Afcon2021: Bad Things Happened to Good Teams


Three of the ten 10 teams that will compete in the FIFA World Cup Africa play-offs made it to the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) last four.  That is good for African football. But it’s still not automatic that the team that will win this year’s Afcon will be at the Qatar World Cup 2022.

At every World Cup tournament, most of us African journalists are often asked why African football has not risen over the past two decades, since 1990 and 2002 when Cameroon and Senegal reached the World Cup quarterfinals.

At the time of writing this piece, Cameroon and Senegal are the odd-on favourites to reach the Afcon finals.

It is the mystery of football that come March 2022, Egypt must face Senegal, Cameroon vs. Algeria, Ghana vs. Nigeria, in the World Cup African play offs where only the winner proceeds to Qatar. Painful because on paper all these teams deserve to be in Qatar.

One can almost guarantee that Morocco will beat DRC in the other play-offs considering their Afcon performance and the fact that The Leopards of DRC were the only team in the World Cup play offs to miss the entire Afcon tournament.  The last play off between Mali and Tunisia can go either way judging by their performance at the Afcon.

So, what happened to the performance of Nigeria and Ghana that they performed dismally at Afcon? One of them is going to Qatar World Cup, and while for now both countries are sweating on qualifying for the rest of us, our worry is, what if they go to the World Cup and perform like they did at Afcon?

Let me give you a bit of background. In 2005 as Ghana was preparing to bid for the hosting of the 2008 African Cup of Nations, the country, thanks to the likes of Abedi Pele, George Owusu and Tony Yeboah had crafted a plan to take Ghanaian football to the world. Several youthful talents were identified, including Pele’s kids Andrew Ayew and Jordan Ayew, integrated into to European clubs for nurturing, while those at home were competing in the junior leagues.  Up to now, Ghanian legend maintains only reach people’s children play in the national team, but they forget this set up was part of the 2008 Afcon hosting strategy as Ghana wanted to host and win the tournament at all costs.

Unfortunately, by 2008 those youngsters were not yet fully in their prime and Ghana fell out of the tournament in the semi-finals with a 0-1 loss to Cameroon.

Exactly a year after Afcon 2008, Ghana’s youngsters had been developed into an U20 squad and they went on to win the 2009 African Youth Championship. A few months later that same year, the team won the FIFA Under 20 World Cup in Canada beating a Brazil squad led by Maicon in the finals. Ghana was captained by one Andrew Ayew. By January 2010, Ghana was missing seven senior players among them Sulley Muntari, Agogo and Michael Essien. The junior team led by Ayew reached the finals of the Angola Afcon in 2010 before mesmerizing the world at the 2010 World Cup six months later, with that Luis Suarez horror handball, that denied them a place in the World Cup semis. That team’s average age was 23.

Fast forward to 2021, Ayew is still there at Afcon as captain, and so is Jonathan Mensah and a few faces from the junior team of 2009 Youth World Cup, some helped in the qualifiers but fell through to reach the final tournament due to age. That is called planning. It started with their road to hosting Afcon 2008.

Cameroon adopted the same strategy and had developed a strong team before they were stripped of hosting the 2019 Afcon tournament. The current Cameroon team has been part of a building process that started around 2017.

For Ghana it was the coach’s misdeeds.  Ghana had brought the same coach who qualified them at the 2010 World Cup, Milo Rajevac, hoping he would close the same chapter he started 15 years ago. But he no-longer is the same man since 2010, lacking a lot of qualities to inspire a seasoned team who youths no more. Of course, the harsh red card on Ayew cost Ghana against debutants Comoros but much of that play lacked a coach’s inspiration. And many of the new players in the team lack the fire that represents being a Black Stars.

As for Nigeria, they were just unlucky against Tunisia, football happened. They had to be a winner and it was not them. But if Nigeria was to play Tunisia in the World Cup play offs, I would put my money on them. No doubt, their fault is a carbon copy of the Zimbabwe error. Many of their stars have never kicked a ball in Nigeria, born or raised in Europe and have never endured the suffering that African players on the continent go through to reach the apex of world football. A team of prima donnas won’t hold in Africa. It is the same acne shredding through Ivory Coast now. Something Cameroon doesn’t possess. Their chief striker Vincent Aboubakar played for Coton Sport in 2010 when he debuted in the national team at the FIFA World Cup. Seven years later he scored the Afcon winning goal for Cameroon. Today he plays in Saudi Arabia. He knows what it means to represent his country and the colours.

Fortunately, CAF expanding the Afcon tournament from 16 to 24 teams has not diluted the competition as many feared. In fact, there is more quality as the likes of Malawi, Gambia, Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea have proven.

Comoros and the Gambia, both traditional minnows and debutants reached the last 16. Comoros have perhaps been a touch fortunate, but the Gambia have played with an impressive level of calm organisation and deservedly beat Tunisia to go through.

Malawi, in their second tournament, beat Zimbabwe, and a VAR decision controversially overturning a penalty, they might have beaten Senegal.

But this new format where four third-placed sides make the last 16 is unfavourable. There is too great a risk of dead rubbers, advantaging the teams in the later groups who know what they need to do, and there is the fundamental unfairness of comparing between groups that have their own dynamics – most obviously a team resting players for the final game if they’re already through – and should be discrete.

I still don’t know what happened to Algeria.  Honestly, being 2019 finalists and coming to the tournament on a 34-match unbeaten streak, they now need some soul searching before the World Cup qualifiers. Maybe the poor quality of the pitch in Douala affected their game, considering that pitch was then removed from the competition venues after the last 16.  The Algerian coach had criticized the pitch on the very first day of the tournament, and so did other coaches and players as the tournament wore on. Algeria was still good on stats.  They had more touches than any other side in the group stages while only Nigeria and Mali had more shots. Them facing Cameroon in the World Cup qualifiers is more heart-rending, both teams deserve to be the World Cup.

Still, take nothing out of Equatorial Guinea, they added to the drama of African football. What a tournament it has been!

I am the Confident one, with another instalment, may you enjoy and please engage with us as we discuss all things Soccer, #TafelLagerBraveWarriors and so much more, lets connect on our social media platforms, your thoughts and inputs give us a lot to think about and we appreciate it.

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