Every two years, 16 of Africa’s best nations meet to slug it out in her version of the World Cup. It is a tournament that creates goose pimples for the purists in Africa as the holy grail of the FIFA World Cup seems far away with every passing mundial.
The influx of Africans in diaspora coming back to their roots may seem to indicate otherwise, with players who had football education abroad coming back to help change the landscape.
African football is known for its emphasis on brute strength; a player’s ability to bully the other off the ball with next to zero technique while the skilful player is an oddity rather than the norm.
The coaches are perceived to lack the intelligence to change games with their technical knowhow and there is no respect for the man in the dugout as regards tactics with many viewing the continent as one which lives in the noughties.
You may not blame those who belong to that school of thought, because if the current Total African Cup of Nations in Gabon is anything to go by, then, one will be in a state of flux and be indecisive, because while African football’s true colour has been revealed, there have been several times one would question the quality of the game on the continent.
There are only a few players who ply their trade in Africa currently playing at the event which further begs why oftentimes than not, we have been fed low quality games.
A case in point: the hosts, who disappointed and flattered to deceive. Pierre Emerick Aubameyang had earlier risen to the occasion twice already and one wondered what became of them when he didn’t do so again. He was the team’s star man, but he couldn’t do it all on his own.
Players like Bruno Ecuelle Manga, Andre Biyogho Poko, Mario Lemina, Didier Ndong, Malick Evouna and Daniel Bouanga failed to step up (er, maybe Bouanga stepped up to be counted in that game against Cameroon).
The reality lies in the fact that despite this being one of the most talented Gabonese squads in a long time, the lack of quality is glaring, one magnified by a lack of cohesion and understanding.
Jose Antonio Camacho only arrived in December and he was expected to lead them to glory. BLOODY HELL! How possible? The team’s lack of preparation was evident in the opening game when Juary Soares popped up with a late equalizer after a mix up at the back, a scenario that repeated itself with an own goal on Match day 2 and was then crowned by Aubameyang’s failure to convert with the goal gaping against Cameroon. Nothing illustrates African football’s problems better when you lose two points instead of gaining three.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN: Gabon failed to meet expectations
Their carelessness was pounced on by Burkina Faso and Cameroon, who have learned from their past experiences. Les Etalons in particular surprised, with their abject performance in Equatorial Guinea now nothing more than history. The spirited performance against Cameroon was followed by another strong effort against the hosts.
In doing so, they overcame the hurdles many had expected them to fall at part in no thanks to the form of Alain Traore who has been a joy to watch alongside Prejuce Nakoulma who led the charge in the victory against Guinea Bissau.
Four-time champs Cameroon, summarized the 21st century for their football in one game; going behind to what is probably Gabon 2017’s goal of the tournament via Piqueti Santos of the Guinea Bissau, and then a fifteen-minute salvo capped off by Ngadeu’s winning goal that showed the spirit of the Lions that terrorized defences at the turn of the century, rather than the meek and toothless ones that have failed to step up in recent times.
SADIO MANE: The Lion King of the Teranga
One record that will take some beating is that of Senegal’s who went unbeaten without dropping a single point during the qualification process. And they carried that form to Gabon as they look invisible at the moment.
They are Africa’s form team and are the team who gives the continent hope should they make it to Russia. They are currently enjoying the rewards of bravery, having handed the reins to a 40-year old inexperienced former player who belongs to a new breed of young and educated African coaches.
The story Is entirely different for Algeria who are suffering from the sins of the fathers, having fired Christian Gourcuff and have now failed to reach the heights he took them to.
They look all over the place as things stand and should have probably finished the tournament pointless had Zimbabwean naivety not taken over. They play in stark contrast to their North African rivals, Tunisia who are built on team spirit and a relative ability to defend and counter attack at breath taking speed.
Add to that the immense talent and skills of Wahbi Khazri and Youssef Msakni(who is set for a move to Europe, after many years in the Arabian Gulf) and you have yourself a machine that could win in Gabon. They have bounced back from their opening defeat well and look like proper semi-final candidates if all things remain equal, an attitude quite visible in their wins over Algeria and Zimbabwe.
It is one thing for a champion not to qualify to defend their title, it is another if the one that qualifies cannot even show its mettle as champions.
Ivory Coast define the latter category and are no Elephants at all. They play like elephants whose trunks have been cut off and can’t trumpet anymore. They couldn’t break down a resilient Togolese side, they looked abject and will fly home along with the alleged whipping boys with the Sparrow Hawks almost certain to have won had Matthew Dossevi not been careless in front of goal.
ADE-FLY-HOME: Not as whipping boys but Togo are still going home.
The Leopards of DR Congo are the ones who look like champions, playing with a swagger second to none and creating all sorts of problems for their opponents, they were the ones could have won against Ivory Coast and are destined for greatness.
The emergence of Junior Kabanaga couldn’t be more timely, with Mbokani and Bakambu struggling for form and confidence and with a Quarter final tie in sight, they must draw inspiration from two years ago to win a first title in over three decades.
Following them closely are Morocco, whom the Ivorians could have learnt a lesson or two on how to beat Togo from. The Atlas lions have been the best side in the group and while mother luck looked away on Day 1, She smiled on Day 2.
Herve Renard’s conquest to win a third AFCON is well and truly on, and for a man who knows his onions, it was ironic it was he who ended the reign of the team whom he led to the trophy two years previously.
BLACK STARS: The time must be now
Beaten finalists in 2015, Ghana once again have seized control of their destiny and will now look to close out a group they were favourites to win. Avram Grant’s tournament tactics has come for criticism in the Ghanaian media, but it is what has kept them going.
For a team, yet to hit top gear, The Black Stars have done just enough buy edging one-nil victories, they will need four more similar results to end thirty-five years of heartbreak. If anyone deserves an AFCON title, its Gyan Asamoah.
Their rivals, the Pharaohs seem to have somewhat taken measured steps on their return to the scene. Their seven triumphs are nothing but numbers and now, to make it eight, they must adapt to the changing face of the African game.
One man who has evolved is Essam el Hadary who has broken the record for oldest player. He was his old self in their opening two games and they will need him to be that man if he himself is to win a record fifth AFCON title.
Author: Rotimi “Papi the Great” Daramola
Rotimi Daramola aka Papi the Great is the owner of ForTheGoal.
A freelance sports writer who focuses on football, Rotimi is also a freelance writer, a copywriter and a football analyst who regularly appears on radio and television to talk football. You can follow him on twitter @papi_thegreat to keep up with his writings, engage him and also find out about how you can secure his writing services.