After a surprising tournament, the final match of the Africa Cup of Nations will feature the 2015 and 2013 champions, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. While the teams may be familiar, the tournament itself has been unique. Tournaments often have their own patterns, but this year’s Cup of Nations has shown significant improvement, building upon themes from the previous edition in Cameroon.
Over the past two weeks, there has been a significant shift in the overall mood of Ivory Coast. Despite initial frustration during the group stage, which even resulted in cars being set on fire after their 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea, the team has experienced a surge of disbelief and excitement. They managed to overcome Senegal, despite being down 1-0 with only four minutes left; Mali, again trailing 1-0 and reduced to 10 players in the final minutes; and then, more comfortably, DR Congo with a 1-0 win in the semi-final. With the return of Sébastien Haller and Simon Adingra from injuries, the feeling of miraculous victories has diminished and the hosts are now displaying the strong team they were expected to be at the start of the tournament.
Nigeria has gone through a comparable path. It may seem unsatisfying that two teams who faced each other in the group stage (with Nigeria winning 1-0) are now meeting in the final, but it is also disorienting and implies randomness since they both finished as runner-up and third place in their group behind Equatorial Guinea. However, this also shows the growth and development of the finalists throughout the tournament.
The coach, José Peseiro, has faced widespread criticism in Nigeria due to a disappointing build-up to the team’s matches. Despite facing delays in payment and a reduction in salary, he has managed to create a strong and efficient team that has only conceded two goals in six games. Peseiro has defended his team’s lackluster performance in friendly matches, stating that it is all a part of the process. This pragmatic approach is reminiscent of 2013 when Stephen Keshi faced similar criticism for his team’s style of play, but ultimately led Nigeria to victory in the Cup of Nations. History seems to be repeating itself as Nigeria once again faces a team they had previously played in the group stage, Burkina Faso, in the final.
The Cup of Nations is not solely focused on the on-field action. All global soccer competitions involve an element of soft power. The inaugural World Cup in 1930 was also a way for Uruguay to commemorate their 100 years of independence and for their leader at the time, Juan Campisteguy, to promote the batllista heritage that had allowed them to have a thriving economy and culture, able to host and triumph in a major international event.
Approximately half of the population of Ivory Coast, which is 25 million people, lives on less than $1.20 per day. In this situation, it may be difficult to justify spending $1 billion (or possibly more, depending on whether the official figure is believed) on a football tournament that lasts for a month. The exact amount of money that has been used for building stadiums and improving infrastructure, such as the road to San Pedro and the bridges over the Ebrie Lagoon in Abidjan, cannot be determined. However, as hundreds of thousands of Ivorians have taken to the streets to celebrate in cities like Yamoussoukro, Bouaké, and Abidjan, it may seem to the Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, that the money has been well spent. This is especially significant considering that until recently, the country was plagued by conflict.
In 2007, Didier Drogba was awarded the African footballer of the year award and he chose to present it in Bouaké, the rebel capital. He also convinced the national team to play a qualifier for the Africa Cup of Nations in the same city. This event marked the beginning of football’s role in promoting reconciliation after Ivory Coast’s two civil wars.
In many countries that are divided based on social, ethnic, or religious differences, the national team serves as a clear symbol of unity.
Either Nigeria wins their fourth Cup of Nations, tying them with Ghana for the third most successful team in the tournament’s history, or Ivory Coast wins their third title, putting them on par with Nigeria. This highly anticipated final features two heavyweight teams. However, the overall narrative of the tournament has been one of a growing number of teams competing, but not necessarily at a higher level. In fact, it could be described as more of a rectangular prism, with a slightly thicker middle, rather than a pyramid.
This current Ivory Coast team does not compare to the talented group of players, including Drogba and the Tourés, who narrowly missed out on winning the tournament multiple times before finally succeeding in 2015. Similarly, Nigeria is not as strong as the late 90s and early 2000s team led by Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, and Sunday Oliseh. It is a positive sign that teams as skilled as Senegal, Morocco, and Algeria have been eliminated before the quarter-finals, and that the final eight teams are different from those in previous tournaments. It is also worth noting that teams like Cape Verde, Angola, Mauritania, and Equatorial Guinea have all made an impact in their own unique ways.
It is encouraging to see two previous powerhouses reach the semi-finals, despite having valid concerns about the longevity of their achievements. Mamelodi Sundowns, owned by CAF president Patrice Motsepe in South Africa, holds financial dominance while domestic turmoil in DR Congo poses a challenge for the other team.
Assessing the excellence of football is inevitably based on personal opinion, but this has likely been the most elevated standard at a Cup of Nations in the 21st century, despite a decrease in goals since the conclusion of the group stage.
The players have fulfilled their role, performing better than in Cameroon, enabling a more contemporary style of passing football. However, the field at Ebimpé, where the final will take place, has been the least satisfactory in the tournament. In the group stage, it was evident that coaches were aiming for a more forward-thinking and less cautious approach to football, which is not often seen at the Cup of Nations. This could be attributed to the decrease in French journeyman players, which is a crucial part of African football’s post-colonial progress.
Despite both familiar powers being in the final, there has been a clear feeling of growth in Ivory Coast. This includes improvements in coaching, infrastructure, and the number of teams that are able to compete.