Amid the heat and chaos at the Cup of Nations, Algeria offered hope
For me, the Cup of Nations began in Doha in early June. Burundi, first-time qualifiers and survivors of a brutal civil war in the 1990s, were holding a training camp there and allowed a productive week’s access behind the scenes. On the final night came the invitation for a beer on the top floor of the team hotel. It did not take long, while a steady trickle of dubious characters filed in and out of the dark corners around us, to get to the root of the offer. Burundi’s new boots – the match boots they wanted to wear in Egypt – were stranded in a warehouse near Milton Keynes; the unexpected fruit of a late deal with a major sports kit brand. Neither funds nor available personnel existed to pick them up and transport them from London to Alexandria a little over 10 days later. Another shout to the barman, another bottle of US$20 Heineken planted in front of me. So... would I take them?
Spoiler: not exactly. The day before travelling to the Cup of Nations, and a while since I had bundled that conversation to the back of my mind in the hope it might disappear, the phone rang. Those boots – any chance I could still receive 40kg of them, to my front door, and get them safely to their camp in Alexandria? To cut a long story short, I could not quite: the delivery would not make it in time before I departed on the Wednesday lunchtime. But Ed Aarons, my ever-helpful Guardian colleague, would be travelling out a day later and staying in my Cairo apartment. With a remarkable degree of amenability, he accepted the summer’s biggest hospital pass straight away.
By the Thursday night I was a mile up the road from the apartment, on an Italian diplomat’s balcony in Zamalek drinking potent negronis and being fed exemplary buffalo mozzarella of mysterious provenance. The plan was that I would leave the party at around 11.30pm to let in Ed, who had tweeted pictures of his distinctly suspect-looking haul – think millions in potential street value. But it was about then that another call came through. Ed had been stopped at customs, his two gigantic bags of football boots would not be allowed through, not, at least, unless he stumped up £6,000.
What happened next is slightly blurry, not least because the strength of those negronis seemed to ramp up as my stay unexpectedly lengthened. A few well- connected types around me offered their assistance. Eventually, around three hours later, I finally found Ed slumped in exhaustion outside a coffee shop a few metres from our front door, one hulking bag of Burundi’s gear by each of his feet. With some exceptional diplomacy, in the circumstances, he had kept his cool sufficiently to be allowed through without his baggage being impounded – and Burundi would get the footwear they wanted.
The start of a beautiful fairy-tale? Not quite. Burundi, a couple of whose representatives collected their boots the following afternoon after struggling for six hours to find us, went home without a single point or a single goal. Whatever else these were not, they certainly weren’t shooting boots – but they were a deeply unusual way to start a summer that never deviated far from the chaotic.
It certainly chimed with the experience of getting set up in Cairo. It is an enervating city at the best of times, made more tolerable if you are based in the relatively leafy calm of Zamalek, but its haphazard intensity and the Confederation of African Football’s sheer chaos formed something of a perfect storm. Usually CAF are, at least to uptight European visitors used to dealing with the clinical distance assumed by Swiss or London-based football institutions, slightly disorganised but ultimately quite agreeable to work with. But this time we found an organisation on life support, and possibly on its last legs as we know it. It was complicated enough that, for the fourth Cup of Nations in a row, the tournament’s venue had been changed at short notice. Egypt had been awarded the rights six months previously after a combination of political instability and insufficient infrastructure for a recklessly expanded 24-team tournament led to Cameroon being stripped of hosting rights. The task of organising it was unenviable, especially as many of the qualified teams were only confirmed in March, but it was made harder by CAF’s atrophy in the build-up.
The week the tournament began Fifa had appointed its secretary general, Fatma Samoura, to undertake a “full forensic audit” of CAF for the following six months. Its president Ahmad Ahmad, a strangely limp appointment to follow the controversial tenure of Issa Hayatou, was dogged by myriad controversies and the conduct of many beneath him was proof enough that, essentially, the organisation was ungovernable. Most stayed in Zamalek’s Marriott hotel, whose gardens served as a valuable refuge for many working at the tournament, and you would have sacrificed a fair percentage of your earnings from the month to hear some of the conversations that must have unfolded behind closed doors. Ahmad, followed at 10 paces by his security detail whenever he went walkabout, is a husk of a leader but little better can be said of the body he fronts.
So there was not much surprise when journalists arrived to find the nuts and bolts far beneath Ahmad in rusty condition or, in some cases, missing entirely. The talk at the accreditation centre, in a vast indoor sports complex adjacent to Cairo International Stadium, was that a computer crash had played havoc with many applications. My approval had only gone through the day before I arrived after lengthy representations to CAF media officials; others had not even been that lucky. A fraught two hours in a small room with angry colleagues jostling for attention ended with an accreditation pass – but with “sponsor” privileges. Round we went again, via largely- unheeded WhatsApp messages from a perspiring CAF volunteer to his seniors. At considerable length the issue was resolved and, the best part of a day having been wasted, a month’s reporting could begin.
Others were not so fortunate. One colleague arrived the day before the tournament, found nobody to approve his accreditation and was turned away from the opening game – Egypt v Zimbabwe – by a member of the host country’s well-stocked security forces. The following day in Alexandria, a beguilingly raffish place redolent of an Agatha Christie novel, he suffered the same fate when attempting to enter Nigeria v Burundi. At that point his patience snapped and he made for the beach, gazing out to the waves while phoning his partner and suggesting he might pack it all in and return home. Before such dramatic lengths could be reached, negotiations inside the museum piece of a 1920s stadium brought a VIP day pass, pressed into my hand by a furtive CAF officer, which granted our colleague the freedom of the stands – not to mention the buffet – for the afternoon and a decisive extra 24 hours to arrange his credential. Nobody can ever have run the mile from the Mediterranean coast to the football ground, in temperatures above 30 degrees, more quickly or eagerly.
This is what the Cup of Nations used to be like a decade ago before significant improvement in the latter days of Hayatou. Who could have dreamt we’d end up missing the Big Man of Cameroonian football?
The heat was a talking point throughout. It was always going to be after the shift of the tournament from January-February to June-July, a decision taken to avoid the antagonising collisions with European top-flight seasons and – in theory – to give a tournament a prominence and platform all of its own. The trade-off, aside from the fact that the Women’s World Cup (and the Copa América) ended up taking the majority of international attention until the latter stages, was that the June heat in Egypt makes football far more of a chore than a pleasure.
That went for watching it as well as playing, when more teething problems saw some venues – notably 30 June Stadium, a remote ground to the south of Cairo – fail to provide anything like the amount of water required for those bedding in for sapping double-headers. But on the pitch there were early concerns, raised by the global players’ union FIFPro and intensified when the Nigeria forward Samuel Kalu collapsed through dehydration before their first game. Temperatures were in the high 30s for the handful of matches that kicked off at 1530 and, in truth, little better during the evenings. A lack of defined water breaks for players also caused consternation but in general the conditions were handled well.
That was, perhaps, at the cost of the spectacle. The group games that kicked off at 1530 local time produced just 1.14 goals per game, those that kicked off at 1700 or 1800 1.57 and those that kicked off at 2000 or 2100 2.47. Many matches meandered, particularly during a group stage that failed to hold the interest after a promising start, and it was noticeable that players operated in bursts. You might not see Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez or Sadio Mane for 20 minutes but then one of them would spring into life and – if those watching were lucky – produce something of substance. All three did, in fairness, and never more so than when Mahrez scored a brilliant free-kick with the last action of Algeria’s semi-final against Nigeria to send them into the final. That was probably the month’s stand-out moment of football drama. But this was not a tournament in which one player dominated, or produced a series of tirelessly heroic displays, and it was perhaps no coincidence that its stand-out player was eventually judged to be the clever, unflashy, efficient Algeria midfielder Ismaël Bennacer.
The play was too staccato for the stars to shine at their brightest, the conditions too relentless for anything bar conservation of energy. All of these players were operating in considerably inferior outfits to their club sides, of course, meaning they could be nowhere near as sure teammates would be on the same wavelength. They had also, in the cases of Mane and Salah, been playing football for virtually two years straight – another disadvantage of the event’s timing. If the idea had been to show television audiences a high-intensity Cup of Nations that could hold its own to a global audience, the stage could hardly have been less appropriate.
Three days into the tournament, two of us drove from Alexandria back to Cairo via Salah’s home village, Nagrig. It is deep in the Nile delta, reached via farm tracks that petered into nothing, along the edge of crumbling river banks flanked by rice fields. At that point it felt as though we were heading to the centre of Egyptian success. Egypt had not shone against Zimbabwe and nor had Salah, really, but there seemed to be greater forces at play. I’ve never seen a player hold a stadium in his thrall to the extent that Salah, his every touch drawing theatrically pregnant silences or cacophonous howls of joy, wielded control over the 70,000 who would pack Cairo International Stadium for Egypt’s games. He was both conductor and orchestra, and when he scored against DR Congo in their second Group A fixture it felt as if this tide of emotion, an awesome and barely precedented wave of joy and love for one man, might just be enough to carry them past everyone.
In Nagrig – a silent, virtually empty place – our presence smoked out a gaggle of curious children and, finding a common language by repeating the words “Mohamed Salah”, we were shown the family seat as well as the various community facilities he has helped improve. Later we bumped into his old next-door neighbour and took tea in the home of a man who claimed to be an uncle through marriage. Google came to our rescue, its translation tool facilitating some drawn-out and confusing exchanges. We visited the rocky, forbidding surface he first played on and embarrassed ourselves in an impromptu kickabout against those sure-footed, granite-kneed kids.
Once we had picked our way back through those fields and along those country roads and paths, pushing our hearts back down from our mouths as we did so, we hit the motorway and drove back towards Cairo past the seemingly endless billboard displays depicting Nagrig’s famous son. The immediacy of the contrast brought something home: that you could go from that to this within a few miles, albeit via a lifetime’s dedication and consistent excellence demonstrated around the world. Egyptians understand where Salah has come from to attain this status and the sacrifice – four-hour journeys to training – it has taken to get there, and that is precisely why he has earned it.
Nothing could challenge that. Or so it seemed until the night of that 2-0 win over DR Congo, when Egypt seemed sufficiently on track and also appeared to have made the correct decision in suspending their winger Amr Warda, who had been accused of harassing women online, for the rest of the tournament.
What followed changed the mood entirely. It quickly became clear that Egypt’s players – led by Salah and the Aston Villa full-back Ahmed Elmohamady – had rallied around their friend and urged the Egyptian Football Association to rethink in a meeting that ran into the early hours. Salah tweeted his support for Warda and expressed his desire that he should be offered a second chance, while making it clear that he believed his teammate had made a mistake. The wheels began to fall off.
There had been murmurings about Salah’s disproportionate influence but that is hardly new – you hear the same said of Lionel Messi with Argentina or Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal. But for the first time his words drew ire. It was not exactly a halo slipping – nobody thinks Salah meant to condone sexual harassment, and it is better read as a botched attempt at statesmanship when all concerned should simply have kept quiet and waited – but his equivocation effectively served as an endorsement. #salahsupportssexual- harassment spread like wildfire on Twitter, as did #nationalteamofsexual- harassers. The noise grew louder when the EFA, its spine seemingly having been removed surgically by the players it exists to oversee, agreed Warda could return for the knock-out phase.
It was hard to tell exactly how serious any revolt might be. Chatter on social media is rarely an accurate predictor of activism on the ground but it was clear that, at the very least, the situation had opened up a wider debate on sexual harassment in a country that is not used to such conversations. The talk of boycotts never really came to a lot: Salah scored a superb free-kick when Egypt won their final group game against Uganda and was hailed accordingly. If the atmosphere was a little muted that night it seemed to be more because Egypt were already through to the last 16, without playing especially well, and after the initial flush of excitement people were wondering when the real fun might start.
Six nights after that, at around 10.30pm, I was on a bus back from Alexandria after watching Nigeria defeat Cameroon 3-2 in the round of 16 – congratulating myself on having backed the right horse by covering one of the briskest, brightest knock-out games of any Cup of Nations in living memory rather than another dreary Egypt win over South Africa’s brittle, callow side. We are crowded round someone’s phone: half of us foreign, half Egyptian, tolerating the appalling reception to catch some kind of glimpse as that game seemed destined for extra-time. Then a roar from down the bus: somebody had seen or heard something. Then, after a delay of around a minute, Thembinkosi Lorch’s calm finish could just about be made out through the juddery crackle, sending journalists of all nationalities – but most pointedly the hosts – into disbelieving raptures. The silence inside the stadium, people who witnessed that moment later said, was other-worldly. Yet the racket on the coach told another side of the tale: that swathe of Egyptians could not get rid of their side soon enough.
It would be disingenuous to say the Warda/Salah furore alone had caused that, given that Egypt fans have long-standing issues with the EFA’s governance too. It would also be to misunderstand the wider issues at play. But the reaction to it was a sound indicator that all was not well, that there were other problems to come out. It also fed into the theory that Egyptians had not really wanted the Cup of Nations in the first place, that the only reason to hold it there was a misguided soft-power trip for a nation struggling to attract tourists and positive headlines. Egypt did not really feel like a happy country. Its autocratic president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, oversees a cowed, struggling population who have long since been put back in their box after the bounteous days of the 2011 revolution. Living costs are going up and wages are low. A Cup of Nations felt a distraction – the latter part of the bread and circuses formula – when you consider that the average monthly salary is around US$130 and that the cheapest tickets for knock-out stage games cost around a tenth of that. For the final nobody could get in for under US$30, notionally at least, and it meant that the vast majority of Egypt’s traditional match-going fans stayed at home.
Which was probably how the authorities wanted it. This is a country whose gates have only been reopened – with extreme caution at that – to supporters at domestic games in the wake of the Port Said tragedy of 2012. The state’s distrust of ultras, football fans in general, and indeed large groups of people, is profound and deep-rooted. Egypt may not recover to the extent that it can hold a vibrant, all-singing, all-dancing international tournament in our lifetimes. While low crowds at Cup of Nations games – those involving the hosts excepted – are par for the course, this had seemed an opportunity to buck that trend. Egypt is a country with a widespread love of football and a culture of going to matches (the absence of which has been an issue in other recent hosts: when fans get used to consuming their football by watching European fixtures on television, it requires a major wrench to persuade them to go plan a trip to a stadium a few miles away).
Yet the high prices were allied to a labyrinthine Fan ID system that felt more like direct state surveillance than a genuine attempt to keep stadiums safe. Whoever was profiting from that, it did not seem to be the local fans, who were asked to provide an off-putting amount of personal detail simply to be eligible. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence that it proved a deterrent; there were also many tales of applications being mysteriously kept “pending” for the entire month and of the least appealing games inexplicably being “sold out” for those who did get through. While it was clearly folly at the outset to hold Uganda v DR Congo, played in front of a few hundred, at the vast Cairo International Stadium, venues such as Alexandria could comfortably have been better subscribed with more encouragement. And there was little or no effort made to improve attendance at the semi-finals, such as Senegal v Tunisia at 30 June Stadium, which could barely have been a quarter full for what became a rumbustious encounter replete with missed penalties and – for the true connoisseur – brawls in the press box when rival journalists began goading one another.
As it was, several Burundi players were dismayed to find their families had been kept waiting outside during that once- in-a-lifetime opener against Nigeria. Egypt felt at moments like this like a deeply paranoid police state, mired in bureaucracy and the dead-eyed following of orders. It became a personal quest to make eye contact with some of the hundreds of inscrutable security officers – who often seemed to outnumber the fans present – outside games and flash them a beaming smile. Every now and then it was reciprocated; occasionally, too, there would be a warm “Welcome!”. Egypt was full of people who wanted to help, wanted to be hospitable, wanted to offer their guests the best experience possible. The people encountered throughout the tournament were what made it a genuine pleasure. But the lingering sense was one of a nation, and more specifically its inhabitants, cast in roles they had not asked to perform.
Oh, VAR. It’ll bring certainty, they said. It will end injustice, they said. It has not.
Perhaps everything will settle down and the world will come to an agreement on what a handball looks like again, or just how much contact constitutes a foul, but we are some way off that yet.
There’s no need, here, to go through each decision again. It’s enough merely to say that handball decisions in particular seemed essentially random. What was the difference between the two handball shouts Tunisia had against Senegal in the semi-final? The first was upheld by VAR and led to an extremely harsh yellow card for Kalidou Koulibaly that meant he missed the final, essentially for the crime of having an elbow that a ball was driven into from close range. The second, in extra-time, was overturned, but it similarly was driven at close range into an arm that could not be got out of the way.
And then there was the penalty Senegal were awarded then denied in the final in similar circumstances. By any reasonable measure it was ludicrous, a cross slammed into a hand at close range, but was it really different from Koulibaly’s offence?
This is not just a CAF problem. It’s a global problem. But the fact is that VAR has had the opposite effect to that intended, has led to increased confusion, broken up the flow of games and made every ball hit into the box a lottery. That’s not to say it can never work, but in its current form it is farcical.
The atmosphere in the press room was extraordinary. It was packed – and badly designed so it was impossible to move about without bumping into other people. In one corner the TV showed the other semi-final to which, until things started going bonkers with all the penalties, only the Algerian press paid much attention. Everybody else watched a dodgy feed of the British Grand Prix on one of the CAF computers and then, when that had finished, moved to the epic Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Apart, of course, from me, sweating over ball- by-ball coverage of the Cricket World Cup final and occasionally calling out scores to a South African who remained benignly amused by the whole panorama of journalists covering one event desperately caring about others. For an hour, more, there were constant shouts and oohs and bursts of laughter so I kept looking up trying to work out what had happened where.
As Ben Stokes hit the third ball of Trent Boult’s final over for six, an earnest Egyptian sidled alongside me. “Tell me,” he said. “What do you think of the 24- team format?”
“Not now, mate. The greatest game of cricket in history is about to finish.”
Although as it turned out, it was nowhere near as close to the end as I’d thought. Of course, barely anybody else there cared, although there was a sweet moment just before kick-off as a headscarfed young volunteer came up to Reuters’ venerable Brian Homewood, who had heroically been holding our desks outside, and, carefully enunciating what were evidently very unfamiliar syllables, asked, “Did England win the cricket?” God only knows what state he’d got himself in watching Cricinfo to draw her concern in the first place.
And somehow, after all that, everybody had to pick themselves up for the thing we were actually there to cover. Which was dramatic, as dramatic as you could hope for, as a dominant Algeria took the lead with an own goal then looked like being undone by a VAR-awarded penalty before they seized victory with Riyad Mahrez’s free-kick in the fifth minute of injury-time. Yet, beside Lord’s, beside Wimbledon, it felt almost quotidian. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a concern for an African tournament but an unfortunate consequence of the tournament’s shift to the northern hemisphere summer is that the Cup of Nations now has to compete for global attention with other huge sporting events; in January and February, the way was reasonably clear.
But that shouldn’t be taken as evidence that the expansion to 24 teams was a good idea. Whenever issues of expansion are raised, advocates of the bigger format tend to point to a couple of the notional minnows who excelled. At Euro 2016, it was Wales and Iceland. Here, it was Madagascar and Benin. But the fact is that, in so far as it is possible to judge across different groups, Wales and Iceland were among the 16 best teams in qualifying and so, probably (although the smaller groups makes it a little harder to be sure) were Madagascar and Benin. They got as far as they did in the finals not by a huge fluke but because they are good sides and good sides tend to qualify.
This isn’t really an issue of quality. There isn’t a huge difference in standard between, say, the 10th-best team in CAF and the 24th. It’s not that any side disgraced the competition. The fact that sides like Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, who have had decent Cups of Nations in the recent past, failed to qualify, allied to the fact that the qualification is no longer a given for giants such as Nigeria and Cameroon, indicates a broader truth about African football, which is its expanding middle. The best teams now may not be a match for the sides of 20 years ago, and progress may have stalled in that regard, but there is a growing pool of decent mid-ranking competitors. Do all of them need to be included in a finals tournament? What’s actually the problem with a tough and interesting qualifying series?
To which the answer is sadly obvious. Qualification for the finals brings revenue and status for those who get there. Expansion was an entirely cynical move by Ahmad to secure votes from countries who saw opportunity in there being 50 per cent more qualifiers. And of course CAF is run less for the good of football in Africa but for the political well-being of the delegates, as long afternoons in the gardens at the Marriott made clear.
The CAF Congress came the day before the final. It was predictably ludicrous. Fatma Samoura was confirmed in her role as Commissioner for Africa, something presented as a great triumph when in fact it is a mark of deep shame that CAF cannot be trusted to govern itself. Amaju Pinnick, the president of the Nigeria Football Federation, was sacked as CAF vice-president and replaced, astonishingly, by the old survivor Danny Jordaan of South Africa – a man, as one Nigerian journalist put it, who would sell his right shoe to clean his left. So much for Ahmad’s promise to institute a fresh, cleaner age. In Only Fools and Horses, Trigger celebrated how his broom had endured 20 years with only 17 new heads and 14 new handles; Ahmad has somehow pulled off the opposite trick, constructing his new broom entirely of discredited old parts.
The post-Congress press-conference, scheduled for an hour, was a masterclass in CAF accountability. Ahmad filibustered for 25 minutes, after which there was an irrelevant 15-minute video presentation. That left time for five questions, two of which Ahmad refused to answer and one of which he couldn’t. Beside this shambles, Hayatou’s reign seems a golden age – which it really wasn’t.
CAF will not act for the good of the game and the fact is that a 24-team finals doesn’t work. There is something arbitrary about comparing across different groups to determine the four best third-placed teams but, worse than that, it actually leads to bad football. The first round of group games were broadly entertaining but in the second, almost everybody wanted a draw: teams who’d won their first game knew four points would probably take them through; teams who’d lost wanted a point to stay involved for the third round of matches. And then in those final games, the later groups had a significant advantage, knowing precisely what result would take them through as a best third-place team. It’s unsatisfactory, needlessly increases issues of integrity as teams already qualified take on sides still scrapping for a result, and means a huge number of matches that don’t really mean much. Tournament football should be about jeopardy and drama, which is why this tournament only really began in the knock-out stage.
It ended at Cairo International Stadium, where Algeria and Senegal contested the final. They were comfortably the tournament’s two best sides and probably the only two that would be guaranteed to hold their own, tactically and technically, on a global level. Morocco might have been added to that had they not managed to throw away a gimme of a last-16 tie with Benin in quite extraordinary fashion, Hakim Ziyech missing an added-time penalty to win it and all manner of other chances being squandered. But they had long since gone home and instead Cairo seemed full of Algerians, around 15,000 of whom had descended from along the coast to see a first title since 1990. The Algerian media can be a frenetic presence but I was pleased for those I knew more closely – including Maher Mezahi, the freelancer with whom I had travelled back late at night from Suez in an Uber booming out with victory tunes from his seemingly endless playlist after their quarter-final win over Ivory Coast. How much it meant to him, and to a country that has had a tumultuous year of its own, was clear.
Egypt’s authorities had taken a rare non-interventionist approach to crowd control at the final, perhaps aware that seats needed filling and asking thousands of short-notice, short-term visitors from Algeria to jump through the Fan ID hoops would be more trouble than it was worth. So anyone with an Algerian passport was allowed in; it was presumably a safer option to corral them all in the same place. I had been up late the night before and then up early that morning, a last-minute appointment three hours outside Cairo having unexpectedly come to fruition. I entered the stadium, picked up my match accreditation and stepped outside for a short nap against a well- positioned wall. It was tempting, during a match that was niggly and fragmented even by the standards of major finals, to wonder if I had actually woken up. Algeria deserved their win and had played some sleek, smart attacking football for most of the competition. Here they scored early, a shot from Baghdad Bounedjah deflecting off Salif Sane and dipping late under the bar, delighting that bank of travelling fans, before digging in and reverting to what some might regard as their modern- day type – disrupting, delaying, sniping, scratching, snarling, fouling. It made for barely watchable fare against opponents who ultimately had no answer, Mane enduring another of his quiet days. If this was to be the Cup of Nations’ chance to lure its international audience back, on a Friday night when there was no other football taking place, it was an opportunity missed.
Perhaps we are all doomed eventually to look back to our youth and see a golden age. My first Cup of Nations was Mali in 2002, a tournament from which I instinctively recall long drives through the savanna soundtracked by the remarkable collection of west African blues owned by Brian Oliver, the then-sports editor of the Observer, interspersed with lazy dinners of perch and couscous, roadside picnics of bread and tinned sardines that had a magical capacity to draw local herdsmen, and scenes of incredible celebration in the streets whenever Mali avoided defeat. And yet in that tournament I also had my phone and wallet nicked, saw two friends hospitalised after a dodgy ham sandwich and suffered an adverse reaction to an anti-malarial.
The football perhaps has undergone a similar upgrade. Ask me now and I’ll tell you about the Nigeria of Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West and Kanu, the Senegal of El Hadji Diouf, Khalilou Fadiga, Salif Diao and Aliou Cissé or the Cameroon of Patrick M’Boma, Samuel Eto’o, Rigobert Song and Geremi, squads that it seemed might genuinely be able to push on – as Senegal did later that year – and reach the quarter- finals of the World Cup or more. But the reality, for all the potential of those sides, was that the football in Mali was pretty grim. In Egypt this summer there was an average of 1.96 goals per game, the lowest since Mali 2002.
The temptation is to wonder what has gone wrong, to ask why the sense of progress, the development from Algeria in 82 to Morocco in 86 to Cameroon in 90 to Nigeria in 94 and Senegal in 02 had stalled. There is no squad now that can match the depth of Cameroon, Senegal or Nigeria in 2002. Nobody thinks it likely there will be an African winner of the World Cup in the next 10 or even 20 years. And yet the three top-scorers in the Premier League in 2018-19 – Salah, Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – were African. Perhaps that is where development has come: that there are now African players scattered throughout European leagues. It’s not an uncomplicated issue: clearly the export of so much talent is bad for domestic leagues and the audiences that might follow them, but in terms of enhancing their earning potential and providing the best possible coaching environment it’s good for the players.
And what is telling is that African players brought up in European academies, whose club experience is broadly within the European game, are now returning as national coaches. This was the first Cup of Nations final since 1998 in which both sides had managers from their own country. Djamel Belmadi won 20 caps for Algeria; Aliou Cissé 35 for Senegal. Yet Belmadi was born in Champigny- sur-Marne, a commune eight miles south-east of Paris, while Cissé moved there at the age of nine. Both played their youth football in France before peripatetic careers.
That’s why, after Nigeria’s semi-final defeat to Algeria, it was so weird to hear some sections of the Nigerian press complaining that their German manager Gernot Rohr’s main fault was that he didn’t play a sufficiently Nigerian game. Quite apart from the troubling issue of stereotyping an essentially mythical national style, or the question of when, if ever, Nigeria had played in a characteristically Nigerian way (the 1996 Olympics, perhaps?), or even the point that Rohr seemed to have done as well as could realistically have been expected with an essentially average squad, there was the sense of a category error. National styles mean very little when the majority of the best players operate in one of five leagues and almost every successful side these days plays some form of pressing game with zonal marking and at least a measure of fluency of position.
Certainly that’s how Belmadi’s Algeria, Cissé’s Senegal and Rohr’s Nigeria played. There was a flexibility to Belmadi’s 4-1-4-1 that, aided by Bounedjah’s aggression at centre- forward, gave them creative edge. At the same time, though, they could tweak their approach, as they did against Nigeria in the semi-final, to shut down the space available to their opponent’s wingers. After a decade of individual winners, from Zambia’s 2012 fairy-tale to Cameroon’s dogged success in 2017, who didn’t fit much of a trend, Algeria seemed to herald a new era of tactical modernity.
Which is what makes what happened in the final so frustrating. Plenty of teams have won big games in cynical, uninspiring ways. But as Algeria had much fluency against teams that sat deep against them, they had been by far the best team in the tournament. Had they simply played, particularly against a Senegal side without the suspended Kalidou Koulibaly, they would probably have won with a level of ease. As it was, they spent the second half under pressure, fearing the sort of equaliser they’d conceded in the semi-final against Nigeria. It’s hard to believe that was a conscious policy, that Djamel Belmadi really believed that, in a world in which various law changes have made defending increasingly difficult, stifling the game was the best approach. Which means, presumably, that the change of approach was born of insecurity, a lack of faith in their own abilities leading to the refuge of shithousery.
Perhaps that’s understandable for a team that had not won the Cup of Nations in 29 years feeling the additional pressure of wanting, in some ill-defined way, to honour the Hirak, the pro- democracy demonstrations that led to the resignation of the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. But it was also out of keeping with much of what Belmadi had achieved, and out of keeping with the general feel of the tournament.