Africa Cup of Nations review: sorrow, anger and Mané’s redemption

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Abiding memory

This Cup of Nations was played under a shadow from the moment eight supporters died outside Olembe Stadium a fortnight ago. There is no excusing what happened at a venue surrounded by vast spaces and the depressing sense remains that its causes will be swept under the carpet. After driving back to Yaoundé the following day and speaking with Romaric, who had been in the ground and encountered people who had been caught up in the crush as he left, the horror of what had occurred started to become clear. A subsequent visit to the emergency hospital brought some harrowing testimonies; these are, sadly, the words and images that linger. NA

The Olembe tragedy, understandably and inevitably, will dominate reflections on the tournament. I was in Bafoussam when it occurred but returned to Yaoundé the following day. Talking to two survivors and the doctor who had treated them, the remarkable Diana Bikele, in a hospital ward the following day was humbling and horrifying. Our initial report was written with a sense of sorrow; later, as we understood the scale of the incompetence that had led to the disaster, came anger. JW

Match of the tournament

Ivory Coast 2-2 Sierra Leone Sierra Leone had not competed at a Cup of Nations since 1996 and what was, on the face of things, a rag-tag squad seemingly with little chance of making waves in Cameroon. But a smart, spirited side held Algeria and then shocked an Ivory Coast side packed with top-level experience. They equalised once through an explosive finish from Musa Kamara, who plays in the local top flight, and squared things again with the last kick after a disastrous error from Badra Sangara, the Ivorian keeper. Alhaji Kamara capitalised and the Leone Stars had earned their luck. NA

Ghana 2-3 Comoros The format doesn’t deserve good games in the group stage but, mystifyingly, it produced two classics at the end: Ivory Coast’s win against Algeria and Comoros’s victory against a Ghana side who, at last – down to 10 men, 2-0 down and facing elimination – found some fight. After they had levelled the scores, though, a well-organised Comoros side who attacked well on the break found an 84th-minute winner through Ahmed Mogni to secure the Coelacanths’ passage to the last 16 at their first Cup of Nations. JW

Comoros’ forward Ahmed Mogni (centre) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s second goal against Ghana.
Comoros’ forward Ahmed Mogni (centre) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s second goal against Ghana. Photograph: Daniel Beloumou Olomo/AFP/Getty Images

Player of the tournament

Sadio Mané Just imagine the weight Sadio Mané was bearing as he walked up to take the tournament’s decisive penalty: he had missed from the spot earlier on, had previous for fluffing his lines in shoot-outs for Senegal, and was now relied upon to bring them their first-ever Afcon. His conversion was emphatic, the celebrations and post-match comments emotional, and it was easy to feel joy for one of the most likeable players among the world’s leading lights. Like Senegal, Mané had grown into the competition after a slow start; his quality was key in helping them to surge clear in knockout games. NA

Sadio Mané Vincent Aboubakar’s achievement in scoring eight of the 100 goals in the tournament (8% in a 24-team tournament is some kind of footballing equivalent of Charles Bannerman, who scored 67.35% of Australia’s runs in the first ever Test innings), but by the time he stepped up to take the decisive penalty, this had clearly been Mané’s tournament. He scored three goals, made two more and, in a Senegal team often largely functional, offered a measure of flair. And, having missed a penalty in normal time, when it came to it he had the nerve to smash home the decisive kick in the shoot-out. JW

Senegal’s Sadio Mané celebrates after winning the Africa Cup of Nations.
Senegal’s Sadio Mané celebrates after winning the Africa Cup of Nations. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Goal of the tournament

Youssouf M’Changama v Cameroon Had tragic events outside the stadium not overshadowed everything that night, a keeper-less Comoros’ display against Cameroon would have made for a heartwarming evening of tournament football. The islanders’ goal will not be lost to history, though: Youssouf M’Changama had no right to find the top corner when lining up a free-kick from so far out that the hosts had not even constructed a wall, but his execution was breathtaking. Whip, power and placement gave Andre Onana no chance even though his view was unimpeded. NA

Gabadinho Mhango v Morocco Malawi had never reached the last 16 and were massive underdogs against a very good Morocco. Seven minutes in, though, Gabadinho Mhango drifted in from the right and, seeing the keeper Yassine Bounou off his line, whipped a shot over him. Bounou got a fingertip to it, which perhaps fractionally detracted from the aesthetic, but in terms of vision and execution, this was brilliant. JW

Personal highlight

A visit to the Minawao refugee camp, in Cameroon’s troubled far north, brought reflection on how football can help to empower and foster hope of a better future. The girls’ team in Minawao all fled across the border with Nigeria to seek safety from Boko Haram when they were extremely young. They have experienced horrors but the striking thing, in one of the earth’s bleaker corners, was their collective spirit and optimism. Human beings’ resilience never ceases to amaze, even though it should never have to be called upon like this. The team’s appetite to train, play and learn five days a week was infectious: it is a shame, though, that they still lack the kit – especially footwear – to do so comfortably. NA

Nigerian refugee girls train during a session in the Minawao refugee camp.
Nigerian refugee girls train during a session in the Minawao refugee camp. Photograph: Daniel Beloumou Olomo/AFP/Getty Images

Burkina Faso’s players watched the coup unfolding in their homeland on the television in their hotel before the quarter-final against Tunisia. Their coach Kamou Malo spoke of being “very emotional” and his intention to “dedicate this win to our people who are being tested by current events”. That the win really had made a difference was obvious by the scenes from Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso as the curfews that had been imposed by the military were broken by thousands pouring out on the streets in spontaneous celebration. A reminder, beyond all the nonsense, of the power football still retains. That, and meeting colleagues and friends from across the world you only see every two years which, after all the Covid restrictions, perhaps meant more this time (helped by Yaoundé’s many excellent restaurants). JW

Biggest disappointment

Fun though it was, the quality of this tournament felt like a drop-off from the previous two editions. There are some force majeure explanations for that, including Covid-19 disruptions that scuppered several sides’ best plans early and a lack of preparation time for key players. Many games moved along sluggishly although it would have helped if the pitches facilitated slick, fast-paced football. The surface in Douala was borderline dangerous, contributing to that Sierra Leone leveller against Ivory Coast, and was presumably the reason a quarter-final and a semi-final were moved from an expensive, almost brand-new venue. Things were not that much better in Yaounde, the Olembe pitch cutting up noticeably in the final week; Cameroon has had the time and money to sort this out and the fact it did not was a huge disservice to the continent’s best players. NA

CAF officials inspect the quality of the pitch before the Group E match between Ivory Coast and Algeria.
CAF officials inspect the quality of the pitch before the Group E match between Ivory Coast and Algeria. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Where do you start? The Cup of Nations has developed a reputation for two things – disorganisation and negative football – and both were features of Cameroon 2021. Press facilities, understandably, concern nobody but journalists, but they are significant for two reasons: they are emblematic of wider issues and, if the idea is for the tournament to project the African game to the world, they have to be better than this. In Douala and the Admadou Ahidjo in Yaoundé, this was as bad as anything since Angola 2010: no desks, no power, baffling and counterproductive bureaucracy. The negativity on the pitch is not so much about defensiveness as about spoiling – feigning injury, wasting time, breaking the rhythm, pressuring referees: Egypt were the kings, but they were not alone. JW

Team of the tournament

Mohamed Abou Gabal (Egypt); Achraf Hakimi (Morocco), Omar Colley (Gambia), Mohamed Abdelmonem (Egypt), Nouhou Tolo (Cameroon); Ibrahim Sangaré (Ivory Coast), Idrissa Gueye (Senegal), Blati Toure (Burkina Faso); Sadio Mané (Senegal), Vincent Aboubakar (Cameroon), Iban Edú (Equatorial Guinea). NA

Gabal; Hakimi, Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso), Colley, Saliou Ciss (Senegal); Sangaré, Gueye, Mohamed Elneny (Egypt); Sofiane Boufal (Morocco), Aboubakar, Mané. JW

Funniest moment

The climactic closing stages of the final did little to excite two journalists in the row in front of me, who appeared to be on a date. They had spent the evening watching music videos on YouTube through shared headphones – perhaps forgivable given the on-pitch fare – and, as the players prepared for penalties, could be seen transfixed by Enrique Iglesias’s “Hero”. Credit where it is due: the crooner was put on pause when the spot-kicks began and, judging by their reaction when Senegal won, such a long and attritional night had caused no lasting damage to their relationship. NA

Three times on the 5hr 30min journey from Yaoundé to Douala for the last-16 game between Egypt and Ivory Coast, we were flagged down by orange-clad road-safety patrols. Twice they found spurious reasons to fine us. For the journey back, though, our driver, Big Syl, had a secret weapon: a sailor’s hat that it looked like he’d picked up in a cheap fancy-dress shop. But it worked: every time we approached a patrol, Syl donned the hat and sped up; each time we were waved through. JW

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