Many critics never gave AFCON a shot and dismissed it as a new year nuisance. It deserves major tournament respect – and refereeing standards.
The build to this month’s Africa Cup of Nations was shrouded in derision and disrespect. While that could be construed simply as clubs wanting to keep players for respective title challenges and relegation battles instead of pursuing mid-season national success on their home continent, it was still far from deserved.
But the sense of unease around the way AFCON is perceived comes from a much deeper place. Sections of the media have asked players if they wanted to go and whether they should be loyal to those who pay their wages at a pivotal point in the campaign, as if representing their countries in a major tournament was somehow of lesser importance. The common response to this sort of question was: “You wouldn’t be saying this about the Euros.”
As uncomfortable as it would be to admit, that is the truth. Not because it happens outside a regulated FIFA international window and therefore impacts on top clubs, which may be the more palatable explanation. The reality is football, as it so often does, mirrors society, and so is battling with an ingrained sense of elitism. If it isn’t centred around Europe or possibly South America – the continents to which every World Cup winner belong – then it simply doesn’t warrant thinking about for some. Perhaps it is subconscious, but this is what the players who were forced to defend their position in wanting to fulfil a dream in their national colours have been constantly faced with.
For those who do believe the only issue with this competition is its proximity to the season, it is worth remembering that CAF, the African football governing body had moved it to the summer, in line with the European Championships and World Cup, only for Covid-19 to force a delay. It was almost pushed back again before commencing on January 9. Once that decision was made and it became clear that stars like Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were being pulled away from the Premier League for a few weeks, the patronising dismissals should have stopped and AFCON should have been looked at in exactly the same way as the Euros were in the summer.
Back in June, all the talk was about how great it was to see fans attending games again. There was constant talk about the noise, the spectacle, the feeling and the unique nature of international tournaments being the perfect antidote to the utter misery and affliction caused by the pandemic. Watch any of the games at AFCON and the feeling is there; the atmosphere, the joy and the party can all be seen. Listen to the national anthems and there is the passion. See Salah, Mane and so many others and there is the quality.
The stories are in Comoros making history in their tournament debut, or heavyweights like Nigeria and Egypt, two early favourites, going head to head in the group stage, and that match being settled by a stunning Kelechi Iheanacho goal. Or in the depths of Friday evening, when Gabon, without the talismanic Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, stunned Ghana with a late equaliser.
But still, there are those waiting for it to be over and for Salah to be back at Anfield or Wilfred Ndidi to be anchoring the Leicester midfield again. Of course, over here, these are the pressing concerns, but that is the point: across the world, other things are more important than what Europe wants. AFCON is an entire continent’s big moment; it should not just be tolerated, but celebrated.
They knew it, too. This was a chance to show the tournament’s worth, to demonstrate what makes it so special. So when the most bizarre football moment of the year – worth calling now despite 2022 being just a fortnight old – occurred as Tunisia faced Mali on Wednesday, it caused huge embarrassment. Referee Janni Sikazwe, who had already given two penalties and a red card earlier in the game, blew for full time on 85 minutes, only for play to restart. Moments later, though, he blew to end the game again. Once more, it was before the 90 minutes were up.
There was fury in the Tunisian camp, 1-0 down at the time, and confusion from Mali. There has still been no explanation of the incident and why it happened, but after it was agreed stoppage time would be played with the fourth official in charge, Tunisia refused to return to the pitch 40 minutes after going off. Just to add to the farce, Mali’s press conference was interrupted by the restart announcement.
As of now, Tunisia’s attempt to have the game replayed has been denied and Mali’s victory ratified.
In terms of the tournament’s reputation, with so much being made of it in comparison to the Euros and Copa America, this incident is disastrous. Critics and those who treat AFCON with derision will hardly have been pacified, and it could leave a lasting legacy in some ways. But it doesn’t deserve that; there has been entertainment on show so far with much more to come. It is entirely plausible that the true reason for the Sikazwe saga will never be revealed, but in 2006, Graham Poll, a respected Premier League referee, booked a Croatian player three times in a World Cup match. Yet that didn’t overshadow Italy’s fourth title.
This month of football shouldn’t be tarred by one crazy, unexplainable incident. African football deserves to be heralded as much as any other continent.