Smiles better: Ethiopia fans enjoy their first Afcon appearance for 31 years
So, the first week of the 29th Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in South Africa has already been and gone in a flash, and to those of you who have stayed away from its opening salvos—for whatever reason—well, you have missed an eye-catching start to the proceedings in the Rainbow Nation.
Make no mistake about it: The Afcon is a much-maligned international football tournament.
It's the poor relative to the Fifa World Cup, the UEFA European Championship or South America’s Copa America; a completion that forever seems to be associated with players getting injured, returning to their clubs late, and sometimes not at all, of poor practice facilities and inadequate medical support and a general lack or organisation—a view not helped either by what happened in the 2010 event when the Togo team bus was attacked by terrorists.
Europe’s all-powerful clubs, the financial epicentre of world football, are also no fans either of this biannual celebration of all that is good about African football (a feeling that has certainly grown by the staging of back-to-back Afcons in 2012 and 2013), and are ever reluctant to lose key personnel for up to three weeks at such a critical juncture in the season.
However, these one-eyed, club-dominated views should be seen for exactly what they are: selfish. Especially when looked at alongside those of the players, fans, coaches and administrators themselves who make up these tournaments; which, lest we not forget, are the equivalent of a Euros, say, for nations in Europe, or a Copa for those countries in South America.
Is the Afcon on a par with the World Cup, European Championship or Copa America
And those raft of negative stories that always seem to be associated with the Afcons, well, you only need to have been following the opening week’s events in South Africa to know that these could not be further from the truth, as anything and everything seems to have already taken place.
However, for those who are longstanding fans of African football, this will come as no surprise at all.
As always, we have been treated to a feast of fast-flowing, high-quality football, even if the competition did take just a little while to get going—including waiting a whole day and three games for our first goal, and a further match for our first actual result, but anyone who has lived and watched football on this great continent (like I have) will know, things always take a little while to get moving.
Likewise—and the opening week’s action has done nothing to dispel this view whatsoever—anyone who knows anything at all about the Afcons knows that this will be a tournament full of energy, colour and life (both on and off the pitch); thrills, spills and drama, with totally unforeseen upsets along the way; and will be competition where you should definitely expect the unexpected, and sometimes all of these things in the space of just one match.
Right from the off we had the amazing and heartwarming story of the tiny island of Cape Verde making their Afcon debut, and what’s more, they only went and held hosts South Africa to a draw, meaning that Bafana Bafana had still not won a match at the Afcons since 2004, an unwanted stat that they managed to correct by beating Angola 2-0 in their second group game.
We then witnessed Ethiopia’s first appearance in the competition in 31 years on Matchday 3 in a game not remembered for the remarkable scoreline—a scarcely believable 1-1 draw with holders Zambia—but for the unusual sight of Walya Antelopes goalkeeper Jemal Tassew being sent off while also being stretchered off the pitch at the same time following an X-rated tackle.
Like I said earlier, expect the unexpected…
And that is just the half of it, as we have also had the usual mixture of rank, bad defending and late, late goals alongside some moments of sheer brilliance and artistry from a collection of some of planet football’s best and most accomplished performers. Players like Yaya Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Didier Drogba, Asamoah Gyan, Seydou Keita, John Obi Mikel and Younes Belhanda managed by interesting, wise and colourful coaching characters such as Zambia’s Herve Renard, Algeria’s Vahid Halilhodzic and last but not least, DR Congo’s Claude Le Roy, Mr Afcon himself, a veteran of a record seven finals and a winner all the way back in 1988 with Cameroon.
My own personal favourite moment from the opening seven days has been hard to choose, wavering between Burkina Faso’s 4-0 win over Ethiopia on Friday—their first Afcon triumph in 22 attempts dating back to 1998—or the collapsing goal fiasco in Saturday night’s Togo versus Algeria contest.
In spite of those great moments, for me it has to be Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene’s perfectly-taken late penalty to earn the holders a much-needed point against Nigeria on the same day.
So, a week gone, two more to go and already we have a number of delicious and intriguing plots and subplots that are beginning to bubble up on the surface for us to follow right through to final at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Feb 10.
We have all the ingredients that in essence are needed to make an entertaining, eye-catching and memorable international football tournament and which so often are seen lacking in the Afcon’s so-called bigger and better, but in actual fact more sterile, rival competitions throughout the world.