The middle continues to rise. In Europe at least, the question about African football is why it has not kicked on the past two decades from the time when, in the space of 12 years between 1990 and 2002, Cameroon and Senegal reached World Cup quarter-finals and Cameroon and Nigeria won Olympic golds. One quarter-final since does not look much like progress.
And yet for all that issues of infrastructure and administration continue to blight the highest level of the African game, where there has been clear progress has been lower down the pyramid. There is a healthy and growing middle class. It’s not so long ago that expanding the Cup of Nations from 16 to 24 teams would have seen a marked dilution of quality, but not now.
Comoros and the Gambia, both traditional minnows and at their first Cup of Nations, have reached the last 16. Comoros have perhaps been a touch fortunate but the Gambia have played with an impressive level of calm organisation and deservedly beat Tunisia to go through.
Malawi, in their second tournament, beat Zimbabwe and, but for VAR controversially overturning a penalty, might have beaten Senegal. Only Mauritania have really looked out of their depth – which, given what a terrible format six groups of four is, might be an argument for expanding to 32 teams. Logistics may make that difficult but, given Zambia, South Africa and DR Congo all failed to qualify, it’s hard to argue against the move on grounds of quality.
The format – with four third-placed sides making the last 16 – is awful. There is too great a risk of dead rubbers, advantaging the teams in the later groups who know what they need to do, and there is the fundamental unfairness of comparing between groups that have their own dynamics – most obviously a team resting players for the final game if they’re already through – and should be discrete. But the tournament has developed a recent habit of producing remarkable drama.
The final round of group games at the Euros – Viktor Claesson’s injury-time winner for Sweden to put Poland out, Germany saved by Leon Goretzka’s late equaliser against Hungary – may have been more thrilling but those at the Cup of Nations felt more consequential, with the reigning champions, Algeria, and the four-time champions Ghana both eliminated.
Algeria were the big surprise. Ghana were in obvious chaos before the tournament, with Charles Akonnor sacked in November to make way for the return as coach of Milovan Rajevac. The Serb led Ghana to the final in 2010 but his cautious, possession-based approach, which got the best out of a young side including André Ayew, has led only to sterile football this time.
Goals conceded in the final 10 minutes cost them a draw against Morocco and a win against Gabon, a match that ended in a brawl that highlighted the frustration in the camp, Benjamin Tetteh being sent off for a left hook.
Still a win against Comoros would have taken them through, but having been undone on the break, they lost Ayew to a harsh red card for a challenge on the goalkeeper. A second goal on the break followed, and although Ghana fought back to level, Comoros picked them off again in the 85th minute, the culmination of 10 days of rolling ill-discipline that saw Ghana fail to make the knockout stages for the first time since 2006.
The president of the Ghana Football Association, Kurt Okraku, defended Rajevac, pointing out how little time he has had to work with his squad – but that prompts the question of why the GFA sacked Akonnor when they did. The dismissal of the Serb, at a reported cost of $275,000, was confirmed morning.
There was no such sense of foreboding about Algeria, though. Rather they came into the tournament on a run of 34 games unbeaten as, by general consent, the best team in the continent. The only real doubt about them was the habitual struggles of north African sides outside north Africa; Egypt in 2008 and 2010 remain the only north African country to win a Cup of Nations south of the Sahara.
To an extent Algeria were unfortunate in Cameroon – a sense only exacerbated when their federation released a statement denying it was bringing in a faith healer to help. They had more touches in the final third than any other side in the group stage while only Nigeria and Mali had more shots, and there’s no doubt that the poor quality of the pitch in Douala hampered their passing.
Djamel Belmadi proved two years ago in Egypt what a capable coach he is, his side playing a modern pressing game that looked ideal for international football. He had suffered only one defeat in 44 games in charge before last Sunday, since when he has suffered two in a week – to Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast.
Both were similar in the way the midfield, at key stages, disintegrated and allowed their opponents to counterattack. The final 10 minutes against Equatorial Guinea were extraordinary in the way the structure that had been such a strength in 2019 fell apart: essentially four forwards standing on the halfway line and waiting for the ball to be delivered to them as Equatorial Guinea frolicked in the space in the Algerian half. Similarly the 15 minutes after half-time against Ivory Coast were shambolic: the Ivorians scored a decisive third but missed three other decent chances.
Perhaps it was just one of those things. Bad things can happen to good sides at tournaments. But equally it feels significant that the two finalists from 2019, Algeria and Senegal, both of whom play very structured football, managed just two goals between them in six group games.
The lack of preparation time before this tournament, exacerbated by Covid complications, has probably cost them fluency – and it has been notable how much better the football has become generally as the group stage went on – and in the present environment, in which there are a wealth of decent if not brilliant teams, can be enough to cause the continent’s giants real problems.