AFCON of drama and controversies

Liverpool manager, Jurgen Kloop, tagged the Africa Cup of Nations as a ‘little tournament’ apparently because he was frustrated over the reality of losing three key players going for the continental football showpiece: Mohamed Salah of Egypt, Sadio Mane of Senegal and Naby Keita of Guinea. Kloop’s comments attracted massive responses from far and near. Crystal Palace manager and former Arsenal captain, Patrick Vieira, noted that it was important to respect AFCON because African players are flourishing everywhere. Another Arsenal legend, Ian Wright, said the European media’s coverage of AFCON was tainted with racism.

He charged those in doubt of the quality of AFCON to monitor the tournament and also wished that there should be a global coverage of the event. And so expectations were rife as the apex African football showpiece started on January 9. The opening ceremony was colourful with the African touch in the calisthenics display especially the impact of the Lion, which symbolizes the nickname of Cameroon’s senior national team, the Indomitable Lions.

The first round of games were barely average as teams battled to find their rhythm in the harsh hot climate of Cameroon. The North Africans are not currently finding it funny playing at different centres in Cameroon. At the end of the first round of games, only Cameroon managed to score two goals in one match and the goals came via penalties against Burkina Faso as the hosts won 2-1. Generally, the tough teams struggled. Tunisia lost to Mali in a hugely controversial match, Senegal left it late to score a late penalty to beat Zimbabwe1-0, Cote d’Ivoire were lucky to defeat Equatorial Guinea 1-0 and defending champions Algeria were unable to score against Sierra Leone in a match that ended goalless. The two crunch ties of the first round of games were hot.

Morocco managed to pip Ghana 1-0 just as Nigeria also did the same against Mohamed Salah-inspired Egypt. However, the controversy and confusion after the opening five days were too much. The officiating with the Video Assistant Referee gadgets and personnel has been poor and inconsistent. Some referees ignore the VAR calls and take decisions even without checking to have a second look. Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe brought the game into disrepute with his actions in the match between Mali and Tunisia. He sent out El Bilal Traore of Mali with a straight red in a controversial way.

Apart from other questionable calls, the referee twice stopped the match before the end of proceedings. First was in the 85th minute when the assistant had to inform him to continue. He did the same in the 89th minute to draw the anger of the Tunisians. Twenty minutes after the game CAF ordered that the last three to four minutes of the game must be played. Malians came out again but the North Africans ignored the call to make a statement. It is a big shame as this was happening at a time the attention of the world was on the competition to either believe the position of people who take AFCON as irrelevant or form another opinion.

As if that was not enough, the Local Organisisng Committee failed to provide the national anthems of The Gambia and Mauritania. How did that happen in this age? The players had to verbally sing their respective national anthems after play was held up for over 30 minutes. The role of the officials of the Confederation of Africa Football is crucial in the success of a competition like this. CAF is expected to take over the operations.

The way the COVID-19 tests are being conducted for teams is also suspicious as some teams accuse the officials of favouring the home team Cameroon. Test results are not trusted by teams at the ongoing tournament. CAF must step up the operations of the competition in the remaining days till the February 6 final to boost the pedigree and integrity of African football.

If the continent can produce some of the best players, it is also good to stage some of the best tournaments. The main actors, the players, should also step up their game for the world to appreciate the best of African football. The top players currently in Cameroon representing their respective countries should justify their call up to national team after the club vs country row which preceded AFCON 2021. The continent deserves respect and that starts from staging a damn good tournament in terms of standard and organization.




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