Winners and Losers from AFCON 19
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations came to an end on Friday the 19th of July with Algeria defeating Senegal 1-0 to claim their first title since 1990 where they won it on home soil. As in any other tournament, there were different teams that were backed to win the tournament. Others were earmarked as potential surprise packages while others were unknown. All teams falling in these different categories slowly revealed themselves as the tourney progressed. The AFCON competition was characterized by all sorts of memorable events. From Nigeria's epic 3-2 win over 2017 winners Cameroon; to South Africa's shock win over disappointing hosts Egypt; and not forgetting Madagascar's epic penalty defeat of DR Congo; a tense quarter final face-off between Ivory Coast and Algeria; the magical last-gasp free kick from Riyad Mahrez that sent the latter into the final. The list of exciting moments in this year’s tournament is indeed, endless. Below we reflect on the winners and standout performers of the tournament, as well as those who fell short of expectations.
Lifting the tournament trophy for only the second time, little or no one can feel that these guys were not worthy champions. They played their hearts out for the duration of the tourney. Yes, fortune did favor them along the way (Baghdad Bounedjah's early deflected goal is an example) but in all honesty, Algeria played very well. The frenzy celebrations at the end of the final whistle said it all. Having waited for such a moment for nearly three decades when the team last lifted the trophy, Algeria’s triumph was well worth the wait for the North African giants. They scored 13 goals in the tournament, five more than fellow finalists, Senegal. Their journey to the final was also nothing short of being memorable. Djamel Belmadi's side needed a sensational last-gasp Riyad Mahrez winner to beat Nigeria in the last four, having previously won a tense penalty shootout against Ivory Coast. Until their dramatic shootout win over Ivory Coast, Algeria's run through AFCON had been as sleek as they come. They did not concede a goal until Jonathan Kodjia's equalizer for Ivory Coast, and looked like the tournament's most complete team in all departments. It is hard to argue that they did not deserve to win the tournament. Their hard work paid off.
This pick is probably debatable, but I stand my ground. After almost forcing their way into the finals until they were stopped in their tracks by Riyad Mahrez’s sublime last minute free kick, one can argue that the Nigerians had a satisfactory tournament. They bounced back from their earlier shocking 2-0 defeat to surprise package Madagascar, and slowly exerted themselves as the tournament progressed, beating Cameroon in the round of 16. They further went on to beat South Africa’s Bafana Bafana to seal a place in the semi-finals. Taking into account the many problems faced by the team leading up to the tournament, including the goalkeeping headache faced by coach Gernot Rohr, the fact that the West African side made it to the semifinals cannot be wholly overlooked and as such, they deserve some credit as they walked away with the bronze after dispatching Tunisia to earn a record eighth third-place medal.
Talk about a breath of fresh air! It is often said that every tournament needs a good underdog story: they surely don't come much better than Madagascar. Making their maiden appearance at the tournament, the team shocked many as they went as far as the quarter-finals stage. The manner of their progress was remarkable too: they suffered stage fright in the first half of their opener with Guinea, but from then on, it was as if a switch had flicked on. They drew their first game against Guinea, beat Burundi in their second, before they stunned Nigeria, convincingly beating them, 2-0. They did not stop there. They went on to the round of 16 where they further outgunned DR Congo before being put to the sword by a well alert Tunisian side in the last eight. Nevertheless, what is memorable about the journey of this Madagascar side is the manner in which they achieved this feat. They played an appetizing brand of attacking football that was pleasing to the eyes of many football fanatics, showing no fear, not even against the tried and tested so called big teams. They seemed to have a different tactical plan for each game and one must commend their charismatic coach Nicolas Dupuis for leading the team that far, especially considering the chaotic state the infrastructure of Madagascar football is in back on the island. It is without a doubt that Madagascar have been the romantic story of this tournament and one cannot help but wonder the growth they will have had in the next AFCON tournament.
Another debatable pick in this category, understandably so. Senegal are a perfect epitome of the adage “so near yet so far”. This Senegalese side rarely looked troubled throughout the whole tournament. Finishing off with a silver medal after a steady steely run to the final, they went home to a sizable crowd that praised their efforts despite the heartbreak of losing a second final. Boasting of a number of African stars, Senegal were one of the top two teams that were in the running to win the AFCON title but they choked when it mattered most. The team had an impressive run leading to the final, only losing ironically to their final opponents Algeria. Though some will feel the team was somewhat unfortunate to be without their reliable defender in Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly in the epic finale due to suspension. As such, the long wait to deliver a title that has for so long remained elusive, remains the primary objective for the Teranga Lions moving forward. Though they may endure this pain for a while, they can pride themselves in having a bright future, especially with a young coach like Cisse at the helm. It is only a matter of time now for the Senegalese, or is it?
Egypt and Salah
The ultimate flop of the tournament. As winners of three of four previous editions in Egypt, the hosts were expected to be chief contenders for a record-extending eighth title. Little did we know. Playing in their own backyard, the Egyptians were a disappointment to say the least. Worse, not even the presence of UEFA Champions League winner Mo Salah was enough to propel the Pharaohs to glory on home soil. Fresh from a memorable season with Liverpool, you could be forgiven for believing that Salah would be the central figure of this tournament. Though he did score twice in the group stages against DR Congo and Uganda respectively, Salah could not deliver when his country needed him the most during the painful 1-0 loss to South Africa in the last 16 which shocked the 75 000 scores of fans at the Cairo International Stadium. The seven-time champions’ exit cost coach Javier Aguirre his job as he was soon sacked by the Egyptian Football Association, becoming the first of many casualties, which also included the resignation of Egyptian FA president Hani Abou Rida.
There was no doubt in many people’s minds that when the Atlas Lions took a flight to Egypt, they would be counted among the pre-tournament favorites for AFCON 2019, but however suffered a shock penalty shootout defeat at the hands of Benin in the last 16. For a moment, one thought these guys would go all the way, and rightly so. They had won all three of their group stage matches with ease, conceding no goals. That was before they were put to the sword by a determined Benin outfit during a 4-1 decisive penalty shootout. The Moroccans began the group phase with a trio of 1-0 wins over Namibia, South Africa and the Ivory Coast but nobody would imagine what would befall them in the last 16 match. Boasting the presence of Ajax Amsterdam’s Hakim Ziyech who had set tongues wagging during the 2018/19 Champions League season, most Moroccan fans were hoping he would drive the team to glory. But Benin had other ideas. The 26-year-old did not sparkle at all in Egypt, which was worsened by a penalty miss in injury time against Benin. It came as no surprise that their coach, the renowned Herve Renard, too, was in good old fashion, sacked.
Being the defending champions, much was expected from the Cameroonian side, but they couldn’t deliver. There was just no real hint of class in the Indomitable Lions’ play. Not even the presence of celebrated football legends Clarence Seedorf and his assistant Patrick Kluivert could help their cause. Clarence Seedorf’s men failed dismally to live up to expectations and defend their trophy. They were painfully ousted by third place finishers, Nigeria in what was a five goal thriller, possibly the game of the tournament. As has become the norm in football, the big flop costed Seedorf his job.
Other teams such as Ghana cannot be spared. The West African side appeared to lack energy and focus during the whole tournament and deserve to be mentioned among the other sides that flopped.
Mahrez's sensational flourish aside, the tournament's bigger names were rather peripheral. Mohamed Salah did score two fine goals early on for Egypt, and Sadio Mane was on target three times for Senegal, also missing two penalties. But none of them really produced a performance for the ages, or one to define the tournament. The real heroes were players like Ismael Bennacer, Baghdad Bounedjah and Youcef Belaili, a trio that proved that the AFCON tournament still has the potential to unleash a breadth of new stars.
Overall, it was a fine tournament for bright, up-and-coming coaches and none more so than the victorious Djamel Belmadi. Algeria's tactical mastermind conducted himself with class throughout the tourney, building a team that could sweep opponents aside through sheer technical quality in one moment, while deriving a game shutting display the next. The same can be said for Aliou Cisse, his old friend and Senegalese counterpart, who guided his side with class to the narrow final defeat. On that note, it appears that perhaps we may begin to see more local coaches taking charge of their national teams, a realization that developing local coaches can be advantageous in the long run.