behind Guinea on the head-to-head rule, after video assistance overturned their 72nd-minute penalty. And four points, with a zero goal difference, was good enough for a last-16 place. As were Zimbabwe.

Group C: Morocco 7, Gabon 5, Comoros 3, Ghana 1

The two Group C non-qualifiers were the story OF it. Gabon’s one-nil win over Comoros looked like a ‘third place play-off.’ Morocco were only intermittently impressive in their one-nil win over wholly unimpressive Ghana. But it was still hard to imagine Gabon eventually looking like Brazil, on-and-off the ball, while Ghana…yikes.

Gabon/Ghana was tetchy-and-a-half. Ghana led when Andre Ayew thumped one in from 20 yards. But as full-time neared, BBC commentators Guy Mowbray and Efan Ekoku’s confidence in a Ghana win seemed misplaced. And impactful sub Jim Allevinah’s 88th-minute equaliser made it so. Yet Ghana’s anger at this goal being allowed wasn’t misplaced. They deliberately conceded a throw to let Daniel Kofi-Kyere receive treatment and expected Gabon to return possession from it. Gabon didn’t. And Allevinah scored seconds later.

Referee Lahlou Benbraham spent ages after the resultant post-match brawl searching for a Ghanaian to send off and dismissed late sub Benjamin Tette in absentia. But Gabon deserved their point.

Morocco could have had ten against Comoros. Sky co-commentator John Salako said “wow” a LOT. And he binned more non-bias with each save by Comoros keeper Salim Ben Boina, including one from Youssef El-Nesyri’s 80th-minute penalty. Unprofessional from Salako. But magnificently so

Plucky underdog-ism looked Comoros’s lot. But Ghana started awfully again. And Comoros deserved EVERYthing. An early goal up, they were a man up when Andre Ayew saw red for an over-reckless challenge for an under-loose ball. And they were two-down before looking like the Ghana of old and dragging the score back to two-each. But, one goal from unlikely qualification, they were undone by Ahmed Mogni’s brilliantly-worked winner. And only the most heartless neutral could complain at late drama elsewhere sending Comoros into the last 16.

Gabon/Morocco was another unexpectedly fabulous match and a worthy group decider. The question “Pierre-Emerick AubameWHO?” was posed by Gabon’s flair and pace, especially from the front two, Aaron Boupendza and the AFCON’s best Jim, Allevinah. And it was easy to forget that Morocco won the group.

Allevinah was gifted his goal (“again,” some bitter Ghanaians might say) when Sofiane Chakla lost his footing at the worst moment (“Oh, he slips…wow!” – Salako). Morocco were semi-gifted their first equaliser when Andre Biyogo Poko won a last-ditch penalty-box tackle but the video assistant, one Jerry Sikazwe esq., refused to rectify the on-field mistake. Gabon’s second was a brilliant team goal even if Nayef Aguerd put it in his own net. But Achraf Hakimi’s great free-kick equaliser was a worthy group-winner. “Outrageous, audacious, delicious,” said Salako, (before eventually questioning the goalkeeper) desperate to avoid his thousandth “wow” of the tournament.

Group D: Nigeria 9, Egypt 6, Guinea-Bissau 1, Sudan 1

The comfort with which Nigeria won Group D had “tournament favourites” written all over it, with only the hosts in a position to argue. The discomfort with which Egypt scraped into second had different, shorter words scrawled on it.

Nigeria trashed Egypt one-nil in the group opener. BBC co-commentator and Nigerian AFCON veteran Efan Ekoku couldn’t hide his bias. But his claims of a Nigerian footballing “masterclass” were not irretrievably outlandish. Kelechi Iheanacho’s 15-yard volleyed winner was the most difficult of his hat-trick of chances. Egypt would be sunk without Mo Salah, their problems nutshelled by Mohamed Elneny’s near-total indifference to the concept of forward passing.

In Guinea-Bissau’s nil-nil with Sudan, both sides played mesmeric one-touch stuff between penalty boxes, but were mesmerically incompetent IN them. And, in six 82nd-minute seconds,, Guinea-Bissau’s Tuncara Gomes, ill-advisedly nicknamed Pele, had his penalty saved by Sudan’s Ali Abou Achrine. Piqueti’s follow-up from four yards thumped the bar. And Frederic Mendy, seven yards out with time to pick his spot, picked one two yards off-target.

Sudan weren’t so let off by Nigeria, who should have led by more than three-nil just beyond the hour, when they declared. Mo Salah’s winning volley for Egypt against Guinea-Bissau was not the wonder goal co-commentator Leroy Rosenior thought. And the best that could be said about Egypt was that their white change-kit looked good.

Nigeria’s change kit is also great. And their changed team flicked away Guinea-Bissau like dust off a shirt cuff. Guinea-Bissau never looked like they needed to win to survive, though they were unlucky to concede the first goal to stringy second-string striker Umar Sadiq, who should have been booked for persistent fouling before his 56th-minute goal. Twice. It upset Leroy Rosenior, but Sadiq’s instant post-goal replacement was wise, and gave us a joyous cameo from Moses Simon, this AFCON’s best outfield player to date. And Egypt huffed and puffed again in beating Sudan, whose execrable setpiece defending was a major difference between the sides.

Group E: Cote D’Ivoire 7, Equatorial Guinea 6, Sierra Leone 2, Algeria 1

With eight minutes left in their final group game, Sierra Leone were 1-0 down, but had a penalty. And, with reigning champions Algeria losing their crown elsewhere, a 1-1 draw would have put them AND opponents Equatorial Guinea into the last 16. The arithmetic was twisty. But the penalty decision was unclear and obvious enough to need a VAR check during which SOMEONE could have worked this out. Alas, competitive instinct kept control. Jesus Owono’s immense penalty save from Kei Kamara kept the score at one-nil. And the already impressive Equatoguineans looked the likelier scorers thereafter.

It was a surprisingly good game in a group which surprised from day one. Algeria’s multiple misses against Sierra Leone were amusing…well…laughable anyway. Striker and footballing tree-trunk Islam Slimani, was replaced by the even-more arboreous Baghdad Bounedjah. While the star was Leone Stars keeper Mohamed Nbalie Kamara, to whose lurid orange shirt the ball seemed attracted like a moth to light. Kamara also made an artform of headed clearances outside his box.

Cote D’Ivoire were similarly wasteful after the very veteran Max Graedel’s goal-of-the-tournament candidate early in their win over Equatorial Guinea, who also got the six-yard box collywobbles just after half-time.

The Cote D’Ivoire/Sierra Leone second half mixed brilliant goals, Ivorian over-confidence and slapstick. Kamara was initially the Leone Stars star again, with a terrific early penalty save. The sides swapped fab second-half goals, Musa Kamara’s sumptuous half-volley and Nicolas Pepe’s sweeping left-foot curler. Cote D’Ivoire then combined complacency and profligacy. Which mattered when keeper Badra Sangare made a horlicks of preventing a corner, spilling the ball to Sierra Leone’s ex-England centre-half (!) Steven Caulker. Caulker rolled it to Alhadji Kamara, who slipped over but dinked the ball over a scrambling defender and the line. WTF? Times five.

WTF? Times six, when Equatorial Guinea beat Algeria, whose tree-trunk strikers reversed roles, Slimani replacing Bounedjah and missing a sitter by tripping over the ball. Perma-raging boss Djamel Belmadi could have started them both against Cote D’Ivoire, for the lolz, if that match wasn’t made so vital by this one. Their own six-yard box was an exclusion zone as Josele Miranda’s corner rolled across it to scorer Esteban Obiang (“Glory for Esteban” – Sky commentator Rob Palmer). And through being organised in possession and, in the case of the dyed-red-haired Salvador Edu, in two places at once, Equatorial Guinea deserved the three-nil win decent finishing would have given them.

Algeria were THIRTY-FIVE games unbeaten before losing to the FORTY-NINTH ranked African team, whose finals’ qualification was thus a huge achievement in itself. “Wow,” said John Salako. Correctly.

Thus Cote D’Ivoire/Algeria wasn’t the predicted dead rubber between two already qualified teams. An understrength Cote D’Ivoire played better than the full-strength one. Nicolas Pepe’s talented twin (Arsenal fans must be thinking) scored his second great goal of the AFCON. And Algeria were only routinely awful most of the time. Indeed, had Riyad Mahrez netted his 60th-minute penalty, a comeback might have been on. But it thumped the post and flew back past his shoulder. And the first goal of their AFCON title defence, 17 minutes from the end of it, was only a footnote.

Group F: Mali 7, Gambia 6, Tunisia 3, Mauritania 0

Once Tunisia/Mali was done, it was just as well that Group F’s other shock was delivered more sedately. Gambia showed all sides of their nature in unexpectedly finishing second. After Only Fools and Horses catchphrase Ablie Jallow’s terrific strike, they were denied a more eye-catching win over Mauritania by consistent panic attacks in front of goal. They reverted to more defensive type in their nonetheless entertaining 1-1 draw with Mali. And they perfected the ol’ smash-and-grab against Tunisia, albeit greatly assisted by Tunisia’s continuing aversion to scoring penalties, the opposite to Mali, who scored almost nothing BUT spot-kicks.

Against Mali, they had few first-half attacks, but shook the bar twice, from Musa Barrow’s sensational bending 30-yard free-kick and Jallow’s almost-as-sensational curler. The irony of Mali conceding a 90th-minute equaliser will have come across in strong Tunisian accents. Both penalties were correct VAR gives. Sunstroke was uninvolved.

Tunisia themselves seemed determined to prove what could be done, given enough time, going two-up against Mauritania inside eight minutes and doubling that advantage in the space of three mid-second-half minutes. The perceived, and actual, injustices of the Mali game clearly fuelled them. And Youssef Msakni’s late penalty failure didn’t seem important at the time.

But, “Covid-ravaged” as they were, they ran out of fuel against Gambia, whose by-now back eight bored them to death until Tunisia were awarded a late penalty which Seifeddine Jaziri took and, of course, Boubacarr Gaye fabulously saved. Gambia’s proverbial switch was flicked when Musa Barrow so casually stuck a 25-yard free-kick against the crossbar that it almost looked like a deliberate sign. And they were worth the win by the time Jellow’s stoppage-time thumper sealed it.

It took Massadio Haidara a minute-and-a-bit of their win over Mauritania to mishit Mali’s first goal from open play, a victory sealed with Ibrahima Kone’s early second-half…penalty. Mali were less entertaining than Zimbabwe. While Mauritania were more so than Senegal. Sometimes the “funny” in “funny old game” REALLY needs its own inverted commas.

Round Two

The group games suggested that playing for penalties may be ill-advised. Cameroon could. Mali should. Burkina Faso probably not (see below). And Tunisia definitely shouldn’t. Most keepers have adjusted to the LONG-overdue enforcement of the “don’t-leave-your-line” law by starting behind the line. And penalty saves have thus abounded.

Comoros will need even more luck than they had against Morocco in order to beat Cameroon. But I said they’d never beat Ghana. So… At first glance, Nigeria seem unlucky to have to face Tunisia, having qualified so grandly, while scratchy Senegal meet Cape Verde, conquerors of ten-men-for-82-minutes Ethiopia one-nil. Cote D’Ivoire have been similarly shafted, if Egypt approach their potential for the first time.

Gabon will need all their flair, and a more generous video assistant than Sikazwe, to overcome a Burkina Faso side yet to concede a goal from a non-penalty. Guinea/Gambia will at least ensure that the “Gs” are represented in the quarter-finals if Gabon aren’t. Malawi’s shirt numbers will REALLY have to mess with defenders’ senses of perspective if they are to overcome Morocco. And Equatorial Guinea’s last two displays have made them the neutrals’ and some observers’ favourites against Mali.

This AFCON is warming up. Long may that continue.