The 2021 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations made headlines even before its commencement – not for the right reasons though. The dates of the competition were altered twice, firstly due to climatic difficulties and then because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just when things were finally looking on the up and Cameroon was getting decorated for the 33rd edition of this historic competition, a few renowned coaches of big clubs started expressing their discontentment at being forced to release key players at a very crucial time of the football season.
However, everything took a backseat when Cameroon and Burkina Faso kick-started the tournament on 9th January, and since then, we have witnessed many nerve-wracking games which once again highlighted the talent Africa possess as a continent, while there have been a few rather inexplicable incidents as well.
Let us have a look at the highlights of 2021 AFCON so far:
The Hits and the Misses
There are teams who have justified their reputation with their flawless performances in their competition, while there also are a few nations who have failed to turn up at all.
From what we have seen so far, it will be fair to say that Nigeria have looked the most promising. They defeated Egypt and Sudan in their first two matches, and at the time of writing, are the only team to have maintained a 100% win record.
Morocco’s head coach Vahid Halilhodzic took a gamble by not selecting Hakim Ziyech in the squad, but his team has looked sharp as usual even without the services of the Chelsea winger. They are occupying pole position in Group A, having won two and drawn one of their three matches.
The hosts, Cameroon also have every chance of winning this competition as they have hardly put a foot wrong so far. Les Lions Indomitables started their campaign with successive wins against Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, and though Cape Verde restricted them to a draw in their last match, it has not prevented them from finishing first in Group H.
Ghana’s name comes first on the list of the biggest disappointments of the season. The Black Stars competed in a FIFA World Cup quarter-final not very long ago, but they now are merely a shadow of the once-glorious team that feared no one. With one point from three matches, Ghana finished at the bottom of Group C.
Like Ghana, Algeria too arrived in this competition with the tag of favourites but have failed to live up to the expectations. Djamel Belmadi’s team has accumulated only a solitary point from their first couple of matches. Though they are not eliminated from the competition yet, Riyad Mahrez & Co. will need to bring their A-game to the fore in their last group stage game against Ivory Coast.
AFCON has a knack for producing fascinating underdog stories and tradition has been duly continued in this edition as well. Malawi, the side currently ranked 123rd in the FIFA World Ranking, caught everyone by surprise when they restricted Senegal to a 0-0 stalemate, while they also defeated Zimbabwe 2-1.
In only their first appearance in this competition, the 132nd ranked Comoros were involved in the biggest David v Goliath story of the competition, as they handed Ghana a surprising 3-2 defeat.
Equatorial Guinea is another team that has a rank of over 100, but that did not mean much when they took on the 29th ranked Algerian side. Courtesy of an Esteban Obiang goal, the Nzalang Nacional registered a 1-0 victory against Mahrez’s team.
A Tournament Shrouded In Controversy And Comic Reliefs
For all the delectable matches of an outstanding calibre of football that this competition has gifted us, it also has had its fair share of farcical occurrences. From bewildering referring calls to subpar pitch quality, there have been a lot of controversies regarding the 2021 AFCON.
The most popular and bizarre story of the competition unfolded on 12th January, when Tunisia took on Mali in a Group F match. An Ibrahima Kone penalty handed Mali a surprising lead, but from there onwards, it was all about relentless pressure from Tunisia.
In the 85th minute, just when Tunisia were preparing to put on the afterburners for the last five minutes of the game, Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe decided to blow the full-time whistle. The game did eventually restart from the 85th minute after long deliberation, but that was not the end of this comical saga. Sikazwe blew the full-time whistle early once again when the clock struck 89:47. Though the referees decided to have another restart, the Tunisia camp was by now furious enough to walk off the pitch.
Another baffling incident took place on the same day when Mauritania took the field to play against Gambia. Instead of Mauritania’s current national anthem, the organizers played the nation’s old national anthem which was in use till 2017. Despite three attempts, they could not find the right track and had to settle for only claps from the Mauritanian players with nothing playing in the background.
On 16th January, we witnessed a thrilling 2-2 draw between Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone where except for their eleven players, the turf was perhaps also responsible for Sierra Leone’s incredible comeback. They were trailing 2-1 till the 93rd minute when Ivorian goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare conceded a truly bizarre goal. The JDR Stars player dived to collect a header from his teammate and in the process, got his knee stuck in the turf. Not only did the keeper stumble and injure himself, but he also lost two points for his team.
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