Sports Gazette

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

Three things we have learned from the AFCON Matchday One

Posted on 13 January 2022 by Alasdair Howorth

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Stunning goals, massive upsets, colourful stadia, chaotic scenes. The Africa Cup of Nations is truly underway in Cameroon. After one round of fixtures, there were a number of lessons learned. Here are three of the biggest.

Giving teams less than a week to prepare for a major tournament is not a good idea

The build up for the AFCON was marred, particularly in the European media, by reports of a lack of preparedness and a need to postpone the tournament.

Despite a conflicting narrative coming out of Cameroon, reports continued to fly that the tournament was not going to go ahead.

The European Club Association were able to pressure FIFA and CAF into allowing European based players to join their national sides on the 3rd of January, just six days before kick-off. One of the reasons for releasing players late was concerns over safety around COVID-19.

The irony with this is that Africa as a continent has dealt with the virus far better than Europe, an irony born out as the bulk of COVID-19 cases in squads were brought from European based players.

Subsequently, the tournament has had a slow start. Nine of the twelve matches ended 1-0, and only the opening game between Cameroon and Burkina Faso (2-1) had more than one goal.

Teams have found it hard to find rhythm going forward, and building attacking patterns, while organised defences have had much more joy than they perhaps would have.

Zimbabwe, a team coming into the tournament in chaos and without an FA, were able to hold out against favourites Senegal for 87 minutes. Sierra Leone, making their return after 25 years, did one better and held champions Algeria 0-0.

The AFCON is a tournament notorious for starting slow, the nature of playing a tournament in January means that, at maximum, teams have two weeks to prepare.

With even less time to prepare, it is no surprise that it has started slowly, but it will pick up. As sides have time to train and play games the cohesion of teams will increase.

The goalkeeping has been elite

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At the AFCON 2021, the goalkeeping so far has been of the highest standard of any international tournament in recent years.

With the return of Andre Onana, and the rise of Edouard Mendy in recent years, the continent possesses two of the most elite keepers in world football.

However, it has been keepers from other countries that have stepped up to impress, Onana arguably having the poorest keeping performance and Mendy yet to feature.

Aly Keita and Earnest Kakhobwe had a combined Goals Prevented -a measure comparing the xG vs actual goals conceded- of 3.1 as their respective teams Guinea and Malawi played out a thrilling match.

Only four goalkeepers conceded more goals than their expected xG, three of those coming off the back of brilliant finishes that were unsavable.

Beyond their shot stopping, the AFCON has been full of modern goalkeepers with superb distribution. Ethiopia’s Teklemariam Shanko and Zimbabwe’s Petros Mhari, both African based keepers had brilliant distribution, and were key to setting their teams on counter attacks.

But no keeper stole the show like Mohamed Kamara of Sierra Leone. The East End Lions keeper put on the performance of the tournament to shut out Algeria.

He made saves from a variety of shots, but it was his coming out of his box that was truly impressive. His judgement was superb and he did not put a foot wrong.

AFCON magic in full flow

Reporting of the tournament in the last 24 hours has understandably been dominated by proceedings in the Mali vs Tunisia game, where referee Janny Sikazwe bizarrely blew for full time twice, leading to chaos.

Commentators, both within and out of Africa, are quick to pick up on mistakes like this to point to the lack of professionalism or seriousness in Africa.

This incident has not helped, and regardless of the new findings that point to the fact that Sikazwe had a bout of heatstroke that would entirely explain what happened, the damage is done and it will overshadow some of the brilliance of the tournament so far.

Already mentioned were the heroics of Mohamed Kamara. The keeper, nicknamed ‘Fabianski’ in Sierra Leone, is a true representation of the power of football.

Playing in a league near the bottom of the African club food chain, he put on a show that he, and his country will remember for the rest of his life and beyond.

The chaos of events between Mali and Tunisia also overshadowed what should have been a far bigger story in Limbe. Mauritania and Gambia, two of the most unlikely countries in Africa playing out a thrilling match in its biggest showpiece.

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Mauritania have undergone probably the biggest transformation in world football over the last decade. Just over a decade ago the country was ranked 206 in the world, one of the worst sides in the world.

But investment from the FA, coupled with a drive to bring players with dual nationality into the fold has led the nation to back-to-back AFCONs. It is genuinely one of the most impressive feats in modern football.

They faced off against debutants and near neighbours Gambia. The smallest country in mainland Africa has undergone a similarly incredible transformation, going from nothing to the top of African football.

They underlined that upward curve with an excellent performance capped off by a stunning strike from Ablie Jallow to beat their rivals 1-0.