Feature: Why the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament matters

Jerrad Peters argues why Africa's biggest sporting event, the Africa Cup of Nations matters as the tournament reaches the semi-final.

Ghana are one of the favourites for the tournament

It’s a question I wrestled with in the run-up to the tournament, and I doubt I was alone.

The 2013 instalment of the continental championship, which began last month and will conclude on Sunday, is the third Cup of Nations to be played in the last four years and the second in succession. The Confederation of African Football decided to move its centrepiece from the even-numbered years to the odd so as to avoid congestion with World Cup qualifiers, but rather than waiting three years between competitions opted to have two of them back-to-back.

“More is better,” was the mantra, but it’s never one I bought into. And when the first two match-days produced only five goals and one winner it seemed as though the players were as uninspired as I.

No doubt some of them were, which is why they’re no longer in South Africa. The teams that remain, meanwhile, came here to have a go, each of them motivated by something that helped propel them into the semifinals.

For example, try telling Burkina Faso this Cup of Nations doesn’t matter.

Only once before have the Stallions emerged from their group at a Cup of Nations (1998), and like Ivory Coast they arrived in South Africa hoping to give their national icon something of a send-off.

Didier Drogba needs no introduction, although he and his Ivorian teammates came up short once again in their search for that elusive piece of international silverware. But Moumouni Dagano is still involved in the tournament. Now 32, he is one of the best players Burkina Faso have ever produced and enjoyed several productive seasons at club level in Belgium and France. He was part of the 2002 Genk side that won the Belgian title and in 2007 lifted the Coupe de France with Sochaux.

A continental final would be the perfect farewell for Dagano, and given the competition-ending injury suffered by Alain Traoré in Burkina Faso’s final Group Stage match against Zambia it’s remarkable that they’ve even come this far. They’ll face Ghana in Wednesday’s second semifinal.

Try telling Ghana this Cup of Nations doesn’t matter.

It has been 31 years since the Black Stars last claimed a continental championship—a span over which they’ve lost a pair of finals and three semifinal matches. Tipped to win it all when they hosted the Cup of Nations in 2008, they went out at this stage to Cameroon, who themselves lost to Egypt in the final, and two years later in Angola it was Ghana who fell to the Pharaohs. In 2012 they were defeated by eventual winners Zambia in the semifinals.

Ghana have been the form side from the get-go in South Africa. After playing Congo DR to an entertaining 2-2 draw in their opening Group Stage match they snuck a 1-0 decision over Mali and then thumped Niger 3-0 to close out the opening round. On Saturday they beat Cape Verde 2-0 in the quarterfinals.

Asamoah Gyan, who has fallen off the radar somewhat at UAE side Al Ain and has a rather complicated history with the national team, has been one of the tournament’s best players so far and is thriving in the role of captain. He has formed a dynamic partnership with Christian Atsu, and Wakaso Mubarak, who scored both goals against Cape Verde, has picked up the scoring slack when needed.

Ghana are the best side remaining at this Cup of Nations, and they were among the best when they arrived. If Ivory Coast were the co-favourites Ghana are now the favourite because, quite simply, they wanted it more.

Try telling Nigeria this Cup of Nations doesn’t matter.

Champions in 1980 and 1994, the Super Eagles made it at least as far as the semifinals in five of the six tournaments between 2000 and 2010 before failing to qualify for the 2012 competition in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

The letdown of not even being involved in the Cup of Nations marked a low point for Nigerian football, but only a year later they are back where they belong—contending for major honours. And Stephen Keshi is largely to thank.

The Nigeria manager has picked his teams bravely in South Africa. He didn’t even invite West Bromwich Albion striker Peter Odemwingie into the team (a decision vindicated by Odemwingie’s behaviour on transfer deadline day), and other establishment favourites such as Yakubu, John Utaka and Obafemi Martins were left out of the squad as well.

In their place Keshi chose a handful of domestic-based players, including Sunshine Stars defender Godfrey Oboabona and Enugu Rangers midfielder Sunday Mba—both of whom started against Ivory Coast. Mba ended up scoring the winner. The Nigeria of 2013 are a much more organised group than previous instalments—something Keshi cited in his post-match comments on Sunday.

“I am glad my team is progressing in every game,” he said. “There is great discipline in the team and I just hope we keep going that way.”

Nigeria will face Mali in Wednesday’s first semifinal.

Try telling Mali this Cup of Nations doesn’t matter.

When the Eagles landed in South Africa ahead of the tournament their country, which endured a coup nearly a year ago, was trying to defend the cities of the south against Islamist rebels who had already captured much of the north. France was about to lead a counter-offensive, but progress was yet to be made on that front.

“Our win ensures that Mali can hold their heads high,” stated national team captain Seydou Keita after his side’s quarterfinal victory against South Africa. “They will all be celebrating and for us to provide the joy is an honour.”

Keita had the Malian tricolour wrapped around his shoulders as he addressed reporters.

“I’m wearing the flag that is flying in the north now as proudly as it is flying in the south,” he said. “It has been as important for us to win for the people as it has been for ourselves.”

Mali manager Patrice Carteron added to his captain’s sentiments, saying he was glad to have learned that French president Francois Hollande had watched the quarterfinal alongside Mali’s acting president Kiocounda Traoré.

“When people have been frustrated for many months, they will have wanted to express many things,” he said. “Football and our results help in this. It is a great honour, and it’s amazing to see all the scenes of joy in Mali.”

Does it matter, indeed.

By: Jerrad Peters

READERS COMMENTS