The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finished on Sunday February 6 2022 and delivered a fairytale ending.
Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mané, the two most valuable players in the tournament – who both play for English Premier League (EPL) club Liverpool – went head-to-head in the final match at the Olembé stadium of Yaoundé in Cameroon, both hoping to win their first Afcon gold medal.
Senegal took home the trophy after winning 4-2 in a penalty shooting. Its first win since the national team joined the competition 20 years ago, in 2002.
Mané, who has won several prestigious trophies in his career, such as the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup, hailed the Afcon victory as the most important trophy in his career.
‘Little tournament in Africa’
Late last year, Mané’s Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp came under fire for referring to the Afcon as a “little tournament in Africa”. Three of his players: Mané, Salah and Naby Keita, who plays for Guinea, were called up to represent their countries in the competition.
Watford, another EPL club, also ruffled some feathers when the Senegalese Football Federation claimed it had attempted to block winger Ismaila Sarr from playing in the tournament.
This was one of several attempts, mainly from Europeans in the football fraternity, to downplay the significance of Afcon, which is the highest honour for African footballers representing their national football teams.
In December, former England and Arsenal striker Ian Wright weighed in on the media coverage of European-based players preparing to travel for the Afcon, calling it disrespectful and racist.
He said that coverage of the tournament and the issue of player release during the European season, is in marked contrast to how Euro 2020 [the UEFA European Championship] was treated.
“Is there ever a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nations?” Wright asked in a video posted on social media.
“There is no greater honour than representing your country. The coverage is completely tinged with racism.”
The Afcon is an international men’s football championship held once every two years, organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
It has a rich history dating back to when the first tournament was hosted in Kartoum, Sudan, in 1957. The tournament, which started with four teams, has grown in leaps and bounds over the years, hosting its first 24-team format in 2019.
The competition is made up of five participating regions namely, the Union of North African Football (Unaf), the West African Football Union (Wafu), the Central African Football Federations Union (Uniffac), the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa) and the Council of Southern African Football Associations (Cosafa).
The North African union has been the most dominant regional federation, winning 11 titles.
The Southern African and East and Central African football associations have been far less successful, each winning the trophy only twice.
South Africans had to sit out this year’s tournament, because Bafana Bafana, its national football team, failed to qualify.
South Africa played in its first Afcon in 1996 – it had been banned from participating until then because of apartheid – and won, but since than the team has placed second in 1998 and third in 2000.
Egypt (colonially known as United Arab Republic) won the inaugural Afcon and has gone on to win the competition six more times, making it the country with the most Afcon titles.
Cameroon has five Afcon titles, its last one was 20 years ago in 2002. Ghana has four, its last one was in 1982.
Gold medals are not the only marker of success in the tournament, as teams can write themselves into the Afcon’s history books by getting into the final four.
Egypt and Nigeria are the two highest placed countries on the winners list, having placed in the tournament 16 and 15 times respectively. Apart from its gold medals, Egypt has three silver and three bronze medals. Nigeria has four silver and eight bronze medals.
This year’s winners, Senegal, have placed six times in the competition – two other times as runners-up and three other times in fourth place.
The Afcon has boasted some of the leading players in global club football over the years.
This year, Mané and Salah both entered the tournament’s top 10 goal scorers of all time list, with Mané occupying the eighth spot with eight goals since debuting at the Afcon in 2017 and Salah occupying the 10th spot with six goals since debuting in 2015.
Samuel Eto’o – the tournament’s all-time leading goal scorer, with 18 goals, has won the tournament with Cameroon twice in 2000 and 2002, while Chelsea legend Didier Drogba is in fifth place with 11 goals.
Two South African players are on the list: Benni McCarthy is in ninth place with seven goals and Shaun Bartlett is tenth with six goals. McCarthy and Bartlett are also Bafana Bafana’s leading all-time top goal scorers.
Egypt has the most players in Afcon’s leading goal scorers with eight, followed by Ghana and Ivory Coast with six, and Cameroon and Nigeria with four.
This year’s Afcon golden boot award winner, Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar, scored eight goals during the tournament – nine overall since his Afcon debut in 2015 – which officially marked his entry into the top 10.
Eighth-placed Asamoah Gyan from Ghana is the Afcon’s assist king, with six assists (and eight goals) overall, followed by Ivory Coast’s Drogba with five assists overall.
Africa's football supporters can look forward to the next Afcon tournament in 2023 in Ivory Coast.