I followed the debate on social media where a group of soccer enthusiasts were playing jury, denigrating the continent’s biggest football showpiece—the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon)—underway in Gabon as a flop.
I got interested. There was some sense in some of the arguments although there were some exaggerations. The signs that this Afcon tournament lacks inspiration are there.
It is not as gripping as previous tournaments when people in barber shops, drinking joints, work places, commuters in minibuses would talk about the tournament.
In those days, it would be about a new jersey with a novel design like in 2002 when Cameroon brought sleeveless jerseys (vests) making them look like basketball players.
If not that, the tournament would provide the platform for new talent to emerge. I remember Benedict Saul “Benni” McCarthy who emerged from the Burkina Faso 98 Afcon as top goal scorer and became a world sensation.
The likes of Julius Aghahowa, Pius Ndief, Mali’s Seydou Keita, Morocco’s most flamboyant player Zairi all blossomed at Afcon tournaments where they sparked debate with incredible displays.
If not the players, it would then be the fancy hair cuts from the likes of Rigobert Song, Taribo West. Sometimes, it would be an eye-catching celebration to a goal like the back somersaults of Obafemi Martins and Aghahowa, the Ndombolo dance from DR Congo. The dazzling dribbles of Jay Jay Okocha and Zairi.
This Afcon is devoid of all these small things that make for an exciting tournament. The football itself is not competitive enough. The coaches look clueless. I was surprised the other day why Ivory Coast coach pulled out Wilfred Zaha when the team was losing and needed inspiration to get a goal. Of all the players, Zaha was the only one who demonstrated a creative ability but he was sacrificed.
The players themselves don’t look inspired at this tournament. Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been blamed for displaying a wrong attitude leading to the host country’s early exit. The last time the host country failed to qualify from the group stages was in 1994 in Tunisia.
What’s more shocking is the exit of some of the tournament’s favourites like Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo, Algeria who have all exited without winning a single match. Even CAF’s team of the year Uganda did not look like the most improved team after crushing out without a single win.
This supports the feeling that players lack commitment. And the fact that the tournament is played when European leagues, where the cream of African talent ply their trade is in the thick of action, makes matters worse. This is why some players like Cameroon’s Joel Matip opted to chicken out by announcing early retirement to cement their positions at their respective clubs.
I agree with those that suggest there is need to shake up CAF. May be Issa Hayatou has overstayed. I hope whoever succeeds him will come with new ideas such as making the tournament a quadrennial event like the Euro or World Cup. Otherwise, the tournament has lost its salt.
So far, I can only hope that the tournament will come to life in the quarter-final stage. Two matches today Burkina Faso v Tunisia (6pm) and Senegal v Cameroon (9pm). Tomorrow DR Congo v Ghana followed by Egypt v Morocco. I hope Senegal and DR Congp will go through because they have been incredible. n