Gripping storylines, late goals, penalty shootouts and VAR chaos — this year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has provided riveting entertainment on an almost daily basis and we still have a mouth-watering final to come.
Has it been the best AFCON ever? How can the continent build on its success? What has it been like to cover such an incredible event? And what about Samuel Eto’o — the controversial president of the Cameroonian Football Federation?
Perhaps most importantly, does world football governing body FIFA need to treat the African championship, which is held at mid-season for the clubs in Europe where many of the players involved are based, with more respect?
On today’s episode of The Athletic Football Podcast, host Ayo Akinwolere discusses the tournament with former Ivory Coast defender Sol Bamba and our reporter Jay Harris — who is on the ground for us, reporting on the competition. Simon Hughes — who was in Ivory Coast for the group stage — also pops in, alongside our Adam Leventhal.
Below are some notable excerpts from their conversation. The full episode can be heard here:
Ayo Akinwolere: Hosts Ivory Coast play Nigeria in Sunday’s final in what has been the most thrilling AFCON in decades. How powerful and exciting has this tournament been so far?
Sol Bamba: It’s been huge — a credit to the whole of Africa, and Ivory Coast in particular. I think it has been the greatest AFCON ever, with all the crazy games and twists and turns. It’s been absolutely brilliant.
Akinwolere: How important is it that Ivory Coast have made it to the final? It means that in terms of marketing, the final sees the hosts playing Nigeria — the most populous country in Africa. Which goes on top of the previous history between the two teams!
Bamba: We couldn’t have asked for a bigger game and a better final. I am biased, but you want the hosts to go as far as possible to keep the country buzzing. I think it goes beyond that, though, given the rivalry between Ivory Coast and Nigeria — two powerhouses of African football. And, as you say, from a marketing point of view, it is huge.
Akinwolere: Jay and Simon, how has it been in Ivory Coast?
Jay Harris: It has been amazing. For context, I arrived at the tournament just after Ivory Coast’s 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea (in the final group match, leaving them sweating for two days on whether they would qualify for the knockout phase and leading to them sacking manager Jean-Louis Gasset). So I’m thinking, “Great — I’ve come to the party and it’s already finished.” I asked the taxi driver what happened, and he just said, “The elephant is done.” So to then witness their resurrection has been absolutely brilliant. In terms of why it has been so unpredictable, I think that the teams that have the best structure and are not necessarily based around individuals are the ones that have gone the furthest in the competition.
Even Nigeria were supposed to be the great entertainers, with Victor Osimhen and Ademola Lookman. But their defence has been impeccable. And with Ivory Coast, what has made a big difference is that Jean Michael Seri started playing at the base of the central midfield and he has helped keep everything together.
Simon Hughes: I travelled to Ivory Coast two days before the start of the tournament. The thing that really stuck out was the appetite for hosting the tournament, certainly in (its largest city) Abidjan. Every third person had the orange national team shirt on. The tournament was all that anybody was talking about in the bars, hotels and on the street.
Akinwolere: How do we measure the tournament’s overall success?
Bamba: Every single person I have had the chance to talk to has said it has been the best (AFCON) tournament ever. The infrastructure of the stadiums, the refereeing, the hotels, the training ground, the buses. All of that counts (to a tournament’s success).
Harris: You have just got to see the intensity of it. Even just getting around — the traffic in Abidjan is chaotic! I’ve seen people running around in the streets doing all sorts, but never causing any trouble.
The world has to get used to the fact that other competitions shouldn’t revolve around the Premier League. Yes, the Premier League makes an incredible amount of money and it is one of the most-watched leagues in the world. But it doesn’t mean it should stand on this grand pedestal above everything else. So I think people just need to, like I said, come over here and experience AFCON and realise how magical it is.
Akinwolere: I think there needs to be more attention from FIFA when it comes to issues surrounding African football — the same that they give to European football. Because, fundamentally, the message is that the money is in Europe and not in Africa.
Bamba: We felt it when I was playing even 15 years ago. Africa and Europe are treated differently, unfortunately. FIFA have to do better and make sure that the rules are the same for both Europe and Africa.
Akinwolere: I want to bring in Adam Leventhal to explain what is going on with Samuel Eto’o, because it seemed like he was resigning from his position with the Cameroonian FA, but for some reason they have rallied behind him and he is not going anywhere?
Adam Leventhal: It is a complicated situation, because obviously Cameroon didn’t do well at AFCON (losing 2-0 to Nigeria in the round of 16) and there was also the controversy with (Manchester United) goalkeeper Andre Onana turning up, not playing, then playing a game, and then not playing.
There was a meeting that was held by Fecafoot (the Cameroonian FA) on February 5, and it was decided that because (they thought) he was doing a good job everyone resolved to stick by him and therefore his resignation was rejected.
Bamba: Cameron have been poor since Eto’o has been in power, it is as simple as that. But of course, he is in power and doesn’t want to leave that.
(Top photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)
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