Sherifdeen Olamilekan writes,

Practically, due to the delays in construction of stadiums and other infrastructure, Cameroon, which was originally supposed to host the 2019 African Cup of Nations were reported to anchor the famed tournament later in 2021 after the 2019 edition had already been relocated to Egypt.

Again, as Covid-19 would change narratives, the tournament, not only it but alongside other African and world tournaments to be played right off at that time was withheld until when the pandemic pressures seemed relieved. This makes it bizarre when the tournament isn’t describing the date it was taking place – AFCON 2021 taking place in 2022, bizarre absolutely, just like the most recent Euros and Copa America.

AFCON 2021 dawned joyously in January, with an eye-catching opening ceremony that made the whole thing look like one kind of festival. The colourful fireworks that were displayed after the first match in Yaounde were eye-catching. The cultural dancing and musical performances by several artistes, the interludes, the parade and the welcoming twitch of several top soccer officials made every scene feel real and gave a hope that the new AFCON, with all those moments of spellbound qualities, has come with a difference.

Between January 9 to 20 January of 2022, the group stage featured six groups of four teams each, with only the two top teams and the four highest-ranked third-placed teams of each group did advance to the knockout last-16 round, and this was when the game took more than just sitting in a room with a cup of popcorn and a glass of juice in the veranda from every one. With blistering curiosities, everyone wanted to know which teams with just one loosed guard in a fixture meet their waterloo.

The disappointments

Ghana first had a heartbreak, the giant Black Star could hardly manage to finish third in Group C, also in the group stage ends were upbraiding experiences for Mauritania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe and a major disappointment for Guinea-Bissau whose goalless strain at AFCON extended to seven matches.

The shocking elimination of the defending champions Algeria was another subject of critical discussion, despite vaunting big names such as Yacine Brahimi, Sofiane Feghouli, Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez amongst others, they still could not sweep past any of their group-stage opponents. The Fennec Foxes’ short-lived title defence was brought to an end following a 1-3 defeat to Ivory Coast, a draw with Sierra Leone and the 0-1 defeat at the hands of Equatorial Guinea which initially ended their 35-match unbeaten run.

Stretching into the last-16 knockout round was a cruel, unexpected elimination for Nigeria’s Super Eagles in Garoua when they had a repeat of the third-place playoff from the 2019 edition against Tunisia. This seemed for Nigeria; the quest for their fourth AFCON triumph has to wait for another 18 months. The last time Nigeria egressed an AFCON tournament at the second round was in Ghana 2008. The Eagles lost 2-1 to Ghana when the competition’s second round was a quarter-final.

Any Heated Controversies?

Yes irrefutably.

Firstly, the biggest dissension of the tournament was in the match of Tunisia and Mali where a Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe, a highly respected referee in the continent made, in the second half of the feud, a series of monumental bombings in which from calling a late cooling break at first to signalling for an added time even with 11 minutes left in the clock. The referee was also sighted running past the VAR screen when he was asked to recheck a red-card drift before he would blow the final whistle in the 86th minute even in the strangest, and most unfledged way ever.

Secondly, Malawi and Guinea-Bissau were left resentful by the decision-making procedure of CAF to introduce the VAR (Video Assistant Referees) from the group stage. This saw Malawi have a penalty decision overturned in their match against Senegal. In effect of the new process, a stunning Striker Mama Balde’s goal for Guinea-Bissau was also ruled out for a perceived infringement. Each of these scenarios led to heavy, controversial shake-ups.

Finally, the wins!

Crucially, there is a need to understand the Cameroon’s AFCON successful outcome, owing to prevailing stories of crisis and critics that initially had and throughout veiled the 2021 African competition. Beyond figures, AFCON 2021 obviously received post-tournament cynical commentaries overseas which initially birthed total and exaggerated negative image and conceptions on the continent’s pride.

The UK’s Daily Mail sneeringly reported cautious stories on Africa, engineered by perceived discernment on the escalating separatist conflicts in Cameroon. Also, a UK newspaper, The Sun wrote a headline about how Covid-19 is scaling off the tournament and the Premier League clubs’ plan to withhold patronage with the whole thing. However, such disturbing reports went hand-in-hand with several individual racial portrayals of both the African players and their general stereotypes. But in the end, AFCON 2021, in that sideline, proved each critic wrong.

When the Olympics eventually took place, Tokyo was a bit helpless and vulnerable that it had to be under lockdown with disturbing indoor restrictions on spectators, but reverse is the case with Cameroon’s AFCON, another major event that triumphantly took place amid not only a pandemic but also posts negative voice-overs and expectations of terror, conflict, disease, risk, insecurity and danger from overseas.

In the end, after the ups and downs, each African boldly said that AFCON 2021 was a huge success, including Sunday Oliseh, Nigeria’s former captain and coach who noted that the just concluded AFCON remains the most virtuosic in the past 20 years, most especially in terms of surprises, tactics and energy. Similar emotion was expressed by the current president of the Cameroonian Football Federation, Samuel Eto’o, who took his Twitter to venerate the sporting competition as “legendary”.

Looking ahead, Africans need to keep countervailing racism in all dimensions and that is best achieved by full liberation from all sorts of enslavement and colonialism. Another measure to reach the peak in that image is by deploying heavy and unbending infrastructural, social and economic refashioning. AFCON 2021 has already changed a lot in the way Africa is perceived in football and even beyond. It’s only left for the African leaders to develop the needed facilities and mostly infrastructure for these current standards to make headways and flourish more in transcending the international yardstick, and also for wider infinitudes of talents to emerge, progress and record more histories in all sporting regards.

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