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Monday, April 22, 2024

Reuben Abati: AFCON 2023: A Review [MUST READ]

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Big, loud and hearty congratulations to the people and government of the Republic of Ivory Coast for hosting and organizing what has been considered one of the best editions of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) tournaments. The last time the African Cup of Nations was hosted in West Africa was in 2022, delayed from 2021, and that was in Cameroon between January 9 and February 6, 2022. Originally scheduled to be held in June/July 2021, AFCON 2021 as it was otherwise known, had to be shifted for sponsorship reasons and COVID. By then participating teams in the African soccer fiesta had been increased from 16 to 24 teams, and the Cameroonians hosted the tournament in five cities and six stadiums. But this was against the background of security threats in Cameroon, majorly from separatist groups, and as it turned out, the violence that eventually occurred was at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde. Access to the stadium was the problem, during a last-16 match between hosts Cameroon and Comoros, resulting in a stampede and the unfortunate death of eight persons.

This cast a shadow on the hosting of AFCON at the time. Ivory Coast deserves plaudits therefore for organizing and delivering a largely hitch-free tournament. There were minor incidents of course: the Gambian team had to return to Banjul after their chartered flight, en route Abidjan, suddenly lost oxygen nine minutes after take-off; also, violence erupted after AFCON hosts, Cote D’Ivoire were beaten 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea in the final match of Group A. Aggrieved Ivorian fans vandalized vehicles and smashed the windows of buses. When Ghana’s Black Stars drew against Mozambique 2-2, in a final group game, and faced a sure exit, angry Ghanaian journalists barricaded the team’s bus and demanded to speak to the Black Stars’ players and manager. Fans also reportedly went after Ghana coach, Chris Houghton when the team lost to Cape Verde, 2- 1 in their opening Group B match. In the semi-final match between Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast, the DRC squad decided to make a political statement by protesting about the crisis in Eastern Congo while singing their country’s national anthem. More notably, over 50 journalists who went to Yamoussoukro, to cover Senegal vs Gambia (Group C) and Angola vs Burkina Faso (Group D) matches reportedly had an accident at about 2.30 am, Ivory Coast time, on their return to Abidjan. Some of them sustained injuries.

Nonetheless, on the whole, these became minor issues. The Ivorian Football Federation delivered a successful tournament with no deaths recorded as a result of errors of organization or internal conflicts. The people of Ivory Coast also went a step further by winning the trophy on the back of what seemed like an imminent relegation. The Elephants of Ivory Coast qualified for the knock-out stage by sheer luck, as one of the best of the worst four, but from the moment they crossed that line, luck, destiny and strategy worked in their favour backed by extra-ordinary nationalistic fervour. Last Sunday, they beat the Super Eagles, Nigeria’s better-ranked team, 2-1 to lift the AFCON trophy for a record third time, thus matching Nigeria’s record in the tournament. It was a glorious moment for Cote D’Ivoire, the first country to host the tournament and win it since Egypt last did same as host-country in 2006. We saw true nationalism on display. The 60,000-capacity Allasane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan was filled to the brim, and the Orange-clad Ivorians stayed till the trophy was handed over. The crowd obviously put Nigeria’s Super Eagles under pressure. But both the crowd and the people of Ivory Coast obviously wanted the trophy more than the Nigerians. They had to sack their coach, Jean Louis-Gasset, and appoint Emerse Fae, who by default took them to the finals. They also made history through Sebastien Haller, a come-back kid, who despite recuperation from testicular cancer and a knee injury sealed Nigeria’s fate with an 81st minute goal.

CAF and its President Patrice Motsepe and the entire Board of CAF equally deserve to be applauded. The organization was superb. The quality of play was excellent with many of the players from the 24 teams that participated now certainly looking forward to better recruitments internationally. The money was good too. Motsepe and co before the tournament announced that the prize money would go up by 40% as follows: $7 million for winning, $4 million for the runners up, the two losing semi-finalists got $2.5 m each, losing quarter finalists – $1.3 m, and the eight teams that got knocked out in the round of 16 – $800, 00 each, the teams that ranked third but failed to make the round of 16 – $700, 000, the fourth teams in each of the six groups – $500, 000. So, in a sense, most of the teams would go home with some cash. But this was not a tournament driven by cash per se but history, ironies and revelations. And except for one or two informal complaints, by Ghana and Nigeria, the officiating was generally considered satisfactory, and perhaps that would attract the attention of FIFA to make the refereeing of global football more inclusive with the participation at the highest levels of African male and female referees. It was also agreed that the pitches were much better and that the entertainment value was top-notch. In fact, one married, Ivorian man in the stands got so carried away he propositioned a Senegalese woman next to him. His moment of distraction was fully captured on camera and televised. He had to apologize to his wife and family afterwards!

Opta, the AI supercomputer got many of the predictions wrong as did the bookmakers too. Opta, working with BBC, crunching the numbers based on recent and historical performances, identified Senegal as the country with the most likely chance to win with a 12.8% chance, followed by Ivory Coast with 12.1%, and Morocco with 11.1%. By the quarter-finals, the same Opta was already projecting Nigeria’s Super Eagles as strong favourites. Opta’s AI was wrong. Ivory Coast took the trophy. This was a tournament of surprises and vanishing stars. Sebastien Haller, the Ivorian winning goal scorer, from Borussia Dortmund, whose face was also all over billboards in Abidjan in fact looked like he was not going to play at all, but destiny brought him into reckoning. Mohammed Salah of Egypt whom everyone thought would make a difference for his country, left the tournament early due to injury. Egypt did not even make it to the knock-out stage. Liverpool that had been worried sick about Salah being in AFCON 2023 had nothing to worry about at the end of the day. Riyad Mahrez, had to drop from his country, Algeria’s first XI after two false starts. Mahrez is Algeria’s star, but he was out of action literally in AFCON 2023. Yves Bissouma of Mali and Dango Quattara of Burkina Faso were afflicted by injury. Andre Onana, Manchester United’s goalkeeper was also in Abidjan, but he played only one match for his country Cameroon, out of three. New stars emerged. Senegal may have dropped out, but they gave us the 20-year-old gifted Lamine Camara, who helped his country to top Group C with a 100% record. Soon after, Senegal crashed out, losing 5-4 to Ivory Coast on penalties in the knock-out stage.

It was also a tournament in which coaches lost out. Algeria sacked their coach Djamel Belmadi after the two-time winners’ shock loss to Mauritania. Ivory Coast also sacked their coach after an embarrassing loss to Equatorial Guinea. Ghana fired Chris Houghton. Rui Vittoria, the Egyptian coach was also sacked. Jalel Kadri, the Tunisian coach did not wait to be sacked. He resigned. Tunisia left Ivory Coast without a single win to their name. They only just managed to score one goal in a 1-1 draw with Mali, and came last in Group E. Algeria was knocked out by Mauritania. Ghana was sent out by Mozambique, Morocco, the same Morocco that did well at the World Cup was defeated by South Africa. Egypt did not go beyond the last 16. Cameroon did not get to the quarter finals. Instead, the big revelations were Democratic Republic of Congo whose team made it to the final play-off against South Africa. Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea surprised even themselves. There were no minnows.

Which is why, I think that the Super Eagles deserve some praise for making it to the finals and winning the Silver medal. Silver is not gold, yes. But it is still something. Nigeria won the trophy three times in the past: 1980, 1994, and 2013. Nigeria have been runners-up in 1984, 1988, 1990, 2000, and now 2023. If we must be honest with ourselves, it was clear that we were not ready to win this time around. Our preparation for the tournament was shoddy. We simply got there by chance, prompting Brown Ideye, who was part of the 2013 South African winning squad to say ahead of the tournament that the Super Eagles lacked the hunger and discipline to win a fourth trophy. “We have good players but we don’t have a team to win the AFCON now,” he said. Ideye was absolutely right, as evident on Sunday when the Super Eagles put up their worst performance in the tournament. The statistics clearly confirmed the outcome: the Elephants of Cote D’Ivoire had better ball possession – over 60%, and better shots on goal – 8. Nigeria trailed behind, playing a highly defensive game that made no sense. We scored the only shot at goal. Our midfield was non-existent. People have been trying to blame Alex Iwobi in the midfield – but what can one man do? Others have said Osimhen could have played better. What do you want him to do? He is who he is because he plays for Napoli- a team that is structured differently. In Napoli, other players give him the ball. With the Super Eagles, he had to look for the ball himself and try to create chances for others. One man doing the work of three men! Osimhen was completely marked out by the Angolans and the South Africans and in the finals, the Ivorians were determined to break his legs. Nigeria’s game plan looked stupid. The players were flat-footed. There was no creativity in the midfield. Patriotism took the better side of me when we qualified for the finals. We all have an obligation to support our country. I certainly agree with those who believe that this is not the end of the road for the Super Eagles given the circumstances. Win some, lose some. That is life.

But what next? Morocco is the next venue of AFCON. The qualifiers will start in March 2024. We may have lost at AFCON 2023, but now is the time to begin to prepare for the next challenge. Serious-minded nations start preparing for the next tournament the morning after. They don’t wait till the last minute as we do in Nigeria. In AFCON 2023, South Africa fielded ten local league players from one home-based club – the Mamelodi Sundowns and they went away with the Bronze Medal, their very first medal in 24 years. We were lucky they didn’t beat us during the semi-finals. They outplayed Nigeria, and that is the truth, the same way Cote D’Ivoire outplayed us on Sunday. Nigeria must have learnt one big lesson and it is this: luck is not enough in international competitions. There is something extra teams bring to the table and we saw this with Cote D’Ivoire. Nigeria must begin to find that extra by working to build a team of the future. Jose Peseiro, the current manager, cannot help us in that regard. I don’t see the point in renewing his contract. His contract has expired by the way. It had to be extended to cover the AFCON 2023, and now that we made it to just the finals, can we aim higher? It is even a shame that Nigeria over the years has not been able to develop enough local expertise to compete with the rest of the world, and yet the country has to make do with absentee, tourist foreign coaches.

Whatever it was however, it must be possible for us to agree that success of any kind tends to bring out the best in all of us. When Nigeria does well, the people bond together, because we all want the same thing. As the Super Eagles advanced in AFCON 2023, they provided us all with useful distraction from the problems at home. Whenever we scored and won, nobody talked about the religion or the ethnicity of the player. Nobody cared where Victor Osimhen, Troost-Ekong, Lookman Afolabi or Moses Simon or Stanley Nwabali came from. At one viewing centre in Lagos, Governor Babajide Sanwoolu was shown leading a chorus of celebration when Nigeria beat Angola to get to the semi-finals. Some of the people at the viewing centre must have voted for Labour Party and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the last election, but party affiliations were suspended for the objective of national glory. Nigeria needs to build on opportunities for such cohesion. And kudos to all the private sector units who helped along the way to bolster the excitement of the country’s participation: TotalEnergies, sponsored the tournament, MTN Nigeria too, Nigeria Breweries set up viewing centres across the country with its Life, Zagg Malt and Goldberg brands, the Lagos State Government had 29 viewing centres across Lagos State, and Glo/Otunba Mike Adenuga publicly identified with and supported the national aspiration to win the trophy, and of course thank you, all Nigerians who suspended disbelief to cheer on your country. Five persons died in the process out of patriotic excitement. May their souls rest in peace. Now that the battle has been won and lost, we must now all return to the reality of our urgent dilemma: hyperinflation, poverty in the land, and the continuing search for good governance. The game is over, the struggle continues…

Reuben Abati is a host of the Morning Show on Arise Television. He was the spokesperson and special adviser, media and publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). A former chairman of the editorial board of The Guardian, Dr. Abati is one of the most respected columnists in Nigeria. He writes his syndicated column twice a week. He tweets from @abati1990.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.

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