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AFCON 2023: The moments that made an unforgettable tournament

The celebrations are almost certain to go on for some time yet as Ivory Coast savour winning the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil.

On Sunday night, the battle to be crowned kings of the continent came to a fairytale end for Emerse Fae’s team, who beat Nigeria 2-1 in Abidjan and won it all, despite having come third in their group and having relied on late goals to save themselves multiple times throughout the tournament.

The Athletic’s Jay Harris and Simon Hughes covered AFCON 2023 in west Africa over the last month and here, they reflect on their favourite memories from the tournament.

What memory will stick with you most from your time in Ivory Coast?

Jay Harris: Chanting “Bing Bing So” with Guinea supporters after they won a knockout match at AFCON for the first time in their history.

Watching Ivory Coast beat their neighbours Mali with a dramatic late goal and dancing in the streets afterwards.

Nigerian journalists mercilessly mocking their Ghanaian counterparts for their early elimination.

Listening to a DJ set by former Liverpool and France forward Djibril Cisse.

Sadio Mane’s miss when Senegal faced Ivory Coast, which proved to be a huge turning point in the tournament.

This list could go on forever.

(Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Simon Hughes: A few days before the tournament started, I travelled by taxi to Ebimpe to have a look at the stadium that would host the opening game.

At the gates, the driver was told that we were not allowed to get any closer because the venue was in lockdown. While trying to find a place to park up, the driver could not get his car to start and this resulted in him rolling backwards, crashing through the stadium’s half-opened gates, damaging the door of his SEAT while removing the wing mirror.

Fortunately, the otherwise sinister-looking army police chief took pity on us and this ended up with three heavily armed men trying to push the vehicle out of the car park while the driver attempted to get the engine running, for some inexplicable reason, by doing doughnuts.

What surprised you most?

Harris: Another journalist I met at this tournament keeps repeating the phrase “AFCON be AFCONing”. It essentially means unexplainable things happen and you just have to embrace the chaos.

Tanzania’s head coach Adel Amrouche was banned after their opening game for comments he made about Morocco and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and never seen again. Ivory Coast attempted to loan Herve Renard, who is in charge of France’s women’s side, for the knockout stages. Victor Osimhen thought he had put Nigeria 2-0 up in the semi-final, only for South Africa to be awarded a penalty by the VAR and equalise.

None of it makes sense but it is all great fun.

Hughes: The incompetence of the organisers around logistics. Thanks to CAF, I arrived at the opening game in a taxi, only to be dropped off several miles away from the stadium because the authorities would not allow us to go any further.

One of the CAF buses would have taken us straight into the aforementioned car park but when they did not turn up, me and a few journalists I’d only just met decided to take matters into our own hands.

I wrote in a subsequent article that I would like to thank CAF for its role in this. Without it letting lots of people down, I would not have been able to walk through the nearest settlement to the stadium, where the energy was something I’ll never experience again. Take me back. I want it.

Guinea supporters at their last-16 clash with Equatorial Guinea (Jay Harris/The Athletic)

What was the best game you saw?

Harris: Ivory Coast looked shell-shocked when Habib Diallo scored for Senegal in the fourth minute of their last-16 clash.

The hosts had been given a shot at redemption after progressing to the knockout rounds as one of the best third-placed sides, and were throwing it away. It was Emerse Fae’s first game as a head coach at senior level and he must have been terrified as Senegal’s fans banged their drums like they were rallying troops for war.

Then Franck Kessie equalised and Ivory Coast went on to win via a penalty shootout. Somehow, they eliminated the AFCON 2021 champions.

Hughes: Egypt 2-2 Cape Verde. Initially, Egypt were going out. Then, in stoppage time, they were suddenly going through again after a long VAR challenge. Yet an even later equaliser from Cape Verde, a team that were already through, had seemed to send Egypt out.

None of their players knew about two late Mozambique goals in Ebimpe that instead eliminated Ghana. I was an impartial observer of all of this. Never before have I stood in a press box dumbfounded by what I was witnessing. But I did that night.

Prayers are observed near a fan zone in Marcory, Abidjan (Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

Why was this such a good tournament?

Harris: It was impossible to keep up with all the drama. Equatorial Guinea humiliated Ivory Coast 4-0, leaving players and supporters in tears. Algeria and Tunisia finished bottom of their groups while Namibia and Mauritania qualified for the knockout stage. Teboho Mokoena scored a sensational free kick to seal South Africa’s 2-0 victory over the pre-tournament favourites Morocco.

There were also loads of late goals, including Oumar Diakite’s backheel flick when Ivory Coast beat Mali 2-1 in the quarter-finals. Did I mention Diakite was sent off in the aftermath?

Hughes: In terms of the football, because so many teams believed they had a chance of winning it, this created an enthusiasm you don’t really get in other tournaments. The only despondency I could detect was among the Ghana players, staff and fans. Maybe Gambia too — but in fairness, their players could have died after a loss of cabin pressure on the flight to Ivory Coast.

(Sinon Hughes/The Athletic)

Player of the tournament

Harris: Jean Michael Seri did not play a single minute for Ivory Coast during the group stages. When Fae replaced Jean-Louis Gasset as head coach, he placed his trust in Seri at the base of midfield. The 32-year-old played a pivotal role in helping Ivory Coast control possession and exuded a calm authority that spread throughout the team.

Seri played with such grace, poise and intelligence on Ivory Coast’s way to the trophy, it made you wonder why he is playing in England’s second tier with Hull City.

Nigeria’s captain William Troost-Ekong deserves praise, too, for marshalling the best defence in the competition.

Hughes: Equatorial Guinea’s right-back-turned-centre-forward Emiliano Nsue. Across five seasons at Middlesbrough and Birmingham City, he scored only four times. Now playing in the Spanish third division, he managed five goals in just two group games during this tournament — two of them coming in the slaying of Ivory Coast.

Emiliano Nsue

Equatorial Guinea’s Emilio Nsue (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

The “Did That Really Happen?” Award goes to…

Harris: Ghanaian journalists blocked the team bus from leaving the stadium following their side’s 2-2 draw with Mozambique. Ghana were heading into the knockout stages before they conceded twice in stoppage time to suffer an embarrassing exit. The players refused to speak to the media, so they barricaded their path as a form of protest.

There was also the member of Mali’s backroom staff who poured cold water on head coach Eric Chelle while he was crying following their dramatic defeat to Ivory Coast. The more you watch it, the funnier it gets.

And Nigeria supporters celebrating their semi-final victory by dancing in the streets to Tyla’s hit song Water — days earlier, the South African singer had beaten a host of Nigerian artist to the Best African Music Performance award at the Grammys — was a special form of mockery too.

Hughes: The access to the team hotels was spectacularly easy. I’m still not sure whether it was necessarily granted but I explored anyway.

At the end of the group stages, my intrigue took me to the venue where Equatorial Guinea were staying. A few hours earlier, they had humiliated Ivory Coast 4-0 and the mood in the country plummeted. Hilariously, the victors celebrated this achievement beneath a pergola and in front of a TV screen beaming pictures from a channel called Adult XXX. I could tell you more but I don’t want to get anyone into any trouble.

Best thing you ate

Harris: On my second day in Abidjan, I was taken to a local market stall in a fan park. The grilled chicken was superb and the sweet plantain chips delicious. I went back multiple times.

Hughes: In Treichville, after watching Senegal win one of their group games, I ordered a carp from a grill on the side of the street, along with alloco, which is plantain fried in a red oil. This was washed down with several bottles of Ivorian lager and I was very happy indeed.

The best photo I took…

Harris: There is a small football ground in Biafra that has murals painted around its walls of famous Ivorian athletes, including the former Newcastle United midfielder Cheick Tiote, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 30. I watched Ivory Coast progress to the semi-finals in the bar right next to his image. Gone, but not forgotten.

(Jay Harris/The Athletic)

Hughes: As our taxi taking us to the administrative capital of Yamoussoukro stopped in a traffic jam, I used the opportunity to buy a bottle of water from a woman hawking on the side of the street. She also had lots of tissues and a tray of aftershave: pretty much all of the things you need in life in one place.

(Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

Why should people go to an AFCON?

Harris: This is the second major international tournament I have covered for The Athletic in a different country. The quality on display at the World Cup was incredible but the atmosphere at games and around Qatar was bland. AFCON delivers in all areas.

The fans, the colour, the passion and the rivalries are all unmatched. This competition has a unique brand of magic that needs to be experienced first-hand to truly appreciate it.

Hughes: It was a period of my life I will never forget. Despite being absolutely knackered every single day because of the hours, the logistics and the pressure I put on myself, I could not sleep because of the excitement.

The next time someone tells me that the tournament should fit in around everyone else’s neat schedule, I will not be held responsible for my actions. It is everyone else that should fit around AFCON.

As for the place itself, I was apprehensive about travelling to west Africa because I had never been before. Yet Ivory Coast made me feel alive because of the technicolour. You should go there. At worst, you’ll find the experience useful. At best, it will make you question everything you think you know.

(Top photo: Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

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