And breathe! That was a quite sensational Africa Cup of Nations tournament we’ve just witnessed, albeit one tinged with tragedy, and surely one that will go a long way towards cementing respect for the continent and its premier competition. There were so many glorious highs, manic lows, and all manner of insanity in between, that we almost don’t know where to begin; nevertheless, we have rounded up just some of our highlights from the epic AFCON 2021.
The backdrop to this tournament was shrouded in Covid uncertainty. Burkina Faso were to kick off the competition against the hosts Cameroon, but saw five players ruled out after they tested positive. And then the drama began – before a ball had even been kicked: allegations were made by the Burkinabe camp that Cameroonian health authorities had purposefully targeted their side to give the hosts an unfair advantage.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) also announced that any country that had the bare minimum of 11 players who had not tested positive for Covid must fulfill a fixture – even if all three named goalkeepers were then unavailable. This rule, inevitably, would come into play with one of AFCON’s fairytale stories.
Gabon, meanwhile, had only themselves to blame for a torrid preparation. Bonuses promised to the players failed to materialise before the squad boarded the plane from their training camp in Dubai to Cameroon, and the players threatened a boycott. It also turned out that a portion of their squad had attended a party before flying, including then-Arsenal striker and national talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and ex-Juventus midfielder Mario Lemina, and ended up testing positive. Aubameyang ended up playing not a single minute after later being diagnosed with heart lesions – and yet somehow the patched-up inharmonious squad made it through a group containing Morocco and Ghana unbeaten.
Lemina and Aubameyang left the tournament to receive medical treatment, but not before both voiced serious issues with the governance of their national team. Lemina announced his international retirement after accusing officials of “lies” about his conduct – L’Equipe later reported, however, that he and Aubameyang had in fact been sent home from AFCON for disciplinary reasons, after apparently partying in a Yaounde club before the Ghana match…
Sky Sports horror show
Back in the UK, broadcast rights were bought by Sky Sports to show the entire tournament, much to fans’ excitement. As Alasdair Howorth from On The Whistle podcast told us in our exclusive interview, usually Eurosport would pick up the rights and show only some of the games using no original production and poor CAF feeds. Sky, however, repeated the lazy habit, and shoved coverage onto distant channels with no analysis and only one commentator. Such was the outrage that they hurriedly brought in co-commentators in a bid to up their game, so at least fan voices were heard.
Big stars struggle early on
To get a full insight into AFCON, we spoke to renowned Israeli journalist Uri Levy to give us his lowdown on the tournament, and one area he highlighted was the struggles big-name stars traditionally have at shining. Sure enough, Mohamed Salah was a shadow of his usual self in the group stages as Egypt limped through, Sadio Mane was subdued, and Riyad Mahrez was dumped unceremoniously out with his Algeria superstar teammates. Just as Uri said, however, the tournament lit up later on as Mane and Salah faced off in the final.
Comoros had no football federation until 1979, only joined CAF in 2003 and FIFA two years later, and didn’t even win a single competitive game until 2016. And yet somehow they made it through to the last 16 of their continents’ competition. Ten of their all-time most capped players were in the AFCON 2021 squad, and despite losing the opening two games then magically bested one of Africa’s biggest scalps in Ghana to make it through to face Cameroon in the knockouts.
Shorn of all three keepers through injury and Covid, they were forced to play 5’8” left-back Chaker Alhadhur in goal – complete with duct-taped squad number on his shirt, which he has since auctioned off for charity with bids pushing over $100k – and his heroics almost frustrated the free-scoring hosts.
Gambia, meanwhile, had started the entire qualification process well over two years earlier at the very first preliminary round, where they relied on a 90th-minute first-leg equalizer and then penalties in the second leg to edge past Djibouti. No problem; they powered through the groups unbeaten, beat Guinea in the last 16, before eventually going home. Even Equatorial Guinea had only qualified for previous editions by virtue of hosting, and also made the quarter-finals.
Who would be the breakout stars? Some predicted Hannibal Mejbri to shine for Tunisia after his stellar Arab Cup performances last year, but the real explosions came from keepers. Mohamed Kamara stole the show with his eccentric brand of guardianship for Sierra Leone, while Alhadhur’s enforced limelight proved his worth. Egypt’s Mohamed Abou Gabal – “Gabaski” – didn’t even appear until the knockouts, but then saved the first of five penalties (four in shootouts). And of course, Comoros’ makeshift keeper deserves special praise in faintly ridiculous circumstances…
Carlos Quieroz fury
If anyone doubted passions could run high at AFCON, just watch Carlos Quieroz. After the Pharaohs lost to Nigeria in the group stages – a game that sparked fury for British audiences for the pitiful (lack of) Sky Sports coverage or attention, despite the obvious interest in UK-based stars with 12 players boasting experience in the UK – he called out fans for a scrap. Anger at officials in the semi-final also earned him a touchline ban for the final itself, and the furious bellowing continued from the stands. Never change Carlos…
Janny Sikazwe refereeing chaos
Tunisia 0-1 Mali: it’s not a thriller on paper, nor was the match in reality. At least not until Janny Sikazwe made a right mess of the end. The second half in Limbe had a cooling drinks break, nine substitutions, four VAR stoppages, two penalties, and one sending off – and three full-time whistles. The first came on 85 minutes, much to the utter disbelief of Tunisia’s coaches, but once convinced to continue Sikazwe proceeded to send off Mali striker El Bilal Toure. By the time he blew again for full time before 90 minutes had elapsed, something was clearly not right:
“I was lucky I didn’t go into a coma. It would have been a very different story. The doctors told me my body was not cooling down. It would have been just a little time before [I would have gone] into a coma, and that would have been the end. I think God told me to end the match. He saved me.”Janny Sikazwe explained the seriousness of his condition during Tunisia vs Mali chaos
He had suffered severe dehydration and was later rushed to hospital, not before chaos ensued as he attempted to finish the game despite Tunisia refusing to come back out. Not African refereeing’s finest hour; nor was it for the predictably sinister accusations of corruption and incompetence.
Pape Gueye FIFA ban minutes before kickoff.. For two-year-old transfer saga
FIFA’s attitude towards African football has been a long, murky one – way back in the 1970s crucial votes for the presidency were garnered by Joao Havelange and his endless travelling across the continent to secure political alliances. Now, some would say little has changed; minutes before Senegal’s draw with Guinea, Pape Gueye was suspended by the world governing body because of issues apparently arising from Watford’s sale of the player to Marseille just 17 hours after signing him… from almost two years earlier. THAT was the moment FIFA decided to suspend the player. Could you imagine that happening at the Euros?
Badra Ali Sangare’s nightmare 24 hours
Cote d’Ivoire were heavily backed to make serious headway in the tournament, but that was all undone by a horrendous goalkeeping error from Badra Ali Sangare. Mohamed Kamara had starred and frustrated in equal measure, but his Ivorian counterpart let a harmless ball somehow squirm through his legs and towards an open goal for Alhaji Kamara five minutes into added time to tap home an equaliser. Serge Aurier had to don the gloves for the closing seconds as Sangare injured himself badly. That evening, the stricken keeper found out his father had passed away.
First-ever all-female officiating team take charge of AFCON match
Progress should be celebrated, and seeing the first AFCON officiating team to be entirely made up of female officials is most definitely progress. Rwandan Salima Mukansanga, Cameroonian Carine Atemzabong, and Moroccans Fatiha Jermouni and Bouchra Karboubi were appointed to run Guinea vs Zimbabwe. No matter that the game was a dead rubber, with Zimbabwe already out and Guinea assured of progressing; this was a major step forward.
Comoros never Ghana forget AFCON
The islanders were dead and buried, surely. Two brave but goalless defeats had left them on the brink of elimination, and they faced a titan of African football in Ghana in the final group-stage match. This is the magical, crazy world of AFCON though; Comoros raced into a two-goal lead either side of an Andre Ayew sending off, only to be pulled back by two goals in the last half-hour. Until arguably the most epic goal scored in their history, as Ahmed Mogni bagged his second five minutes from time to knock out the four-time champions.
They bravely played almost the entire knockout game against Cameroon with 10 men after captain Jimmy Abdou was sent off early on, but when they halved the deficit with nine minutes left, the impossible dream flickered. Ultimately, it wasn’t to be, but their campaign will live on.
No Partey for Thomas
Hours after that humiliating exit, Thomas Partey flew straight back to London to take part in Arsenal’s Carabao Cup semi-final. Perhaps the thinking was a complete distraction from national failure was needed; an understandably dejected and jet-lagged Partey slumped off the bench for the last quarter of an hour as his club trailed 1-0 on aggregate, however, and managed to find time to be sent off as Liverpool scored again.
Tragedy strikes as eight killed in stampede
Without question the entire tournament was overshadowed by the tragic events in Olembe before the hosts’ pulsating 2-1 win over minnows Comoros. The $300mn stadium had security gates constructed, but most fans were funelled towards just one gate on the most popular side – ticketing was not numbered, so fans could choose which entrance – and with just 20 security staff hopelessly trying to herd the mass away, many were trampled to death.
The stadium revamped security procedures to stage the Egypt vs Cameroon semi-final and the Final itself, but nothing will bring back the lives lost.
Infantino wades in with FIFA-esque diplomacy
FIFA President Gianni Infantino couldn’t resist being seen glad-handing the great and good of African football – at the glamorous end of the tournament, of course – as he even sat in on the CAF Executive Committee meeting ahead of the final. Not before he made horrifically misjudged comments while pushing his awful biennial World Cup plans before the Council of Europe:
“We need to give hope to Africans so they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find, maybe, a better life but more probably death in the sea. We need to give opportunities and we need to give dignity, not by giving charity but by allowing the rest of the world to participate.”FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s words to justify staging the World Cup every two years in a speech to the Council of Europe
Of course the PR machine behind football’s top man went into overdrive to somehow convince a handful of African officials to actually praise Infantino for his “misinterpreted” speech. An African Super League – with a reported $20mn entry fee per club – was also mooted at the ExCo meeting following the Italian’s involvement. All with African football’s best interests at heart of course…
CAF “mic drop” at Tunisia vs Burkina Faso press conference
At the Tunisia vs Burkina Faso pre-match press conference, you have been forgiven for expecting the usual platitudes about knockout football, but those present were treated to something far more entertaining. Before the managers had a chance to speak, a man reportedly clambered up onto the podium, snatched the microphones and cables, and ran off with them. It turned out he had rented out his equipment to CAF at about $60 per conference, but the continental body had failed to pay him on time.
This is the same CAF, in case you’re wondering, who found it necessary to fine Comoros $2,000 for starting a match two minutes late, and an incredible $5,000 for “disrespecting shirt numbers” when left-back Chaker Alhadhur taped his number three onto his makeshift keeper shirt.
Burkina Faso play on as country crumbles in military coup
Sadly, there have been many worrying military coups that have overthrown African governments in recent years; Mali suffered two in the last two years, Guinea was overthrown in September, and Guinea Bissau was threatened by one in January. During the tournament itself, one actually took place in Burkina Faso as President Roch Kaboré was deposed, leaving players suddenly deeply concerned.
A ban on mobile phones was lifted on the suggestion of captain Bertrand Traoré so that they could contact loved ones, and the players themselves performed admirably as they fell to eventual champions Senegal in the semi-final. One hopes the situation stabilises for Burkina Faso as a whole; while players are often derided for a detachment from reality, they are also human beings, and their character on the pitch spoke volumes.