What you need to know:
Conventional wisdom suggests that the success of a tournament is grounded immutably in the performance of a host country. After a 4-0 hiding suffered at the hands of Equatorial Guinea made clear that Côte d'Ivoire had less skin in the progression game, the hosts had to face a nervous wait to find out if they had snatched a back door ticket to the knockout stages.
It would be understating things a bit if you came to the conclusion that the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), which ran its course on Sunday with Côte d'Ivoire beating Nigeria, has been moderately enjoyable to watch. The tournament—played across five Ivorian cities—has been such a juggernaut thanks in no small part to having substance and vigour rolled into one.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the success of a tournament is grounded immutably in the performance of a host country. After a 4-0 hiding suffered at the hands of Equatorial Guinea made clear that Côte d'Ivoire had less skin in the progression game, the hosts had to face a nervous wait to find out if they had snatched a back door ticket to the knockout stages. They did. But only just.
Yet on Sunday the Elephants toasted to a third African title as stars wink faintly through a pewter sky in Abidjan. Whatever the outcome, the hosts owe caretaker coach Emerse Faé a great deal of gratitude.
After inheriting a bad hand from Jean-Louis Gasset during the tournament when the hosts' game was only coming in fits and starts, the 40-year-old Ivorian has been a steadying hand and possibly more.
The home fans in Côte d'Ivoire headed into the final against Nigeria with admittedly high expectations. This is all thanks to some smart decisions Faé has made from the Ivorian dugout. It was not so long ago that the same fans were holding their FA's feet to the fire for hiring Gasset. The cameo that Faé has enjoyed should invite them and indeed the whole continent to establish why native coaches do not command even a modicum of trust from their local FAs.
Nobody had the slightest idea as to how Sunday's final would play out or indeed what Faé's fate would be, especially if Nigeria had added a fourth African title.
What is clear is that the Ivorian FA's barely disguised courting of Hervé Renard after cutting Gasset loose spoke volumes as to what its preferences are. It would rather look outward than inward.
The unhesitating answer, though, for the powerhouse that won African titles in 1992 and 2015 could be from within; not without.
Indeed, if Afcon 2023 has alerted us to anything it is the glaring flaws in the age-old narrative that Africans are not adequate vessels when it comes to executing a job. Africans are not up to the job, my foot! A look at how the video assistant referee or Var has been deployed at the tournament is, for one, quite instructive.
Ahead of Saturday’s third placement match, Var interventions had yielded 21 penalties. But that is only half of the story. The straightforwardness of the process that took on-field referees to the Var booth is really what took the biscuit. It was not bogged down in the grey areas of the “clear and obvious error” phraseology that carries along subjective undertones à la the English Premier League. Little wonder, Var interventions have been a refreshing experience for many of us.
Above all, this was a tournament replete with goals. Ahead of today’s third place playoff, they number a hugely impressive 116 and counting. A new goals-per-game ratio (currently standing at 2.32) record has already been set.
This is probably an indicator that African countries have learnt to play not with reckless abandon but rather with considerable latitude. It is this attribute that endeared the continent to none other than Pelé all those years back. So much so that the Brazilian predicted that an African country would win the World Cup before the turn of the second millennium.
Has African football finally rediscovered the fire in its belly that convinced Pelé to cast his lots with the continent? Afcon 2023 seems to suggest so. It certainly has dropped tantalising hints. Here is to hoping that they more than just that—hints.