In a tournament marred with substandard pitches and poor performances from some of the continent’s biggest names, the Super Eagles of Nigeria finally gave their famously fervent fans reason to be cheerful with an excellent showing in South Africa. With former Nigerian defender Stephen Keshi coming under fire in the run-up to the tournament after dropping some of the country’s established stars, the patriotic manager showed that the future is bright for a team that many were calling a lost cause after almost two decades without a major trophy. One of Keshi’s protégés, locally-based Sunday Mba, fittingly scored the final’s only goal. Triumphing over a side from Burkina Faso making their first appearance in the final of this tournament, the strength and passion of the Nigerians was a delight to watch in the midst of their rivals’ horrendous capitulation.
Zambia will perhaps be the most disappointed in the aftermath of this year’s competition after failing to escape a group containing newcomers Ethiopia and the surprise package of Burkina Faso. The intimidating strikeforce of last year’s winners proved to be shooting blanks in 2013, with returning ‘Best Player’ Christopher Katongo failing to justify the hype surrounding this year’s African campaign. They joined the entirety of North Africa in lamenting missed opportunities, as teams from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were forced to make the long journey home after falling at the very first hurdle. In a new low for a region whose flag-bearers are seven-time champions Egypt, a lack of quality was evident throughout nine dismal games in which the teams shared a sorry seven goals between them.
The Black Stars looked to be shining after Ghana’s impressive showing in the group stages, with free-flowing attacking football returning to a young team looking to build on last year’s fourth-place finish. In the end, however, fourth place will be little consolation for a team that should have put the young upstarts of Burkina Faso away long before their eventual elimination on penalties. The hot form of Mali was quickly doused in the semi-finals at the hand of Nigerian powerhouses Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike, the latter a hulking brute of a forward who has struck fear into the hearts of defences across Africa in the past two weeks. The Malians struck back, however, in an impressive third-place playoff match which saw them fly past the Ghanians to nab the bronze.
It would seem that the bubble has finally burst for the Ivorian ‘Golden Generation’, for whom it may finally be time to admit defeat and move along. The gifted Didier Zokora is entering the twilight of his career and as we witness the steady decline of phenomenal striker Didier Drogba it may be time for a Plan B. The Elephants’ disheartening defeat to Nigeria proved that they no longer have the legs to keep up with younger, quicker side, with Moses in particular looking to prove to the doubters that there are new Kings of Africa. In defeating all comers and claiming a deserved trophy in the midst of doubt and insecurity, they’ve certainly made a bold claim to that title.
By Charles Walmsley
Has there been a more emotional victory that Zambia’s in the African Cup of Nations final? Nineteen years on from the plane crash that took the lives of 18 members of their golden generation that had defeated Italy in the 1988 Olympics and promised World Cup qualification, a side without any superstar players returned to Gabon, the country of the tragedy, to win a major trophy for the first time. Even the locals could not ignore the alluring narrative as they threw aside rivalries to support Herve Renard’s team en masse. Yet in this final another, less compelling narrative was being formulated as the Ivory Coast’s own ‘golden generation’ once again left a tournament empty handed.
There was a sense of inevitability in the disappointment; it was the fourth time that a side blessed with the gifts of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and the Toure brothers failed to convert their position as pre-tournament favourites into ultimate victory. Throughout the tournament they had been functional rather than brilliant, creating little but defending very well – they didn’t concede a goal in the finals, indicating that Francis Zahoui was trying to avoid the sudden capitulations that had afflicted the side in the three previous competitions. This defensive focus would have been alright had Didier Drogba been the player that he was four, or even two years ago. As it was though they relied too heavily on his goal scoring prowess, especially as Gervinho brought his awful club form this season with him. Although Drogba finished joint top of the scorers chart he was remarkably inconsistent, especially in the final where his dreadful penalty miss once again raised questions about his performance under pressure.
Drogba was not the only big name player to underperform though – the aforementioned Gervinho scored a great solo goal in the semi-final against Mali but was largely anonymous for the rest of the tournament and missed the penalty that allowed Zambia to win the shoot-out. This has underlined the strange thing about the ‘golden generation’ – the star players are often the worst performers in the big games. It isn’t simply a case of playing with worse players than they’re used to since in the current squad six play in the Premier League, four in Ligue 1 and two in the Bundesliga. Perhaps, like England’s golden generation, players don’t have enough coherence as a team. Certainly Zambia were far more unified in the final, united through having played with each other in effectively the same team since U17 youth tournaments, as well as the emotional spirit of the 1993 plane crash. Yet this Ivorian side have played together for a long time as well and, unlike that England side, have been strong until a single moment of capitulation, as in 2010 when they allowed Algeria back into their quarter final with a last minute equaliser, or in 2008 when Egypt put four past a previously solid defence.
Their greatest issue has probably been the weight of expectation as they, like all golden generations, followed a much weaker side so were instantly called upon to guarantee success almost from the moment they arrived on the international scene. Now, more than half a decade after their first World Cup qualification, the question is whether this side will ever succeed. In any other year this would probably have been their last chance but the change in the tournament’s dates, moving to odd rather than even years, means that this golden generation may have one more chance to claim a trophy. Even this may be optimistic though as Drogba eyes a lucrative end of career move to China or America and the likes of Yaya Toure consider their future in the national set-up, not wishing to miss club action two Januarys in a row. It now looks likely that the side will join Beckham, Owen et al in the long list of failed golden generations.