Rewind your mind back to February 2015. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were stampeding their way to the Premier League crown in an almost ceremonial manner, a pre-deflate gate Tom Brady had just helped the New England Patriots to their fourth ever Super Bowl and Novak Djokovic had just steamrolled his way to a fifth Australian Open title.
It’s fair to assume that the attention and enthusiasm of the sporting world, let alone the football community, was most certainly not fixed on the goings-on in the central African country of Equatorial Guinea.
The 2015 Africa Cup of Nations took place in acrimonious circumstances. Morocco had been selected to host the biannual festival of football, but due to the Ebola virus epidemic the government of Morocco requested a postponement of the tournament. After a bitter dispute between the Royal Moroccan Football Federation and CAF, they were eventually stripped of their hosting rights. A crisis loomed with Sudan, Egypt, South Africa, Angola and Ghana all refusing to host the tournament. Eventually, it fell to the plucky Republic of Equatorial Guinea to take on the mantle and save the day.
The final on this occasion resulted in the Ivory Coast, managed by the charismatic Hervé Renard, getting the better of Ghana, who were managed by the let’s say slightly less charismatic Avram Grant. The match itself didn’t exactly live up to its already depleted level of hype.
0-0 after 120 minutes, it took six rounds of sudden death penalties to separate the teams. In the end it was the cynical heroics of 35-year-old Boucabar Barry who wrote himself into Ivorian folklore. His antics in the penalty shootout consisted of extravagantly complaining of various forms of injury and cramp in between penalties. Barry eventually saved and scored the penultimate and last penalty respectively, to send the Ivorian fans into ecstasy.
The colour, magic and excitement that flowed around the Estadia de Bata was wondrous, made even more so by Renard stripping down to his bare shorts (displaying the physique of a man who has nothing to be insecure about coming up to his 50th birthday) and partaking in a lap of honour around the stadium. The match may have been dull, but the atmosphere and sense of occasion was anything but.
Fast forward to February 5 2017 and just as spectators the world over are gearing up for a night of hot wings, Lady Gaga and attempting to decipher what exactly constitutes a “down”, it’s another two of the powerhouses of Africa competing in the Africa Cup of Nations final; Cameroon and Egypt.
Egypt come into the game as favourites, having won each of the last three Africa Cup of Nations they qualified for (they failed to qualify in 2015, 2013 and 2012). Indeed, it was the Egyptians who broke the deadlock through Mohamed Elneny, who does exactly what he never does for Arsenal and rifles the ball into the roof of the net. However, it was not to be the Egyptian’s night.
A towering header from Nicolous Nkolou cancelled out the opener. Then with only minutes left on the clock Vincent Aboubakar stepped up with a display of poise and finesses to score a goal that would have been heralded the globe over if scored in the Nou Camp or Bernabeu. Scenes of pure, unbridled jubilation breaks out amongst the Cameroon supporters. The likes of Joel Matip, who staunchly refused to play for his country during this tournament, could surely only feel foolish as he watched on from Merseyside to see the Indomitable Lions and their supporters become kings of Africa.
As evidenced from the ecstasy and agony that was seen in these two finals, it is clear that the Africa Cup of Nations is very much beating strong. Premier League teams may complain that they lose prized assets for a period of the season and others may point to the questionable organisation of these tournaments by CAF.
That being said, at the very core of the Africa Cup of Nations you have the people and fans from the nations of Africa and it is them who bring such colour, energy and culture to the sport who truly deserve this unique tournament.
Eoin Ó Catháin, Pundit Arena