The overriding theme of AFCON 2015 was undoubtedly one of Ivoirian redemption. Favourites for virtually every tournament across the last decade, Les Éléphants were perceived as being both fundamentally flawed psychologically and a disaster waiting to happen defensively.
Yet under Hervé Renard – who in masterminding Ivory Coast’s victory becomes the first man to lift Africa’s most prestigious crown with two separate nations – they were a side reborn. The Frenchmen instilled both discipline and togetherness, alongside a sense of character that had long deserted the West Africans.
A blend of youth together with the remaining fragments of the golden generation reaped dividends, as the previously much maligned Elephants visibly blossomed through the tournament’s progression – perhaps the seminal result, from a mental perspective at least, being a 3-1 quarter-final triumph over Algeria.
Ghana’s penalty defeat was gut-wrenching – the sight of a distraught Andre Ayew made difficult viewing – nonetheless having left Brazil in undeniable disgrace just six months earlier, the Black Stars can at least take comfort in the fact they have restored much needed pride back home. Avram Grant has harboured much criticism, but there is little question that under his gaze the Black Stars resemble an altogether more cohesive unit – whether that was a direct result of the Israeli’s input is however difficult to gauge.
With a squad still relatively youthful and considering that the Black Stars were missing their most indispensable player in the form of Kwadwo Asamoah, there is enough evidence to indicate that at least in the short term Ghana will continue to hover around the pinnacle of the continent.
Having already overcome substantial Ebola related adversity to make it this far – which included being forced to relocate from Conakry and being subject to substantial prejudiced along the way – Guinea had little to prove in Equatorial Guinea. The Syli National however extended their compelling voyage, by negotiating an arduous group consisting of Ivory Coast, Mali and Cameroon. The eventual progression method of lots was fortunate, but it was luck that nobody could say the Guineans didn’t deserve.
Without an AFCON win in 41 years little was anticipated of a limited Republic of Congo, even accounting for the evergreen Claude le Roy in their corner. An opening draw with hosts Equatorial Guinea was perceived as terminally detrimental to the Red Devils progression credentials, yet just days later their prolonged wait to taste victory was ended via a victory over perplexed Gabon.
The delay for another win was minimal, with success over Burkina Faso ensuring le Roy a remarkable eighth quarter-final appearances and for Republic of Congo a momentous knockout stage appearance.
DR Congo were the very definition of opportunistic, having advanced from a depressingly dour Group B courtesy of their two goals being superior to that of Cape Verde – after both had drawn all three fixtures. The Leopards had already qualified in fortuitous manner through being qualification’s lucky loser, yet all that was forgotten in 25 remarkable second half minutes against neighbours Republic of Congo – DR Congo scoring four times during the games final quarter to reverse both a 2-0 deficit and an ignominious exit.
The Leopards rarely threated to trouble Ivory Coast in their subsequent semi-final, yet Florent Ibenge’s young side showcased more than enough to suggest their previous 17 year wait for a quarter-final appearance will not be repeated for some time.
Qualification had hinted at a rejuvenated Cameroon following the Indomitable Lions car crash showing in Brazil; however the actual finals proved the rebirth to be little more than cosmetic. Puzzling tactics from Volker Finke hardly helped, with the constant exclusion of Clinton N’Jie particularly mystifying, whilst in hindsight opting against recalling the troublesome Alex Song now represents a baffling move given Cameroon’s absence of creativity.
Tunisia will unequivocally lay the blame for their controversial exit at the door of Rajindraparsad Seechurn, nevertheless the cynical Carthage Eagles were partly responsible for their own downfall. The manner in which Ghana dismissed an albeit spent Equatorial Guinea would suggest a degree more invention would have seen the North Africans advance to the last four, rather than leaving the tournament in disgrace following their inexcusable reaction to circumstances conspiring against them on that infamous night in Bata.
The missed opportunities
The stars aligned in perfect fashion for one of Burkina Faso or Gabon to fashion a route to the last four, yet both folded in the face of anticipation. The persistently wasteful Burkinabe cut a shadow of the side who reached the final two years ago, whilst having beaten the Stallions in game one a youthful Gabon seemingly imploded amidst the heightened expectancies born out of that success.
Favourites in many people’s eyes, Algeria once again came unstuck in Sub-Saharan Africa. In many ways a failure to top the so-called group of death proved pivotal to their undoing, given that a last minute defeat to Ghana – arguably the result of an overly cautious display – meant a quarter-final date with Ivory Coast. That fixture in truth was dictated by only minor margins and arguably represented the game of the tournament, although that will be little consolation to the Fennec Foxes.
Only lots denied Mali a last eight berth. That acrimonious demise will however be doused with the frustration of having squandered leads in the dying embers against both Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Normally the definition of tournament savvy, those uncharacteristic moments of ill-discipline will be bitter pills to swallow for a nation who on the whole belittled talk of a terminal decline.
The emotional success of three years ago is now a distant memory for a Zambia side whose time in Equatorial Guinea was beset by profligacy infront of goal. That they finished bottom in questionably the most limited group signalling a murky future for Chipolopolo.
Having enjoyed an astronomical rise through recent years Cape Verde suffered an alarming fall in the form of a failure to navigate a weak group B. The islanders were consistently void of creativity and having disparaged the odds for such a prolonged period, there are now significant worries in regards to just how long the Blue Sharks can continue mixing with the continent’s best.
South Africa may have only acquired a single point but in a tournament lacking exuberance their free flowing approach was a welcome alternative. A lack of clinical edge ultimately cost them in what was undeniably the toughest group, nevertheless under Shakes Mashaba Bafana Bafana are finally moving in the right direction.
Top of the group going into the concluding round of games Senegal’s AFCON was tinged in frustration. An overly restrained approach against South Africa hardly helped the Teranga Lions cause, although they were also hindered by an all too familiar problem in the form of lacking the spark to fully utilise their imposing attacking artillery.
Despite the frustration, for a nation who have grossly underachieved in recent times, Senegal showcased signs of progress and without question were the victims of the group of death.
Billed as nothing more than making up the numbers, Equatorial Guinea discounted a world ranking of 113th and calamitous preparations in an eventful run to the last four – although the ugly events that unfolded in that semi-final somewhat tarnished that remarkable accomplishment.
Having disparaged the odds in similar fashion when hosting back in 2012, the ‘National Thunder’ quickly returned to the relative minnow pool and a comparable fate likely awaits this curious nation once again.