Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

AFCON 2021: a celebration of the smaller nations

Posted on 19 January 2022 by Alasdair Howorth

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As Boubou Traore blew his final whistle, there were scenes of equal joy and devastation in Garoua.

One of the greatest upsets in Africa Cup of Nations history had just taken place. Debutants Comoros had just knocked out one of the giants of African football, Ghana.

The 2021 Cup of Nations has made headlines for numerous things. First the disruption caused by the European Footballers Association convincing CAF to release players less than a week before the tournament. Then the slow start of a tournament featuring nine 1-0 wins in the first round. Finally, the madness of Janny Sikazwe twice blowing early for full time.

These things have come and gone, but what will remain as the legacy of this tournament is the repeated giant-killing we have seen in the group stage.

The group stage is not even complete, and we have seen reigning champions and world record chasing Algeria be held and then defeated by minnows, Gambia held Mali to a draw after getting a win in their first ever game at the AFCON, and Comoros, a team that wasn’t even recognised by FIFA until 2005, beat the Black Stars of Ghana.

The tournament has shown that what matters more than having a team of stars based in Europe, is having a structure in place and a team that has been preparing for a number of years coming into a tournament.

The Comoros are everything that Ghana are not. They have an extremely well-organised federation behind the team with a clear plan in recruitment and have been building for years prior to the tournament.

Much of that credit lies with coach Amir Abdou, who started this process in 2014. When he arrived as head coach he demanded that the FA and team professionalise. They improved training facilities on the island and put in place a coherent plan for putting a team together.

8 years later, the top ten most capped players in Comoros football history are playing at this AFCON. Not all the players in the Comoros team are professionals, but the team is professional.

This contrasts with Ghana, who boast players playing in all of the biggest leagues in Europe, but who behind them have not had a coherent plan in place. Just months before, the FA sacked coach CK Akonner, and brought in Milo Rajevac, who has not been a successful coach since his last spell with Ghana in 2010.

In terms of player recruitment, the team had been rejected by key centre-back Mohamed Salisu, and were still reliant on Jordan Ayew up front who has been a shadow of his former self in the last 18 months. The desperation was palpable as 17-year old Abdul Fatawu Issahaku was thrown into the starting XI with the weight of a nation on his shoulders to perform.

But Ghana are not the only side. Favourites Algeria and Senegal have both underperformed and got poor results against small nations. Both will have been lucky to get through to the later stages if Algeria beat Cote d’Ivoire.

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Since the change of format in 2019 to allow 24 teams into the competition, there have been critics. But this tournament will undoubtedly silence any critics. The teams that have benefited from expanded places are the ones who have thrived in a chaotic environment. There are of course exceptions, both Guinea-Bissau and Sudan have been poor, as well as Mauritania who are already knocked out.

But their poor performances have not been down to their stature as footballing nations, but rather because of behind-the-scenes issues that have plagued all three nations. Two of them have sacked coaches in the last couple months and Guinea-Bissau have had issues over the last years in their federation.

We have long known that the Africa Cup of Nations is a great leveller as a tournament, but this year more than any has shown that prestige means nothing. The tournament took a while to get going with big teams disappointing, but the small teams are the ones who have stepped up to put a smile on faces and joy in the hearts of viewers.

Long may it continue.