Post-Afcon blues

Who else sorely misses the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations? Re-live the excitement from the stands in a short video by the AIAC team.

Still from YouTube, credit Boima Tucker for Africa Is a Country.

Two months have passed since the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations finale. Since then, most of the footballing world’s attention has panned back over to action in top European leagues, and for good reason! The English Premier League is embroiled in a thrilling three-way battle involving Liverpool, led by departing manager Jurgen Klopp, Arsenal, vying for their first title in two decades, and Manchester City, aiming for a record fourth consecutive title. In France, Kylian Mbappé revealed that he would be leaving Paris Saint-Germain, most probably for a fresh start in Madrid. That means that this is his last chance to win the Champions League with his hometown club before joining the club he supported as a boy. Meanwhile, in Germany, all eyes are on Bayer Leverkusen’s bid to become the first club not named Bayern Munich to clinch the Bundesliga title in over ten years.

Despite the enticing narratives, I’m still suffering from a paralyzing Afcon hangover, and am finding it debilitatingly difficult to watch or write about club football at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I still have an appreciation for the level of skill that is on display in top European leagues, I still stand really close to the television when trying to break down a complicated tactical battle, and, most of all, I still enjoy watching up-and-coming youngsters such as Jamal Musiala or Jude Bellingham.

But it has been years since non-African matches have been appointment-viewing for me. Some of that is probably due to the inevitable jading that takes hold of journalists as they continue to cover a sport for years on end uninterrupted. I also think part of it is also the natural process of getting older and assuming more responsibilities in my personal life, leaving less time to watch football. So when I do have a couple of hours to flip on the television or go to the stadium, I want to ensure that I am enjoying it—and, at the moment, I just find African football more fun.

So what makes African football so enjoyable?

Without a shadow of a doubt, having an amount of relative parity is necessary. Take the historic nature of some of the upsets displayed since the Confederation of African Football expanded the format of the Cup of Nations from 16 participants to 24. Madagascar and Benin eliminated DR Congo and Morocco from the Round of 16 in 2019; Comoros, Malawi, and The Gambia advanced to the knockout stages in 2021; and, this year, Cape Verde, Mauritania, and Namibia all logged historic runs past the group stages.

The dominant discourse surrounding all of these exploits is that all of the lower-ranked sides in Africa have improved immensely.

And that is not incorrect!

FIFA Forward funds have made it possible for countries such as Mauritania, the Central African Republic, Namibia, and others to build critical infrastructure such as stadiums, national technical centers, pitches, and medical institutes. In many places on the continent, there is so much to be done at an elementary level, that constructing basic infrastructure is sometimes enough to close the competitive gap enough for teams to not put in catastrophic results against bigger sides. But, the significant improvements at the bottom of the totem pole don’t tell the whole story.

In the midst of the group stages, Rayon Sports coach Julien Mette, hit the nail on the head when he posted that, “The conclusion of this #CAN2023 is not ‘there are no more small teams’ but ‘there are no longer big teams’.”

While elsewhere in world football, top national teams such as France, Spain or Germany have been at the avant-garde of evolving tactical trends in the world game, coaches of top African sides continue to lag behind and do the bare minimum. Although that is not good news for African football in global competitions such as the World Cup, it is responsible for enthralling fixtures at the Afcon.

In addition to the surprising outcomes resulting from the tournament’s relative parity, captivating personal human interest stories captured the attention of many neutral observers of the Afcon. The two strikers leading their attacking lines during the final between Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire exemplify this. Sebastien Haller, the Ivorian target-man who scored the hosts’ winning goal in the Afcon final, battled testicular cancer less than two years ago. Meanwhile, Victor Osimhen, the reigning African player of the year, once sold bottled water on the streets of Lagos before pursuing a professional football career.

While these anecdotes may occasionally irk the players, as their lives are commodified for online attention, they undeniably humanize them. In a landscape where players have attained near-mythical status, the accessibility and relatability of the players and teams significantly enhance the appeal of the African Cup of Nations. Visiting the CAF hotel, one often encounters federation presidents, former legendary players, or super fans casually conversing over a cup of coffee and pastries.

Similarly, each team hotel offers surprising accessibility. Visitors can pop in, enjoy a coffee in the lobby and witness stars like Mohamed Salah and his teammates engaging in light-hearted banter. The fact that the tournament doesn’t take itself too seriously is undeniably part of what makes it so enjoyable. Even off of the pitch, supporters make fun of one another more than any other football competition I’ve seen.

I recall traveling to Yamoussoukro, ahead of the quarterfinal between Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire, when I visited 12éme Gaïndé, Senegal’s biggest supporter’s group. After they heated their drums, polished off their masks, and applied their face paint, 12eme Gained sat down for a collective meal. Naturally, poulet yassa was on the menu and we were invited to indulge. As we sat around a round table, one fan blurted out: “Today, it is poulet yassa versus attiéké poulet.”

It was such a ridiculous thing to say ahead of such an important match, yet it accurately captured the essence of the teasing African football fans directed at one another. It was pointed, light-hearted, and hilarious.

I often think of those memories of Abidjan to transport me out of the doldrums of the club football calendar, as we wait for the 2025 African Cup of Nations in Morocco. I don’t know what that tournament has in store for us, but what I do know is that I can count on it being fun.

Further Reading