Was this the best AFCON of the 21st century, or perhaps ever?



Ed Dove, Special to ESPN

A week on from Ivory Coast's monumental victory over Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations final, the dust has finally settled on a tournament lauded as the greatest AFCON of the 21st century. But was it really?

Why exactly was this year's Nations Cup such a resounding success, and why will the tournament surely be remembered in years to come as one of - if not the - best edition of the biennial continental showpiece?


The tournament of shocks

"I think this Ivory Coast edition will be the best in the history of the competition," Kalidou Koulibaly told beinSports before the tournament, "as all the top-notch teams are here and fully geared up."

The 2022 winner was only half right. Certainly, during the opening stages of the competition, the brutal exposure of the would-be heavyweights' weaknesses made for compelling viewing.

There were surprise results, unexpected eliminations, and the competition quickly inherited the moniker 'The AFCON of shocks'. Even though only eight of the original field of 24 fell in the group stage, former winners GhanaAlgeriaTunisia and Zambia were all dumped out unceremoniously.​​​​

Equatorial Guinea, despite being ranked 88th in the world, smashed hosts Ivory Coast 4-0 in a result that sent ripples across the continent, before topping a group that contained both eventual finalists, while Cape Verde also won their group ahead of Egypt and Ghana, defeating the latter in the process.

Algeria's defeat by Mauritania and Tunisia's 1-0 loss against Namibia were both also wholly unexpected results, as both 'minnows' enjoyed their finest ever hour at the AFCON.

The shocks didn't stop at the group stage, with both of 2022's finalists - Egypt and Senegal - being dumped out, and World Cup semifinalists Morocco dispatched by South Africa.

The big eliminations earlier on made for an open field, with Cape Verde and Mauritania, and Angola and Namibia each competing for a quarterfinal berth.

None of the group winners ended up reaching the semis, while none of the quarterfinalists at the previous AFCON made the Last Eight this time around.

Ivory Coast's Sebastien Haller didn't score with this bicycle kick, but if he had, it would have been par for the course at this AFCON, which was full of surprises and stunning moments. Visionhaus/Getty Images
Ivory Coast's Sebastien Haller didn't score with this bicycle kick, but if he had, it would have been par for the course at this AFCON, which was full of surprises and stunning moments. Visionhaus/Getty Images

Stoppage time shenanigans

With teams buoyed by extended allocations of stoppage time, and expanded substitutions, various sides benefited from a second wind late on, despite the sapping conditions.

During the group stage, of the 89 goals scored, 13 came on or after the 90th minute - almost 15 percent, and the trend continued into the knockouts.

Mohamed Bayo waited until the 98th minute before firing Guinea past Equatorial Guinea, while Cape Verde only saw off Mauritania due to an 88th-minute penalty, and South Africa kept their hopes of reaching the final alive that little bit longer when Teboho Mokoena equalised in the 90th minute of their semifinal.

Ivory Coast benefited from three late, late goals - equalising through Franck Kessié in the 86th minute against Senegal, before goals from Simon Adingra (90 mins) and Oumar Diakité (120 mins) took them past Mali in perhaps the game of the tournament.

Ivory Coast's stunning storyline

A healthy run for tournament hosts can be a major factor in ensuring a successful event, with local supporters and stakeholders like to be more invested, more committed to ensuring the spectacle is a success, if they're still emotionally wrapped up in proceedings.

Storylines involving the hosts have often been among the most memorable in the history of international football, but rarely have we seen anything that compared to the Elephants' run to the title on home soil.


Dortmund welcome back Haller from AFCON in style Borussia Dortmund welcome back AFCON winner Sebastien Haller.

ESPN have extensively documented the Ivory Coast's despair and delirium during the course of the campaign; from historic home defeats to managerial dismissals, from eliminating the holders on penalties to that rollercoaster against Mali.

By the time of their victory over Nigeria in front of their adoring public, it had become easy to forget that this team were dead and buried - booed off by their own supporters - after the group stage, and had to rely on a series of other results to go their way in order to reach the knockouts.

"We're organised the best ever AFCON," Ivory Coast captain Sèrge Aurier told ESPN, "and we've proved that we're a country of real quality.

"What we did was exceptional, and we've done what we dreamed of. It's life, there are good and bad moments, but at every difficult moment, you have to remember that a good moment will come soon."

Overall, the Elephants spent less than 19 percent of their whole tournament playing time in the lead, according to Opta. However, they still delivered one of the most unlikely Nations Cup victories in the tournament's history.

Nigeria's success is football's success

While a successful performance by tournament hosts can boost the complexion of any international tournament, in the African context, a successful campaign for Nigeria's Super Eagles can also have a vast impact beyond the host country.

The Nigerian influence across the West African region, the broader continent, and indeed globally - particularly in significant markets like the United States and United Kingdom - is significant, with no other African country able to boast such a reach.

Not only is Nigeria the most populous African country, but its extensive diaspora means that the successful run for the Super Eagles swelled the broader global interest in a tournament and dramatically contributed to the AFCON buzz.

While we'll have to wait to see Victor Osimhen - the post-Mane-Salah era face of African football - lift the continent's grandest prize, he and his compatriots certainly played their part in ensuring the AFCON was such a smash.

South Africa hero Williams reacts to AFCON quarterfinal win Ronwen Williams and Hugo Broos speak after the South Africa goalkeeper saved four penalties in the shootout vs. Cape Verde.

Emotional backstories make headlines

The Ivorians' own remarkable journey was marked by some stunning characters stepping forward. Sébastien Haller marked his one-year return to action after his 2022 cancer diagnosis by scoring the winner in both the semifinal and the final, despite his injury-hit build-up to the tournament.

He revealed that he doubted his own ability to make a difference at the competition, and had even considered pulling out of the squad, only to emerge as the Elephants' talisman when it mattered most.

When original head coach Jean-Louis Gasset was ushered through the exit door after the group stage, his replacement Emerse Faé - with humility and pragmatism - took control of his first ever senior job to add a third star on the Ivorians' famous orange kits. Has there ever been such a head coaching debut midway through a major international tournament?

Beyond the hosts, journeyman Emilio Nsue starred to capture the Golden Boot at the ripe old age of 34 - not bad for a player who was playing as a rightback in the English second tier almost a decade ago - while the down-to-earth South Africa goalkeeper Ronwen Williams won plenty of admirers for his penalty-saving heroics.

Goals, goal and more goals

The 119 goals scored during this year's tournament is a record for a Nations Cup, a fact which is only partly explained by the competition's expansion to 24 teams since 2019.

Already before the quarterfinals, this year's edition had eclipsed the last in terms of goals scored, while the average goals-per-game of 2.29 is the highest since 2012. Goals aren't a pre-requisite for football entertainment...but they certainly help!

Money spent paid off?

The Ivory Coast spent upwards of $1 billion (€927 million) on preparation for the Nations Cup, with six stadiums either being built or renovated, and airports, hotels and roads also receiving investment.

The longer term legacy of this outlay cannot yet be assessed, although federation president Yacine Idriss Diallo has outlined his vision that the AFCON spend will be a launchpad to transform the country's standing and prominence within West Africa.

Certainly, there were no security issues at this tournament as there had been at AFCONs past - with a bus crash involving media representatives one exception - while the pitch quality largely held up, despite the demanding climate conditions.

"There have been remarkable improvements since the last tournament," said FIFA Chief of Global Football Development Arsene Wenger, "on the pitch, off the pitch, the organisation, the quality of the pitches, the level of organisation on the pitch as well, and the commitment was intense."

Keywords: Ivory Coast AFCON Africa Cup of Nations

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