And so, after a tournament full of shocks, the final of the Africa Cup of Nations will be a meeting between the winners of 2015 and 2013, Ivory Coast against Nigeria. But if the finalists feel known, the tournament is not. Tournaments often follow their own logic, but by developing certain themes from the last edition in Cameroon, this Cup of Nations felt like significant progress.
For Ivory Coast, the mood has changed radically in the past two weeks. After the fury of the group stage, which saw cars burnt out after the 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea seemed to have eliminated them, Ivory Coast have experienced a wave of disbelieving euphoria. They got past Senegal despite trailing 1-0 after 86 minutes; Mali, again 1-0 down and 10 men down after 90 minutes; and then, more comfortably, DR Congo, 1-0 in the semi-final. With Sébastien Haller and Simon Adingra fit again, the sense of miracles has diminished and the hosts now look like the very good team they expected before the start of the tournament.
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Nigeria has followed a similar journey. If there is something unsatisfying about two sides that played each other in the group stage (Nigeria won 1-0) meeting again in the final, there is something disorienting, an implication of arbitrariness, when those sides come second and third ended up in the group. behind Equatorial Guinea. What that does indicate is how the finalists have grown in the tournament.
A dismal build-up had led to widespread criticism in Nigeria of the coach, José Peseiro, whose long tenure and continued employment despite deferrals and subsequent reductions in his salary remain mysterious. But he has created a solid, effective team that has conceded just two goals in six games so far. He has taken pains to maintain that the disappointing friendlies were all part of the process. In terms of the pragmatism of their approach, it’s not a far cry from 2013, when Stephen Keshi ignored a barrage of stylistic criticism to lead Nigeria to their last Cup of Nations; Even then, in the final they faced a team against whom they had played in the group stage: Burkina Faso.
But the Cup of Nations is never just about what happens on the pitch. All international football tournaments are about soft power at some level. Even the first World Cup of 1930 was partly about Uruguay celebrating the centenary of its independence and their then president, Juan Campisteguy, batllista legacy that had created an economy and culture capable of hosting (and winning) a global event.
About half of Ivory Coast’s 25 million residents live on less than $1.20 a day. In that context, it may never be possible to justify spending $1 billion (or possibly more, depending on whether you believe the official figure) for a month-long football tournament. It is impossible to determine exactly how much has been spent on stadiums and wider infrastructure, such as the road to San Pedro or the bridges over the Ebrie Lagoon in Abidjan. But as hundreds of thousands of Ivorians have taken to the streets to celebrate in Yamoussoukro, Bouaké and Abidjan, across what was until recently a conflict-ridden country, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara may think he has made the right decision taken. worth its money.
Ever since Didier Drogba presented his African Footballer of the Year trophy in the rebel capital Bouaké in 2007 and then persuaded the national team to play an African Cup of Nations qualifier there, football has been inextricably linked to reconciliation after Ivory Coast’s two civil wars.
As is often the case in countries divided on social, ethnic and religious grounds, it is the national team that offers the clearest symbol of togetherness.
So either Nigeria wins a fourth Cup of Nations and joins Ghana as the third most successful side in the tournament’s history, or Ivory Coast wins a third and draws level with Nigeria. It’s a true heavyweight final and yet the story of the tournament is (once again) about a pyramid growing wider, but not necessarily higher; in fact, it is now probably less of a pyramid than a beam with a slightly thickened center.
This is not a team from Ivory Coast that can measure up to the golden generation – Drogba, the Tourés, Salomon Kalou et al. – who narrowly missed so many times before his bottom finally won the tournament in 2015. And this Nigeria is not in the near the Kanu, Jay -Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh side of the late 90s and early 2000s. That talented teams like Senegal, Morocco and Algeria are eliminated before the quarter-finals, that the last eight was completely different from the last eight in Cameroon, which in their different ways can make such an impression on the likes of Cape Verde, Angola, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea, is clearly positive.
It is also encouraging that two former giants can reach the semi-finals, even though there are significant and very different reasons to doubt the sustainability of their success – the financial dominance of Mamelodi Sundowns, the team owned by CAF president Patrice Motsepe in the case of South Africa, and the ongoing internal conflict in the case of DR Congo.
Judging the quality of football is inevitably subjective, but this was probably the highest level at a Cup of Nations this century, even if the goals have dried up since the end of the group stages.
The pitches have played their part, much better than in Cameroon, allowing modern passing football, although the surface at Ebimpé, where the final will be played, was the worst in the tournament. But certainly in the group stages there was a clear sense that coaches were attempting a more progressive, less conservative form of football than is often the case in the Cup of Nations, which in itself may be a consequence of the French journeyman’s decline. a necessary step in the post-colonial journey of African football.
Even with two of the big names in the final, there was a clear sense of progress in Ivory Coast, in terms of coaching vision, of infrastructure and of the breadth of teams capable of competing.