Until tragedy struck in the form of a stadium crush killing eight people at the start of the knock-out round in Cameroon, the headlines generated by the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tournament were mostly positive.
Despite the fears from western media and football pundits about COVID-19 outbreaks and of players not being made available by international clubs, the 2021 Afcon tournament was running well. It launched successfully in Cameroon a year later than planned due to delays caused by the pandemic.
On the field, the tournament has in fact taken big strides forward, being watched in more than 160 countries. And it has shown that the video assisted referee system is working.
But the teams remaining in the tournament’s knockout stage must raise their technical and tactical execution on the field to entertain the fans. And the referees must step up a notch to avoid uncalled for controversies regarding their decisions. It goes without saying that management of the crowd is crucial.
Club versus country
One of the trends that has become prominent at Afcon is the increase in the number of players playing in foreign leagues. The majority of players are now based abroad. Afcon 2021 is a 24-team tournament with 404 players based at European clubs plus others in the US, China, South Korea, India, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
This means Afcon is increasingly being watched across the globe. Football lovers follow the exploits of African superstars such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keïta (Liverpool), Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City), Thomas Partey and Nicholas Pepe (Arsenal), Franck Kessié (AC Milan), Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester), among others.
The trend has precipitated biennial conflict, though, between Afcon participants and the European clubs, which prefer to hold on to their players as they pursue league and cup competitions. It also complicates the scheduling and organisation of Africa’s premier football tournament. Since 2013 the Confederation of African Football has rescheduled the tournament from even years to odd ones to avoid falling in the same year as the Olympics, World Cup and Euros.
But weather considerations and the African season mean the tournament is held in January, which clashes with most European leagues, especially the English Premier League. On many occasions, European clubs have refused to release African players. They fear losing points at the most critical stage of the league and they fear players could get injured.
Any friction generated is likely to leave the player in a position where he can’t give 100% to the national team.
The Confederation of African Football and Cameroon showed great boldness to go ahead with the tournament in the middle of a COVID-19 surge and the restrictions that it brought. Rules had to be quickly drafted to guide teams in case there was a major breakout.
Requiring vaccine passports to attend matches contributed to low spectator attendance. This prompted authorities in Cameroon to order the closure of schools and tertiary institutions from 1pm to ensure students attend matches.
All has gone fairly well so far despite a few star players such as Pierre Aubameyang (Arsenal) and Edouard Mendy (Chelsea) testing positive on the eve of the tournament. And Comoro Islands faces a critical moment, having to play without a recognised goalkeeper due to injury and two players testing positive for COVID-19.
Legends and debutants
With three-time champions Nigeria already out of the final 16, Afcon 2021 has seen several favourites fall. Some of the defining moments of the preliminary round were pre-tournament favourites Ghana and defending champions Algeria crashing out in the group stage. Algeria had won the FIFA Arab Cup tournament and were on a 34-match unbeaten run, looking to surpass Italy’s record of 37.
Their exits without any wins were talking points in their home countries. Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac was even told not to set foot in Ghana again.
However, other powerhouses like seven-time champions Egypt, five-time winners Cameroon and other aspirants like Ivory Coast, Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia are still in the running at the time of writing. Indeed, several mouth-watering encounters lie ahead.
At Afcon 2021, teams like Comoros and Gabon made their debut. They defied all expectations to qualify for the round of 16. Others like Ethiopia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Mauritania and Sudan also gave a good account of themselves.
The qualification to the second round by Comoros, Gambia, Malawi and Cape Verde is fodder for conversations around Africa. Their performances are an indicator that parity on the pitch in the African game is close at hand, yet their inexperience also helps explain the low scoring in the preliminaries.
A striking aspect of the preliminaries was the low number of goals. In 36 matches only 68 goals were scored. This was the lowest tally of all other continental tournaments at the same stage. According to the website The Analyst, this was due to some terrible shooting choices as well as poor conversion of shots.
The poor shot conversion rate led to an average of just 1.88 goals per game, the lowest since 1988’s 1.44 per game. This is also a result of the lack of time to prepare teams before the tournament as most players were busy at foreign clubs.
Refereeing in football always elicits conversations that keep the game alive long after the final whistle. Referee Janny Sikazwe from Zambia earned global headlines when he twice blew his final whistle before the clock had hit 90 minutes in a match between Mali and Tunisia.
The game ended in bizarre circumstances as players went off into the dressing room the second time, only for them to be ordered to return 25 minutes later before Tunisia refused and Mali were declared winners.
Then again, there was the quiet yet historic appearance of Salima Mukansanga from Rwanda as one of the 63 officials, making her the first woman to referee at the championships.
When all is said and done, fans would love to see better refereeing and more goals as the knock-out phase heats up.