AFCON 2021: The Business End

by | Feb 6, 2022

So, Sadio Mane’s Senegal and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, according to BBC presenter Jermaine Jenas’s arseh… thought processes, will win the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), either one-nil or on penalties, after a nil-nil draw…as seven of the last eight finals have finished.

“I want Senegal to win because of their style of play,” said the BBC’s excellent pundit Nedum Onuoha, as the Mosalahsegyptians showed no style in their semi-final win. Yes, the Sadiomanesenegalese seemed to be auditioning for the role of Argentina in an Italia ’90 remake as they huffed-and-puffed into the last eight. But they’ve improved since realising that Egypt got the part ages ago. From losing their first game through to beating the hosts on penalties in the semi-finals, Egypt have played the role to unpopular perfection. So, it’s a pity West Germany didn’t beat Argentina six-nil in 1990, rather than one-nil with a dodgy late penalty.

Cameroon/Senegal may have been the best final from this last eight. But we are where we are. And here’s how.

Quarter-finals

Cameroon 2 (The) Gambia 0

Gambia’s trademark tactics were working perfectly again. Bore all-comers and nick a (usually outstanding) goal while we dozed. So effective was it in the first half that BBC commentator Mark Scott had time to theorise on why Gambia were a.k.a. The Gambia…something about helping postmen differentiate between Gambia and Zambia which didn’t convince co-commentator Efan Ekoku. But then Cameroon scored twice shortly after half-time. And (The) Gambia’s proverbial and actual games were up.

Cameroon would have scored earlier if Vincent Aboubakhar had brought his heading gear. He nodded one wide on 31 minutes as Gambian keeper Baboucarr Gaye observed unmoved from a distance, and nutted a better chance straight at Gaye five minutes later. Five minutes after the interval, though, Karl Toko-Ekambi headed in Collins Fai’s cross… both from a standing start. And on 57 minutes, he converted Martin Hongla’s terrific ball, before Gambia could reconstruct after a triple substitution.

The on-screen graphics announcing these changes had an air of footnote, as they followed the goal and were backdropped by parping celebratory Cameroon vuvuzelas. Gambia, like Cameroon, had only two goalscorers in this AFCON. So, with Ablie Jallow, scorer of both their winners, out injured, two-nil sufficed. And Ekoku donned his sarky boots to declare that “Andre Onana’s with us,” as Cameroon’s keeper got some rare work while his colleagues semi-showboated to the semis.

Burkina Faso 1 Tunisia 0

Swathes of the first half hinted at the game I feared. Then Burkina Faso went ahead during the two minutes’ stoppage time allowed for the five minutes of first-half stoppages (no, don’t YOU go on?), 19-year-old Dango Ouattara’s run and powerful left-foot drive sparking ‘Dango Unchained’ headlines worldwide. And in the second half, a game, and more, emerged.

Ouattara saw red on 82 minutes for an un-necessary elbow to Ali Maaloul’s cheekbone, with video assistance adding teenage embarrassment to the futility of his plea that he’d had his arms at his side all along…and the stupidity of the dismissal as his team were clinging onto his goal for dear life after threatening on the break early in the second half.

Wahbi Khazri seems to have been around far longer than his 68 caps suggests. And he drove Tunisia forward. His 30-yard deadball ping was parried over by Burkinabe keeper Herve Koffi (“strong Koffi,” Sky commentator Gary Taphouse ‘quipped’), before he was nearly pinged over the bar himself by Soumaila Ouattara’s ‘robust’ penalty-box challenge, as everyone bar referee Joshua Bondo and his video assistant, suggested that “he won the ball, but…” Although a penalty would have guaranteed nothing, given Tunisia’s abject spot-kick record at this AFCON

Tunisia’s coach and 1990s Woody Allen model Mondher Kebaier was inevitably sacked. And he had 15 seconds longer to contemplate the prospect after Bondo brought an early end to even the measly five minutes second-half stoppage time he allowed for the two VAR referrals et al. Burkina Faso, meanwhile, may have looked like the odd one out in a last four of African ’powerhouses,’ but having been 2013 losing finalists and 2017 third-place play-off winners, they were due another semi-final. And they just about deserved it.

Egypt 2 Morocco 1 (after extra-time, 90 minutes score, 1-1)

I nearly missed much of this “North African Derby” between nations as adjacent as England and…er…Turkey, because I fell asleep. And when I watched the game again, I nodded off again.

Morocco led with Sofiane Boufal’s sixth-minute penalty. But the match officials missed Ayman Ashraf cleaning out Achraf Hakimi to concede it, ref Maguette Ndiaye giving a goalkick, and his on-field assistant hesitantly flagging for a corner. Ndiaye’s view was obscured. But his assistant was almost close enough to MAKE the challenge. Video assistance assisted. But if VAR hadn’t been in operation the words “money’s changed hands” might have been, with Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz thereafter having the air of someone who’d wasted his money.

Egypt deserved to win. Which wasn’t saying much. Two decent long-range whacks tested Morocco keeper Yassine Bounou before half-time. But the most interesting whack was to Ahmed Hegazi’s bollocks from what replays suggested was a twin of H.G Wells’ Invisible Man. A photo of Hegazi’s face and bollock-clutch at the moment of supposed impact would sell well, and summarise this match.

So rare were Morocco’s forays forward, after a tournament full of them compared to most teams, that when Egypt keeper Gabaski was eventually forced into a save, brilliantly tipping Nayef Aguerd’s header onto the bar, he did himself a game-ending mischief. Egypt’s third-choice keeper, Mohamed Sobhi was introduced under apparent instruction to kick the ball as far and high from his goal as possible at all times. And that was almost all that was required.

Salah made three contributions. Lousing up Egypt’s corners like Harry Kane at Euro 2016. Tapping-in Egypt’s equaliser when Morocco’s defence inexplicably decided that “that hairy bloke at the back post doesn’t need watching.” And putting the 100th-minute winner on a plate for “Aston Villa’s Trezeguet.” Mo Salah’s match, then. Sigh.

Sadio Mane’s Senegal 3 Equatorial Guinea 1

“Will Sadio Mane’s Senegal or Equatorial Guinea claim that last semi-final spot?” Jenas verbally farted, instigating hasty amendments to geography reference books everywhere. And after producing their tournament best, the Sadiomanesenegalese claimed that spot.

They had to. The Equatoguineans also produced their tournament best, bar a 15-minute spell after going one-nil down. They were unlucky too. Famara Diedhiou’s goal came 44 seconds after the ball slipped from Carlos Akapo’s hands as he attempted a throw-in. And Chiekhou Kouyate’s goal originated with an incorrectly-given corner.

Substitutes proved key, the Equatos introducing Spanish/French lower-leaguers and domestically-based players, while Sadio Mane’s Senegal had talents from top European clubs such as…Watford. Goals from two Sadiomanesenegalese subs were the ultimate difference. And there were touches of class about their first and third goals which the Equatos could only intermittently match.

Until that first goal, Sadio Mane’s Senegal were still a bit disjointed. Then Mane’s fabulous reverse pass allowed Diedhiou to slot the ball cleverly past excellent Equato keeper Jesus Owono without breaking stride. And at last they hit their stride…briefly. Had they led two-nil at half-time, there could have been few arguments. And studio pundit Kolo Toure’s insistence that he could “see this Equatorial Guinea team coming back” seemed fanciful.

He was right, though. Publicity-hungry South African referee Victor Gomes conceivably gave a 49th-minute handball decision against Kalidou Koulibaly just so the focus would be on him striding to the pitchside monitor to view the error of his ways. But within eight minutes, the Equatos did come back, with a stylish move and Jannick Buyla’s surprisingly-stylish 15-yard toe-poke.

Mistakes abounded for the Sadiomanesenegalese second. There was no publicity in Gomes spotting an Okapo defensive header touching the just-introduced Kouyate before going out of play. So he didn’t. TV replays showed the touch long before the corner (as replays have for years). Yet no defender appealed. Sadly, Emilio Nsue’s headed clearance had the height of his missed shoot-out penalty against Mali but not the distance. And, seconds later, Akapo and Saul Coco collided in mid-air, their touch on the ball playing Kouyate onside as he lobbed Owono.

Class told again, five minutes later, in the form of Saliou Ciss’s chest-trap and cross which “Watford’s Ismaila Sarr” side-footed home. And well though their supposedly sub-standard subs played, Equatoguinean hearts visibly sank, knowing that they were in the wrong place when Sadio Mane’s Senegal finally got their act together.

Semi-finals

Sadio Mane’s Senegal 3 Burkina Faso 1

In a tournament averaging under two goals-per-game, the four which graced 17 late minutes of this semi-final had Scott characterising proceedings as “absolutely wild now,” while co-commentator, South African AFCON veteran Dean Furman, screeched one note below only-dogs-could-hear-him level.

The game had a far more expansive look and feel than most encounters of such importance (see below), even if both sides’ inability to keep possession was more standard big-match fare. And the fun was helped by eccentric refereeing from Ethiopia’s Bamlak Tessema Weyesa, who overworked his video assistant with unpredictable penalty-box decision-making.

The first ‘penalty’ was against Burkinabe keeper Herve Koffi, after an aerial challenge with Kouyate. Video evidence exposed it as completely 50/50, But Koffi was injured when he landed on Kouyate, who escaped the encounter relatively unscathed, and replaced by initially-nervous sub keeper Farid Ouedraogo. The second came when impressive defender Edmond Tapsoba blocked Idrissa Gueye’s piledrive with an elbow as close to his body as his shirt.

The Burkinabes had further ill-luck. Bertrand Traore, supposedly dropped for their quarter-final, filmed his work-out video, “36 ways to fall over a football” here. TV replays of the second Sadiomanesenegalese goal cut out Mane gaining possession, in case footage revealed Mane’s foul. And as Tapsoba advanced, with the score 2-1, Blati Toure slid towards him like a Winter-Olympian Luge-ist, starting the decisive Sadiomanesenegalese counter-attack.

The Burkinabes had made it 2-1 with Toure’s remarkable right…kneed effort from 15 yards. But there was no comeback once Mane made it 3-1, as he does such things for Liverpool “week-in, week-out,” unbeknownst to Liverpool fans who watched him score once in nine pre-Christmas matches.

Sadiomanessenegal have played well in their green change kit, having played sh*te in their white first one (well, at least it rhymes). Which may have been one reason why they, and no-one else on earth, took delight in the green-shirted Cameroon’s semi-final defeat.

Since they’ve been winning its been Mo Salah’s Egypt 0 Cameroon 0 (Egypt win 3-1 on penalties)

Unlovely. Four goals in six games speaks volumes about Egypt at this AFCON. obliterating much of any admiration for winning here without first-choice keeper AND centre-back. But two goals against speak louder.

Egypt were kick-perfect in both shoot-outs. They didn’t even need Salah in this triumph over entertainment. Although they hadn’t needed him for much of the evening, which was handy. Equally ineffective was Aboubakhar (pronounced AbouBACCA by the possibly Star Wars-influenced BBC commentator Guy Mowbray). “He’s always late,” BBC newbie-pundit Yaya Toure despaired. And this proved pivotal, as Toko-Ekambi stank too, making sub Jean-Eric Choupo-Moting’s non-appearance so puzzling…to those who’d not seen him in this AFCON.

Cameroon had first-half chances. But Toko-Ekambi got his toes in a tangle when missing his. And Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui headed the ball onto his shoulder while Gabaski floundered underneath the ball as it looped postward. They hit the post again when Samuel Gouet won a 50/50 tackle 40 yards from goal so ferociously that the ball fizzed goalward.

Egypt wasted both their moments. Salah latched onto a fabulous through ball but fluffed trying to round the on-rushing Onana 30 yards from goal, a situation made quirkier by the penetrating run and pass coming from a fast-retreating Hongla underhitting a backpass. And Ramadan Sobhi drilled a 118th-minute cross with laser precision between three Egyptian forwards on-rushing into the six-yard box.

Egypt were as laser precise, to better effect, in the shoot-out, showing why they haven’t lost one since Cleopatra was a girl. While Cameroon at least showed some variety with their three failures, ex-Tottenham man Clinton N’jie Spurs-ing his kick wide, after rubbish efforts from Harold Moukoudi and James Lea Siliki.

There was more entertainment in the technical area than the penalty one. Egypt had objected to Gambian Bakary Gassama’s appointment as referee. And Queiroz raised Gassama’s officious hackles with some early touchline sarcasm, before he and his assistant Wael Gomaa mislaid their plots late on. Queiroz saw red to go with his red mist, as he was also booked for another brainstorm just four minutes earlier. And as Gomaa was booked against Morocco, both miss the final. Still, on-field non-event Salah could coach them instead. It’s his fcuking team, after all…

Egypt and Senegal will be World Cup qualifying play-off opponents next month, which might make the Afcon final a phoney war, with neither side wanting to cede tactical or psychological advantages ahead of the technically more important tie. Still, Mo Salah’s Egypt versus Sadio Mane’s Senegal will please Jenas. But if Egypt continue to roleplay as Argentina in Italia ’90, at least they’ll lose a stodgy final one-nil to a dodgy late penalty. And I, and many others, will take that.