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AFCON 2021: The prospects and failures since inception

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Practically, due to the delays in the construction of stadiums and other infrastructure, Cameroon, which was originally supposed to host the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) was reported to be hosting the famed tournament later in 2021 after the 2019 edition had already been relocated to Egypt.

Again, as COVID-19 would change narratives, the tournament, not only it but alongside other African and world tournaments were withheld until the pandemic pressures let up. This makes it bizarre when a tournament isn’t describing the date it’s taking place – AFCON 2021 taking place in 2022. Bizarre just like the most recent Euros and Copa America.

AFCON 2021 dawned joyously in January, with an eye-catching opening ceremony that made the whole thing look like a festival. The colorful fireworks display came after the first match in Yaoundé. The cultural dances and musical performances by several artists, the interludes, the parade and the welcoming twitch of several top soccer officials made all witnesses feel real that the new AFCON, with all those moments of spellbinding qualities, has come with a difference.

Between 9 to 20 January, the group stage featured six groups of four teams each, with only the two top teams and the four highest-ranked third-placed teams of each group advancing to the knockout last-16 round. This was when the game took more than just sitting in a room with a cup of popcorn and a glass of juice on the veranda from everyone. With blistering curiosity, everyone wanted to know which team with just one loose guard in a fixture would meet their waterloo.

The disappointments

Ghana first had a heartbreak. The giant Black Stars could hardly manage to finish third in Group C. Also in the group stage were upbraiding experiences for Mauritania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe and a major disappointment for Guinea-Bissau whose goalless run at the AFCON extended to seven matches.

The shocking elimination of the defending champions, Algeria, was another subject of critical discussion. Despite flaunting big names such as Yacine Brahimi, Sofiane Feghouli, Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez amongst others; they still could not sweep past any of their group-stage opponents. The Fennec Foxes’ short-lived title defense was brought to an end following a 1-3 defeat to Ivory Coast, a draw with Sierra Leone and the 0-1 defeat at the hands of Equatorial Guinea, which initially ended their 35-match unbeaten run.

Stretching into the last-16 knockout round was a cruel, unexpected elimination for Nigeria’s Super Eagles in Garoua when they had a repeat of the third-place playoff from the 2019 edition against Tunisia. This seemed to be true for Nigeria; the quest for their fourth AFCON triumph had to wait for another 18 months. The last time Nigeria egressed an AFCON tournament at the second round was in Ghana 2008. The Eagles lost 2-1 to Ghana when the competition’s second round was a quarter-final.

Any heated controversies?

Yes irrefutably. Firstly, the biggest dissension of the tournament was in the match between Tunisia and Mali where a Zambian referee, Janny Sikazwe, a highly respected referee in the continent, made, in the second half of the feud, a series of monumental blunders—from calling a late cooling break at first to signaling for an added time even with 11 minutes left in the clock. The referee was also sighted running past the VAR (Video Assistant Referees) screen when he was asked to recheck a red-card drift before he would blow the final whistle in the 86th minute even in the strangest and most unfledged way ever.

Secondly, Malawi and Guinea-Bissau were left resentful by the decision-making procedure of CAF to introduce the VAR (Video Assistant Referees) from the group stage. This saw Malawi have a penalty decision overturned in their match against Senegal. In effect to the new process, a stunning striker, Mama Balde’s goal for Guinea-Bissau was also ruled out for a perceived infringement. Each of these scenarios led to really controversial shake-ups.

Finally, the wins!

Crucially, there is need to understand Cameroon’s AFCON successful outcome owing to the prevailing stories of crisis and criticism that initially had and throughout veiled the 2021 version of the competition. Beyond figures, AFCON 2021 received post-tournament cynical commentaries overseas, which initially birthed total and exaggerated negative image and conceptions on the continent’s pride.

The UK’s Daily Mail sneeringly reported cautious stories on Africa, engineered by perceived discernment on the escalating separatist conflicts in Cameroon. Also, a UK newspaper, The Sun, wrote a headline about how COVID-19 was scaling off the tournament and the Premier League clubs’ plan to boycott the whole event. However, such disturbing reports went hand-in-hand with several individual racial portrayals of both the African players and their general stereotypes. But in the end, AFCON 2021, on that side-line, proved each critic wrong.

When the Olympics eventually took place, Tokyo was a bit helpless and vulnerable that it had to be under lockdown with disturbing indoor restrictions on spectators, but the reverse was the case with Cameroon’s AFCON, another major event that triumphantly took place amid not only a pandemic but also posts, negative voice-overs and expectations of terror, conflict, disease, risk, insecurity and danger.

In the end, after the ups and downs, each African boldly said that AFCON 2021 was a huge success, including Sunday Oliseh, Nigeria’s former captain and coach, who noted that the just concluded AFCON remains the most virtuosic in the past 20 years, most especially in terms of surprises, tactics and energy. Similar emotion was expressed by the current President of the Cameroonian Football Federation, Samuel Eto’o, who took his Twitter to venerate the sporting competition as “legendary”.

Looking ahead, Africans need to keep countervailing racism in all dimensions and this is best achieved by full liberation from all sorts of enslavement and colonialism. Another measure to reach the peak in that image is by deploying heavy and unbending infrastructure, social and economic refashioning. AFCON 2021 has already changed a lot in the way Africa is perceived in football and even beyond.

It’s only left for the African leaders to develop the needed facilities and mostly infrastructure for these current standards to make headways and flourish more in transcending the international yardstick and also for wider infinitudes of talents to emerge, progress and record more histories in all sporting regards.

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Yahaya Sherifdeen Olamilekan
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