Africa Cup of Nations review: Algeria deserved winners but Egypt leave much to be desired
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations concluded on Friday night with Algeria defeating Senegal 1-0 to claim their first title since 1990. ESPN FC's Nick Ames, who covered the tournament across Egypt all summer, gives the highs and lows of the competition.
- It was a fine tournament for bright, up-and-coming coaches and none more so than the victorious Djamel Belmadi. Algeria's tactical mastermind conducted himself with class throughout and showed an admirable number of strings to his bow, moulding a team that could sweep opponents aside through sheer technical quality one moment while completely shutting a game down the next. His team's triumph came only 11 months after he took the reins and the former Manchester City, Southampton and Marseille midfielder is definitely one to watch.
The same can be said for Aliou Cisse, his old friend and Senegal counterpart, who guided his side with class and panache to the narrow final defeat. It seems that African federations are coming round to the realisation that developing local coaches -- or, to be more precise in these cases, coaches with deep knowledge of the countries they represented as players -- can give them an edge.
- The new 24-team format could be filed under both "good" and "bad." It certainly meant that after a strong start, the group stage descended into mass conservatism as teams sought draws that would keep them in contention. That said, it also provided an extended knockout round that, from the last 16 to the semifinals, brought some genuinely thrilling football.
There was Nigeria's seesaw 3-2 win over Cameroon; South Africa's shock dumping out of the hosts; Madagascar's epic penalty defeat of DR Congo; a tense quarterfinal faceoff between Ivory Coast and Algeria; the magical last-gasp free kick from Riyad Mahrez that sent the latter into the final. The list could go on, and it is long enough for this tournament to be remembered positively, on the football side at least, overall.
- Every tournament needs a good underdog story and they don't come much better than Madagascar, who swept a path to the last eight in their Africa Cup of Nations debut. The manner of their progress was remarkable, too: they suffered stage fright in the first half of their opener with Guinea, but from then on, it was as if a switch had flicked. They drew that game, beat Burundi, stunned Nigeria, outgunned DR Congo and fell short only when a practiced Tunisia side proved too strong in the second half of their quarterfinal.
What also stands out is how they did it, playing rapid, no-holds-barred attacking football, exhibiting no fear against more vaunted sides and approaching games in a manner other minnows might learn from. They were an excellent example and so was their coach, Nicolas Dupuis, who was plucked from France's lower leagues and created a team that, while Madagascar's football infrastructure is in chaos back home, captured everyone's hearts.
- Did Egypt really want to host? The soft-power optics of riding in at the last minute to save the continent's showpiece tournament were certainly appealing, and the occasion went off with little fuss for the most part. As a televised spectacle it must have made fine viewing, but there was little suggestion that fans were particularly welcome at games. The security presence around the stadia was smothering, and that, in fact, was a concern only for those who had been successful in buying tickets. Prices were high, relatively minor fixtures were mysteriously categorised as "sold out," the Fan ID system was complex and intrusive, and the sense was that the state's desperation to keep order ensured most supporters were kept at arm's length.
Egyptian football has a tragic recent history, of course, and the paranoia partly stems from that. But surely there were better ways to maintain control than ensuring that virtually every game, bar those involving Egypt, and including the final, was contested to banks of empty seats. Some fans with valid tickets were even locked out of Senegal and Algeria's big night on Friday, with no explanation offered. It's a shame that giving people easy access to a month of footballing enjoyment was too much to ask.
- Mahrez's sensational flourish aside, the tournament's bigger names were rather peripheral. Mohamed Salah did score two fine goals early on for Egypt, and Sadio Mane was on target three times for Senegal, also missing two penalties. But none of them really produced a performance for the ages, or one to define this tournament.
The real heroes were players like Baghdad Bounedjah and Youcef Belaili, a relatively obscure Algeria pair who provided excellent proof that AFCON can still turn up intriguing new stars. But why did the big guns only flicker? The heat was oppressive for the majority of the games and it was hard for any player, especially those who rely on explosive speed and energy, to be influential for sustained periods.
Perhaps it was also a tournament too far for players who, in the cases of Mane and Mahrez, hadn't taken a break for an entire year. Salah has had virtually no rest in the past year either, and you wonder whether CAF's eagerness to give AFCON a summertime slot has made this one big event too many for those who want to see the brightest talents at their best.
- File this one more under "frustrating," but it was a shame to see Morocco, a lavishly gifted side managed by one of the continent's best and most charismatic coaches in Herve Renard, fall flat against unfancied Benin. That they did so owed largely to the failure of another established star to find his range: Hakim Ziyech missed a penalty in added time and effectively denied Morocco a mouthwatering quarterfinal with Senegal.
While Benin's achievement was laudable they added little to the tournament. Morocco have only themselves to blame for their profligacy but, having watched them put in one of the most exciting displays of the month when they beat Ivory Coast during the group stage, you wonder what kind of final we might have seen if the continent's most gifted side had gone all the way.
- "Ugly" is virtually the only way to describe the final we got. It was set up to be a classic: not often have AFCON finals in recent years contained two sides as accomplished as Algeria and Senegal. So it was disappointing that they contrived a mucky, almost unwatchable scrap, largely brought about by Algeria's eagerness to hold on to the early (and decisive) lead given them by Bounedjah.
We all know better than to expect fireworks in major finals by now; it wasn't long ago that Liverpool and Spurs slogged through a dreary Champions League showpiece, after all. But AFCON does not get much of an opportunity to hog the limelight and, with a relatively clear sporting calendar on the day of the final, this was a chance to show its wares to a captive audience. Instead the world saw the worst of the tournament.
- The way in which Egypt's players handled the situation surrounding Amr Warda, their teammate who was initially cut from the squad during the group stage after allegations of sexual harassment, was shameful and a stain on the tournament. It also meant a large percentage of their compatriots, appalled that Salah and other senior players had successfully demanded Warda's reinstatement, shed no tears when they were eliminated in such chastening fashion in the last 16. If there was one sliver of a positive it was that there was a serious discussion about such matters in a wide-open, public forum. The bottom line, though, is that Salah and co made a grievous misjudgement.
- The soap opera being played out at the Confederation of African Football, largely in a web of intrigue behind the gilded doors of Cairo's Marriott hotel, was messy and highlighted that African football is systemically in crisis. CAF has effectively been placed under special measures by FIFA as the global body conducts a full audit of its confused, chaotic governance. That meant Gianni Infantino was present for its ExCo and General Assembly meetings this week as the lame-duck reign of CAF's president, Ahmed Ahmed, staggers on.
During a news conference on Thursday, Ahmed half-joked that the confederation's slapdash announcement of the wrong referee for the final via Twitter was proof that FIFA needed to be involved. CAF certainly didn't look remotely ready for this tournament, as the plight of several journalists who had to wait until days into the group stage for their accreditations to be awarded confirmed, and will probably be thankful that Egypt ran such a grimly tight ship to keep things in order.