Joel Omotto, bird story agency
Hosts Cote d’Ivoire are still celebrating their victory after edging Nigeria 2-1 in a thrilling final to win the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
The Elephants stayed true to their character as they came from a goal down to defeat Nigeria, ending an event that had captured the attention of the world.
AFCON 2023 has been lauded as the best in history and it is not hard to understand why, given the major wins achieved in Cote d’Ivoire on and off the pitch.
The Elephants’ Resilience
The Ivorians managed just one win in three group-stage games, beating Guinea-Bissau 2-0 in the tournament’s opening match, followed by a 1-0 loss to Nigeria and a humiliating 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Equatorial Guinea.
That left them clutching at straws and having to wait until the final round of group-stage matches to know if they would advance to the knockout round as one of the four best third-place teams.
They squeezed through thanks to Morocco’s victory over Zambia and since then, they have never looked back.
In the Round of 16, they were four minutes from elimination until a late equalizer against holders Senegal before they went on to send the Teranga Lions packing via post-match penalties.
More drama ensued in the quarter-final, where they conceded early against Mali before having a man sent off in the 43rd minute but equalized in the 90th minute to force extra time, where they found the winner.
After a 1-0 win over DR Congo in the semi-final, they set up another meeting with Nigeria, where they staged a second-half comeback to claim the title on home soil, with cancer survivor Sebastien Haller scoring the winner.
Giants fall by the wayside
While Cote d’Ivoire saved themselves the embarrassment of an early exit from their own tournament, the story was not the same for other title contenders.
Ghana, Algeria and Tunisia were all eliminated at the group stage, while defending champions Senegal, Egypt, Cameroon and Morocco did not go past the Round of 16.
Instead, it was minnows Angola, Guinea, Cape Verde and Mali sailing through and that came after the likes of Mauritania, Equatorial Guinea and Namibia had made history by advancing from their groups.
New stars born
Nigeria goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali was not known to many before the tournament but left it as one of the most outstanding players.
Nwabali, who plays for Chippa United in South Africa, was trusted between the posts by coach Jose Peseiro and kept four clean sheets, saving two penalties in the semi-final shootout win against South Africa as well as a number of key stops in the final.
South Africa’s Ronwen Williams ended the tournament as the best goalkeeper after helping Bafana Bafana to a bronze medal, keeping five clean sheets and saving a record four penalties in the shootout win over Cape Verde in the quarter-finals as well as two in the third-place playoff.
Hosts Ivory Coast are thankful that they had the fearless Simon Adingira in their ranks when they were given a second bite of the cherry.
His tenacity and drive down the flanks made him a game-changer and he saved the best for last when he beat his markers before crossing to Sebastien Haller to score the winner in the final.
Then there is the tournament’s top scorer Emilion Nsue of Equatorial Guinea who managed five goals, beating superstars Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Victor Osimhen and Haller, despite being a defender by trade.
Mali’s Lassine Sinayoko and Agostinho Cristóvão Paciência best known as Mabululu of Angola, who both scored three goals as their teams reached the quarter-finals, are the other little-known players who made a name at the tournament.
Referees bring out their ‘A’ game
AFCON 2023 has been lauded by players, coaches, former footballers and fans around the world for its near-perfect level of officiating.
Throughout the tournament, referees made no errors and even the much-maligned Video Assistant Referee (VAR) had no blunders.
This, coming at a time when Europe is struggling with the technology, and the recent revelation that VAR in the English Premier League has made 20 errors this season, is a major win for Africa.
At AFCON 2023, all VAR decisions were accurate and timely, earning statements of endorsement from England legend Gary Neville and former Chelsea and Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho, who have urged Europe to learn from Africa.
Women break the glass ceiling
Among those contributing to the error-free officiating were six women referees selected for the tournament.
This was the highest number of female referees ever witnessed at a men’s tournament in Africa and the six did not disappoint.
Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga, who made history as the first woman to officiate a men’s AFCON match in Cameroon two years ago, returned but worked as a VAR as well as South African Akhona Makalima and Rivet Maria Cinquela from Mauritius, who were making their debut.
Morocco’s Bouchra Karboubi was the only centre referee from the six women, officiating the Nigeria-Guinea Bissau match, in an all-women crew that included Zambian Diana Chikotesha and Carine Atezambong from Cameroon.
Karboubi and Chikotesha would further etch their names in history, the former working as the fourth official, while the latter became the first woman to officiate the line at an AFCON final.
Patrice Motsepe, president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), revealed that close to two billion people have watched AFCON 2023.
This was largely driven by the big number of broadcasters who expressed interest in the tournament as well as huge engagement on social media.
AFCON matches were aired in nearly 180 countries with partner broadcasters including New World TV, MultiChoice, Canal+, beIN Sport, BBC and UK’s Sky, as well as 45 Free-To-Air broadcasters.
Online banter also drove visibility for the tournament while organizers leveraged global superstars gracing the event to push the numbers.
It is estimated that CAF will earn US$75 million from the 2023 tournament from the sale of broadcast rights and the 17 tournament sponsors.
As part of the increased revenue from the just-concluded tournament, Cote d’Ivoire walked away with a winner’s prize of US$7 million, a 40 per cent increase from the 2021 edition, while Nigeria were awarded US$4 million for their second place.
Each of the four semi-finalists went home with US$2.5 million while the quarter-finalists were awarded US$1.3 million each, a significant increase from the last tournament.
Cote d’Ivoire win on and off the pitch
The most memorable AFCON would not have been attained had Cote d’Ivoire not organised a meticulous tournament.
World-class stadiums, training facilities, great accommodation plans and an efficient infrastructure all helped make the event successful.
The country spent US$1 billion to host the tournament and while the well-manicured pitches ensured the action was free-flowing, more jobs were created while their infrastructure and tourism sectors received a major boost.
Cote ‘Ivoire has set the bar so high and CAF will be keen to maintain the standards heading into the 2025 tournament.
Over to you, Morocco.
bird story agency