Over the course of the last two weeks the African Cup of Nations football tournament has been playing out its myriad dramas across the host nation of South Africa. Historically played every in even numbered years, The Confederation of African Football (CAF) decided to switch to an odd-numbered-year format in no small part so as to avoid conflicting with the World Cup and European Championships. This means that this year’s African Cup follows fairly quickly on the heels of last year’s, which Equatorial Guinea and Gabon jointly hosted (and which Zambia won, to the shock of virtually every observer outside of Zambia) but to my mind the change is smart, especially in avoiding conflicts with World Cup years.
On the pitch the tournament has proven endlessly fascinating. The first games in the group stages were often desultory affairs, with the bulk ending in draws. But by the second round of group clashes the tournament began to take shape and the last day of the group stages had virtually every game carrying considerable consequence. We can argue endlessly about the quality of the actual play without coming to a resolution, but it is not debatable that on the whole it has been a wonderfully tense tournament.
And we may as well doff our hats to the West African squads, who effectively reminded all of us just how much better that region is than any other on the continent. Seven of the eight teams to make the knockout round (Ghana, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cape Verde, Togo and Burkina Faso, with only South Africa crashing the ECOWAS party), all four semifinalists (Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire) , and the two teams advancing to the finals all come from West Africa. This is all the more remarkable given that traditional powerhouse sides such as Cameroon and Senegal failed to advance to the tournament.
The finals will pit upstart Burkina Faso, making their first showing in the championship round of the CAF tournament after their penalty shootout win over four-rime CAF champions Ghana in the semifinals, against the mighty Super Eagles of Nigeria, which crushed Mali 4-1 to advance this far. This is a game the Nigerians ought to win handily according to any form chart one might construct. Yet this tournament has a long history of underdogs emerging from the shadow of giants to win. Just a year ago Zambia managed to eke out victory in a penalty shooting marathon against Cote d’Ivoire. And Nigeria has a longstanding history of disappointment on the big stages of tournaments. They ought to be the continent’s footballing giants based on population, the potential resources that the national federation ought to be able to marshal, and the bounty of players in both quality and volume that the country cultivates. And yet for a range of reasons — corruption and internal chaos being chief among them — Nigeria rarely lives up to its advance billing. Sunday will provide their opportunity to add a third CAF star to the national kit (they previously won in 1980 and 1994). If forced to predict the outcome I’d say that Nigeria will prevail 3-1. But predictions in the African Cup of Nations, mine not least of all, tend to look foolish after the fact.
From the vantage point of the hosts, the 2013 CAF probably represents a half-empty glass. There is little doubt that the country has done a fine job of hosting the event. There have been organizational quibbles here and there, but certainly no country in Africa can provide the combination of infrastructure, organizational acumen, resources, and political stability that South Africa can for an event such as this, especially after the 2010 World Cup. But on the pitch Bafana Bafana once again flopped. The country’s fans and not a few of the solons of the country’s sporting hierarchy would put themselves in the category of Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Egypt as the sides to be most respected, but this is fanciful. South Africa is comfortably ensconced in the second tier despite all of the advantages the country has, including all of the aforementioned resources, arguably the best domestic league in Sub-Sharan Africa, and a clear national commitment to sport. It is nice that Bafana Bafana won their group (barely) and advanced to the knockout round. But is the state of South African soccer really such that making the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations is now cause for anything other than embarrassment?
But these are questions for the South Africans to ask and answer. On Sunday, Nigeria and Burkina Faso will face off in the giant Calabash at Soccer City, and one of them will be able to claim continental supremacy for the next two years.