Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Sixteen
I got ill during the first week of Cup of Nations. In Mongomo I couldn’t stop sneezing. By Malabo I was running a temperature and shaking. Midway through the first Group D double header I snuck off, intending to watch Cameroon v Mali from a bed in my hotel room.
I vomited, fell asleep, dreamed that Dwight Yorke had scored the winner for Sunderland against Manchester United – a terrible goalkeeping error – and woke up just in time to see Ambroise Oyongo scoring an 84th-minute equaliser for Cameroon. For two days I felt dreadful, sweating profusely but unable to stand the chill of air-con. I think it was just a touch of flu, but I lost weight and it wasn’t until a fortnight later that my energy returned.
I considered returning home. The football wasn’t great and the heat and humidity weren’t helping my recovery. The food was deeply average, the hotel less than luxurious. I started to feel my age and more. What was I doing stuck here off the west coast of central Africa, a place the early Spanish colonialists had referred to as the Island of Death? I contemplated retirement from tournaments: do Chile and France, the easy ones, and quit at 40. That seemed reasonable. Nobody could blame me for that. I could even go home for Chelsea v Manchester City.
And then the tournament woke up. Lots were drawn. Six goals were shared in the second half of the Congo derby. A highly controversial penalty led to Tunisia kicking a referee off the pitch. The second semi-final was held up by crowd trouble. The final reached an extraordinary denouement, Côte d’Ivoire’s long deferred glory delivered at last by a goalkeeper whose haplessness seemed so often before to have stood between them and success. Chelsea v Manchester City turned out to be a damp squib.
This seemed a fundamental lesson. It’s likely that, with the caveat that too many top teams seem over-reliant on individuals at the expense of real tactical sophistication, the football played in the Champions League over the past decade or so is the greatest football that has ever been played. There has never previously been such a concentration of talent among the top sides.
And yet that in itself destroys stories. Be rich enough for long enough and the Champions League will eventually turn up; success in Europe is no longer the quest it once was. And that’s why, even though the actual football is significantly poorer than at club level, international football is still where the best narratives are. And that probably means that in 2017, I’ll be back in Ghana (or Gabon, Egypt or Algeria).