It may be the world’s most overplayed tournament, yet the Africa Cup of Nations never ceases to deliver fascinating storylines, unexpected champions and heroes you never would have thought had it in them to rise to the occasion.
The 2013 instalment was no exception.
Once again Ghana and Ivory Coast arrived at the competition as overwhelming favourites (Algeria had also been tipped for glory by some, but theirs was always a status much over-hyped), and once again neither made it past the semifinals. Ethiopia’s involvement for the first time since 1982 was a feel-good story, and unfancied South Africa managed to exit the event they hosted with their honour intact.
As far as individuals are concerned, Mali’s Seydou Keita—who played his heart out for a bleeding homeland—was the inspirational figure of the three weeks; Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel the best player. Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune and Super Eagles midfielder Sunday Mba will surely be among the many Africa-based players tipped for transfers to European clubs in the coming months.
Following are the teams and players that made the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations interesting to me, with a handful of other observations thrown in just because.
- Ivory Coast. Let the term “Golden Generation” never again be uttered about this team, nor any that come after it. It’s an irritating descriptor and had more than a little to do with the repeated failures of Drogba, Toure & Co.
- Cape Verde. They were no match for Ghana in the quarterfinals, but by then they had already achieved their objective, progressing from a difficult group that counted Morocco and Angola as its victims. The image of their players and manager singing the national anthem at the press conference following their 2-1 win over Angola will remain one of the more enduring of this Cup of Nations.
- Mali. They arrived in South Africa just as the French army was preparing an offensive to dislodge Islamist rebels from the large chunk of the country they had captured in recent months. Had they won the championship it would have made for a fantastic story, but the pride they took in coming third shattered the notion that third-place matches are meaningless.
- Burkina Faso. Bakary Koné arrived in South Africa desperate for first-team football after losing his place at Lyon. He played all six matches for the Stallions and was a key figure in the defensive record that saw them keep an incredible 380-minute clean sheet.
- Nigeria. Champions for a third time, and deservedly champions. Previous versions of the Super Eagles had cultivated a reputation as a disorganized bunch who played for themselves instead of each other, but under manager Stephen Keshi they exuded discipline and work ethic. Hardly a pre-tournament favourite, they deservedly beat Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals, shellacked Mali in the semis and were hardly bothered at all by Burkina Faso in the final.
- Stephen Kesi. He bravely omitted several of his country’s establishment players (Yakubu, Obafemi Martins and Peter Odemwingie among them) and called up five home-based internationals for the Cup of Nations, one of which—Sunday Mba—would go on to be one of the competition’s best midfielders. He also railed against the bias against black coaches in African football and, himself, became the first black coach to guide a team to the title in 22 years.
- Alain Traoré. His goals had a lot to do with Burkina Faso’s progression from Group C, and even after he went down with a thigh injury against Ethiopia he still yearned to be part of the team. After receiving some treatment back in France (he plays his club football at Lorient) he returned to Johannesburg and joined his countrymen on the bench, where manager Paul Put had the class to name him a substitute for Sunday’s final.
- Emmanuel Adebayor. You have to love a guy who refers to himself in the first person. “The great Adebayor.”
- Itumeleng Khune. The South Africa goalkeeper hauled his offense-challenged side into the quarterfinals, where they lost on penalties to Mali. His rise to Bafana Bafana’s number-one shirt is movie material. After leaving home to earn money for his family he wound up as a ball boy for his club before catching a coach’s eye with his goaltending skills. The rest is history.
- John Obi Mikel. He was the player of the tournament, even though he wasn’t officially recognized with the honour. Burkina Faso winger Jonathan Pitroipa claimed the gong, and while he had a good tournament it was Mikel who truly shone. A controversial personality in the Premier League, he played with poise and maturity at the Cup of Nations, marshalling a midfield that left Burkina Faso no room to manoeuvre at Soccer City.
- A two-year break. The next Africa Cup of Nations is in 2015 and I, for one, could use the break. Three tournaments in four years is overkill, especially when the qualification process has to be expedited to accommodate it.