|The Elephant in the Room: Ivory Coast celebrate AFCON2015|
AFCON 2015. The tournament that should never have taken place. The tournament that defied expectations. The tournament that defied Ebola. The tournament that defied logic, right down to that extraordinary penalty shoot-out after a drab final.
It’s only football. We know that. The Ivory Coast Elephants were always the heavyweights. But the ups and downs in Equatorial Guinea over the past three weeks have been even more knuckle whitening than normal, surely?
The lows? We’d have to start with South Africa’s own fortunes in Mongomo, ancestral home of the despot President Theodorin Obiang, in charge since 1979 and grinding his people in to the ground. Bafana Bafana couldn’t even conjure a win in Group A as they ground us into the ground.
They went out of the tournament with one point and a desperate record equalled in its awfulness only by Burkina Faso. Yet they led in all three games. Heart-breaking.
Still, as I said when the draw for this African Cup of Nations was made, the limited talents of Shakes Mashaba were never going to get us out of Group C once the dodgy hosts had got their hands on Issa Hayatou’s warmed balls. Pity Ephraim forgot to check who was actually in the Group of Death before he started laughing it off and – laughably – promising a repeat of our great 1996 triumph.
On Saturday, under thermo-nuclear levels of secrecy, Mashaba reported to the SAFA technical committee, dominated (unusually) by Natascha Tshichlas, Ria Ledwaba and Fran Hilton-Smith, Danny Jordaan’s three princesses.
I’m told Shakes was rapped over the knuckles for his treatment of young foreign stars Thulani Serero and Kamahelo Mokotjo and told the search for a modern, highly qualified Technical Director remained a priority. I bet he didn’t like that. Still, he wore a lot of nice shirts during the tournament, between goalkeeper changes.
While South Africans came back down to earth after that fabulous unbeaten qualifying success which left champions Nigeria in disarray, we have had to watch the knock-out stages dominated by Equatorial Guinea cheating, Africa’s No 1 Algeria under-performing and Tunisia sulking.
|Weapons of destruction: missiles thrown by fans on Thursday|
And then came that awful semi-final. I said on twitter Ghana looked reluctant to add a third goal against the hosts in last Thursday’s second semi-final and BOOM, when they went 3-0 up, we were treated to awful scenes from the home crowd in a nation where so many live beneath the bread line yet still throw plates when they’re angry.
Actually, we missed most of the nastiness which left 14 Ghanaian fans in hospital, the Dictatorial Guinea television producers wouldn’t allow us to see the crowd trouble, the missile throwing, the real nastiness.
And when the final came around on Sunday night, the host nation were denied live coverage of their own tournament at the death. Unbelievable. While commentators and analysts praised long-serving Presidents Obiang and Issa Hayatou, African football slipped to a new nadir with trouble exploding before Zamelek’s game in Egypt just as the final kicked off.
It's a mess. Tunisia have yet to apologise for their accusations of bias after Dictatorial Guinea’s dodgy late penalty in the quarter-final and Morocco, the hosts who pulled out over Ebola fears (but still hosted FIFA’s Club World Cup) are out for the next two AFCONS.
The host nation were given a mere slap on the wrist for their half-hour of mayhem. They were fined $100,000 while Tunisia and Morocco face bills of millions; and Equatoria Guinea played their 3rd place play off WITH fans, losing to the DRC in an eminently missable consolation clash.
Sadly, much of the “dream final” between Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire was eminently missable too. The highlights? Ghana’s Christian Atsu, the Chelsea striker on loan with a cushion at Everton, hit the post, Ivory Coast coach Herve Renard wore a nice pink tabard and a clearly unfit Asamoah Gyan managed to stamp on an Elephant without punishment.
It was always going to go to penalties, and the drab 120 minutes was soon forgotten as Ghana took a 2-0 lead after four penalties, blew it… and the goalkeepers decided it with 35-year-old Boubacar 'Copa' Barry scoring where his counterpart Razak Braimah failed.
After 22 penalties Barry, a last-minute replacement, was the bemused hero. Asamoah Gyan, the Ghana captain who came off with a minute to play and missed the penalty shoot-out, may well turn out to be the scapegoat, as he was at the World Cup in 2010.
In essence, it was a repeat of the 1992 final, with the Ivory Coast ironically turning the Orange Africa Cup of Nations in to a feast of orange. Yaya Toure lifted the trophy while Andre Ayew wept inconsolably, remembering his father Abedi Pele’s upset when he missed out on the same final 23 years ago.
For Ghana coach Avram Grant, in his lucky blue polo shirt, barely a flicker of emotion. He lost the Champions League final with Chelsea when John Terry fluffed his penalty against Manchester United in Moscow. He’s used to heartbreak.
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“We are strong because everybody worked very hard. Didier Drogba didn’t win this cup with Ivory Coast, it’s a shame he’s not there. It’s a shame he’s not here. I’d like to give him part of this, dedicate it to him.
“You don’t achieve something in one month, the team spirit made the difference. I discovered (Ghana’s) Andre Ayew at a young age, I felt sorry for him but he’ll be back.”
Ghana coach Avram Grant groaned: “It’s painful to lose and be the better side on the pitch. When you win you can say anything, this is football. Penalties are painful. It’s not the first time this has happened to me.
“We have a good team for the present. In a short time we did a lot of good things. We are crying now, they gave good heart, good football. Good for the future.”
Former Arsenal veteran Kolo Toure, now with Liverpool, said: “Penalties are all about God to me. We waited a long time for this. My generation waited for 23 years. I’d like to dedicate this win to my brother who died during the World Cup.”
In summary, AFCON 2015 was exactly what we expected, though not quite what we might have hoped for. From the moment Morocco withdrew, we knew Equatorial Guinea would be hard-pressed to run the show without a hitch.
A pitch invasion and a drab final won’t spoil the memories for Ivorians. But for Ghanaians and South Africans, we move on. And hopefully for uapologetic Tunisia and 7 times winners Egypt – where 14 died in violence before a Zamalek game last night – there will be a brighter future too.
But to be honest what would really cheer me up: a free and fair election in Dictatorial Guinea. But I guess that's too much to ask.