And so, after a shock tournament, the final of the African Cup of Nations will be a meeting of the 2015 and 2013 winners, Ivory Coast against Nigeria. But if the competitors feel familiar, the competition is not. Tournaments often follow their own logic but, developing certain themes from the last edition in Cameroon, this Nations Cup felt like a significant step forward.
For the Ivory Coast, the mood has changed significantly in the last two weeks. After the fury of the group stage, which led to burning cars after the 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea seemed to end them, Ivory Coast unleashed a wave of disbelieving euphoria. They managed to get past Senegal, although they were 1-0 down after 86 minutes; Mali, again behind 1-0 and down to 10 men after 90 minutes; and then, more comfortably, DR Congo, 1-0 in the semi-final. With Sébastien Haller and Simon Adingra returning to fitness, the sense of miracles has faded and the hosts now look like the very good team they were expected to be before the start of the tournament.
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Nigeria has followed a similar journey. If there is something a little unsatisfying about two sides who played each other in the group stage (Nigeria won 1-0) meeting again in the final, there is something unsatisfying, an implication of randomness, in where the sides finished that in second and third place in the group. west of Equatorial Guinea. What is telling, however, is how the contestants have grown in the finals.
A shocking consolidation led to widespread criticism in Nigeria of coach José Peseiro, whose long appointment and continued employment despite delays in payment and a reduction in his salary remains a matter of mystery. But he has created a solid, effective team that has conceded just two goals in six games so far. He was at pains to insist that all the disappointed friends were part of the process. In terms of the pragmatism of their approach, it is not unlike 2013 when Stephen Keshi ignored a barrage of style criticism to lead Nigeria to their last National Cup; there too, they faced their side in the stage group, Burkina Faso, in the final.
But the Nations Cup is never just about what happens on the pitch. Every international football tournament is, on some level, about soft power. Even the first World Cup in 1930 was partly about Uruguay celebrating the centenary of their independence and their president at the time, Juan Campisteguy, placing the bat list a legacy that created an economy and culture capable of staging (and winning) a global event.
About half of Ivory Coast’s population of 25 million lives on less than $1.20 a day. In that context it may never be justified splurging $1bn (or maybe more, depending if you believe the official figure) for a month football tournament. It is not possible to know exactly how much has been spent on stadiums and wider infrastructure such as the road to San Pedro or the bridges over Marlach Ebrie in Abidjan. But as hundreds of thousands of Ivorians took to the streets to celebrate, in Yamoussoukro, Bouaké and Abidjan, across the country that until recently was wracked by conflict, the Ivorian president might think, Alassane Ouattara, that he received. his money’s worth.
Since Didier Drogba presented him with the African footballer of the year trophy in the rebel capital of Bouaké in 2007, and convinced the national team to play an African Cup of Nations qualifier there, football has been intrinsically linked to reconciliation after the two Ivory Coast civil wars.
As is often the case in countries divided on social, ethnic and religious grounds, the national team offers the clearest symbol of unity.
So Nigeria win a fourth Cup of Nations to join Ghana as the third most successful side in the competition’s history, or Ivory Coast win a third to move level with Nigeria. It’s a proper heavyweight final and yet the story of the tournament is – once again – the pyramid growing wider but not necessarily taller; in reality it is probably now less of a pyramid than a cuboid with a slightly thickened centre.
This is not an Ivory Coast side to match the golden generation – Drogba, the Tourés, Salomon Kalou et al – who lost out so often before their rump won the tournament in 2015. And this Nigerian is nowhere near the Kanu, Jay either. -Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh in the late 90s and early 2000s. That teams as talented as Senegal, Morocco and Algeria are being kicked out before the quarter-finals, that the last eight were completely different from the last eight in Cameroon, that in different ways sides like Cape Verde, Angola, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea. can make such an impression, there is a clear positive.
It is encouraging that two former giants could reach the semi-finals, even if there are significant and very different reasons to doubt how sustainable their success could be – dominance the finances of Mamelodi Sundowns, the team owned by CAF president Patrice Motsepe in the case of South Africa, and the ongoing domestic conflict in the case of Congo PD.
The quality of the football is inevitably subjective, but this was probably the highest level at the Cup of Nations this century, even if the goals have dried up since the end of the group stage.
The pitches played their part, much better than in Cameroon, allowing modern football to run, although the surface at Ebimpé, where the final will be played, is one of the poorest in the competition. But, certainly in the group, there was a clear sense that coaches wanted a more progressive, less conservative form of football than is often seen in the Cup of Nations, which in itself may have been due to the decline in the tour of France, an essential step in the post-colonial journey of African football.
Even with two of the known powers in the final, Ivory Coast had a distinct sense of progress, in terms of coaching attitude, infrastructure and the breadth of teams capable of competing.