It’s the morning after the night before in Gabon, but thankfully Nick Ames has stuck around in Libreville to judge the post-AFCON mood…
It might just have been exactly what African football needed.
When Vincent Aboubakar flipped the ball over Egypt defender Ali Gabr and volleyed home the thrilling late goal that won Cameroon their fifth Cup of Nations, it was the kind of moment that makes people sit up and take notice. Clips quickly circulated over social media: the finish, the wild celebrations, the atmosphere inside Stade de L’Amitie soaring far above boiling point. As a piece of sporting theatre it was, certainly by the standards of major finals, near-impossible to top.
What a finale it was, and the Cup of Nations has had so few of that standard in recent years that it could hardly have been more welcome. The previous six finals had brought a grand total of three goals in 630 minutes’ action; it hardly helps when – in a tournament whose mass media exposure has waned considerably over the last decade – the one match a casual viewer might endeavour to watch falls flat, and that was one reason why Aboubakar’s intervention, and the remarkable triumph of an unheralded Cameroon side, was so important.
Those who did watch the tournament closely saw football that was, on the whole, purposeful and attacking, even if the quality of the pitches in Gabon did not always make that easy. The only leading side to play a reactive, deep-sitting game was arguably Egypt; that approach eventually failed to pay off despite their controlling the first hour of the final, and although Cameroon made a habit of starting games tentatively it felt like a success for fresh, enterprising football when Hugo Broos’ team turned things around.
Some of the venues will be reused almost instantly, with Gabon having stepped in late to host May’s Under-17 Cup of Nations in place of Madagascar. That readiness to assist at a time of need – both now and, quite probably, in the future – will be highlighted by officials as a positive consequence of the investments in stadia and (less noticeably) infrastructure. But what that does for the average Gabonese citizen is much harder to grasp and it was sobering, after visiting areas of Libreville whose living conditions bordered on squalid, to cast the plights of people forced to wash themselves in ditches alongside the reported $770m budget for AFCON.
Time will tell whether the stadium in Oyem – in fact situated 18km from the town of 60,000 inhabitants – comes to serve a valuable purpose as a community hub or is slowly reclaimed by the jungle that surrounds it. Part of the idea is that Gabon now has four stadiums – five if Stade Omar Bongo, still unfinished in the centre of Libreville, is ever completed – capable of hosting national team games, which can then be rotated around the country. But, when World Cup and Cup of Nations qualifying are taken account, Gabon is only guaranteed seven home fixtures every four years. Many will feel that is not enough to justify the outlay in a thinly-populated country.
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The tournament’s organisers will, though, feel it passed off smoothly. Few would deny that attendances held up well, largely thanks to the large expat communities of countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and – particularly – neighbouring Cameroon that live here. The protests against the regime of Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, that were promised vociferously on social media did not really get off the ground, although much of that, sources close to the opposition insisted, was down to fear of reprisals from army and police. Bongo was, in fact, cheered loudly before the final when he met the teams alongside Gianni Infantino and the CAF president, Issa Hayatou. It added to the feeling that this was a complex month to unpick, in a country with some deep-seated issues that no football tournament, whether it passed off smoothly or disastrously, could successfully bring to the surface.
Yet the abiding memory, for those watching from a distance and most of those present in the stadium, will be Aboubakar’s goal and the sheer pandemonium that erupted among the huge number of Cameroon fans present upon its conversion.
If you love football, stripped of all context, then this was the place to be – in the heart of a ground full of giddy-eyed football supporters, unsanitised by the stultifying mass of corporate hospitality that populates finals elsewhere. Gabon and CAF will, looking back, congratulate themselves on Sunday night’s spectacle, because it was the kind of scene that is increasingly rare.
And that might have a positive impact on a wider level.
The next edition of AFCON takes place in, appropriately, Cameroon two years from now and it will feel – after a run of tournaments in locations like Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, whose football cultures are far less rich than their governments – like a return to authenticity. It will be worth watching and, if it can provide more moments like Aboubakar’s winner, along with goals of the quality and variety that peppered the entire tournament here, then perhaps the media coverage will re-intensify.
In turn it might ensure that, the next time a Cup of Nations is held in a country with Gabon’s vast resources, the right depth of scrutiny can be applied to exactly what kind of bequest this tournament should leave.