So, the first few days of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations has come and gone.
Match-day one may not have provided as much excitement as expected, but certainly there has been drama and a few jolts along the way.
Colin Udoh takes a look at some of the experiences from the opening round of Afcon 2017.
MINNOWS? WHAT MINNOWS?
With the completion of match-day one, one thing that has been made eminently clear is that the era of minnows in African football is gone. Make no mistake … ‘small’ teams have upended big ones in the past at Afcon, but there is a different vibe these days.
Over the last few years the likes of Mali, Angola, Togo, Cape Verde and now Guinea-Bissau have emerged from the shadows and are making some very strong cases.
Where there might have been a case of resigned fear when coming up against the ‘big boys’ in the past, these days everybody goes into a game ready, willing and able to win.
Zimbabwe, returning after 39 years, were so close to upsetting favourites Algeria. Egypt drew with Mali. Guinea-Bissau stunned Gabon. Cameroon were lucky to escape drawing with Burkina Faso, and Ghana needed a penalty to edge Uganda.
The gap, surely, has closed ever more significantly.
Spare a thought for Kenya, though. Harambee Stars consider themselves some sort of African football force, but continue to struggle to play among the big boys. But hey, anybody can dream …
Carrying on from the above, a case can definitely be made for the expansion of the Nations Cup to 24 teams. This year’s tournament has no Nigeria, Zambia or South Africa.
At least two of those (Nigeria and South Africa) are always guaranteed to bring excitement both on and off the pitch, not to mention more commercial opportunities and bigger spend during the tournament.
After the 2019 draw, one of Nigeria or South Africa might miss out again. But assuming they do both go through (one as best finisher), one of these new upstarts would be denied a chance at consolidation.
AFRICAN COACHES MAKING A STRONG CASE
Of the 16 teams taking part at the tournament, only a quarter are Africans – Callisto Pasuwa (Zimbabwe), Baciro Cande (Guinea-Bissau), Florent Ibenge (DRC) and Aliou Cisse (Senegal).
None of the four lost their opening games, despite at least three being rank underdogs going into their fixtures. Only Senegal, currently ranked Africa’s top team, went in almost evenly matched with Tunisia, whom they eventually dispatched 2-0.
DR Congo, under Ibenge’s guidance, shocked Morocco with a 1-0 win, and Zimbabwe were a late Riyad Mahrez goal away from doing the same to Algeria.
Baciro Cande summarised it quite nicely when he said “African coaches just need to be respected and trusted with the jobs”.
UNWELCOME PEACE SANS GARRULOUS NIGERIA
And speaking of Nigeria, without the Super Eagles there have been no garrulous fans or media to take over the world. Sorry, take over the host nation.
With the Eagles not being involved, Gabon has missed out not just on the green-decked supporters club and their loud drums and trumpets, but also a media horde whose preoccupation with their team’s potential championship status is matched only by the vitriol they unleash when that does not happen.
Oh, and the virtual ghost town that the different media centres are looking like could do with Nigerians, who usually take over the place.
PASS MARK FOR REFS
It is not always we say this but, so far, the referees in Gabon have done a capital job. Apart from the somewhat disputed Zimbabwe penalty against Algeria, there has been no reason to have any sort of go at the match officials because they have simply done their jobs.
Let’s hope we have not spoken too soon …
EXPENSE, OH THE BLOODY EXPENSE!
Gabon is not cheap. I’ll say that again. Gabon is not cheap. When you have covered tournaments across the continent and around the world, it is not so difficult to know when you’ve entered a rip-off zone.
Gabon ranks second only to Angola in the expensive Afcon stakes. Hotel rooms go for upwards of FCFA55,000-125,000 (that’s approximately $90,200).
Onomo Hotel, where Guinea-Bissau are based in Libreville, costs 125,000 for the cheapest rooms. That’s a room without an intercom or fridge in a hotel where laundry services are sporadic at best and unavailable over weekends. One star would be extremely gracious to award them.
Taxi rides are a minimum of FCFC5,000 a pop (that’s around $10), and meals are also prohibitively expensive. Better to do some grocery shopping.
But as BBC and New African writer Osasu Obayiuwana found out, even $165 barely gets you any groceries worth the name!