African Cup of Nations a wonderful spectacle for both host and fans
The absence of traditional powers such as Cameroon and Nigeria hasn't hurt
The tournament has been very attacking with some dramatic finishes
Equatorial Guinea has disproved critics about its ability to host the event
MALABO, Equatorial Guinea -- This has been a tournament that has restored the joy to African soccer. Without the traditional powers of Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt, it is as if a great weight both of expectation and fear has been lifted. Only Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana are playing with the albatross of favoritism around their necks, and both have been notably cautious in their opening matches; everybody else seems liberated, as though the subconscious dread of humiliation at the hands of one of the great names has gone (Botswana, who lost by a record 6-1 to Guinea, might regret that). It has been a tournament of fluid, constant attack.
It has already produced two of the greatest finishes to matches in Cup of Nations history. When Kily bent in a 25-yard drive in the final minute to give Equatorial Guinea a 2-1 victory over Senegal, four minutes after the Lions of Teranga had equalized, it prompted the sort of joyous celebrations that raise the hairs on the back of even neutral necks.
If that was beyond Hollywood (a Spanish fourth-division player scoring a goal that good that late in that game in conditions that heavy when his limbs must have felt like lead ....), the sequel took it a stage further. Gabon's win over Morocco was quite possibly the most thrilling international match played in a decade. Morocco led at halftime. Gabon threw on Daniel Cousin, once of Rangers, Lens and Hull City and now, at 34, of Sapins in Libreville. He arrived like a tempest, winning every header. Shots rained in on the Morocco goal until, eventually, a volley from the leanly powerful Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang flew in: 1-1 after 77 minutes.
As fans poured onto the running track and a grinning Ali Bongo, the president of the country, seemed to shake with delight as a general in dress uniform scratched his head behind him, it took two minutes to restart the game. A mere 36 seconds later, Cousin had scored again. Ecstasy was redefined.
But that wasn't it. In the final minute, a Younes Belhanda shot cannoned off the thigh of Charly Moussono and into his arm. It was a debatable foul, but the Gambian referee, Bakary Gassama, had the courage to give it and Houssine Kharja rolled in the penalty. Morocco tried to waste time, but Gassama was strong. He added a fifth minute of injury time and then, in the sixth, Moroccos Mehdi Benatia clattered through the back of Andre Poko on the left corner of the box. Poko was hurt and, by the time he'd been treated and replaced by Lloyd Palun, the clock was past 97.
Bruno Mbanagoye, now at Dinamo Minsk after a career spent most in Tunisia and Turkey, stepped up and whipped the free-kick into the top corner. The rapture, you imagine, must look pretty much like the scenes that followed. This was lump in the throat stuff for everybody, exhausting and uplifting, the perfect finale for a game that, even on second viewing, confirmed its quality.
Is it too strong to say those late winners from Kily and Mbanagoye redeemed the tournament? I'm not sure. The doubts about the rectitude of awarding the hosting rights to countries of questionable reputation and with limited soccer history remain. That there is no simple answer was brought home to me in Mali in 2002. At the time Mali was the fifth-poorest country in the world, and I went there expecting to be appalled at a nation that had spent $60 million on some identikit Chinese stadiums rather than investing the money in infrastructure or food programs that would further the process of improving the lot of its citizens.
But then I saw the celebrations after a 2-0 win over Algeria took the hosts into the quarterfinal. Silencers were taken off mobilettes, so the engines roared in triumph as the riders dragged the lids of petrol cans along the ground, sending up fountains of sparks. Everybody took to the streets; Bamako became one enormous party. I remember clearly one man of at least seventy, his faced deeply lined and his hair white, grabbing my arm and saying, "This is the best night since independence."
Can you put a price on that? A few extra miles of road, a few extra tractors, a few more wells, or an event that became a four-week festival of Malian identity, that nobody who was there, Malian or foreign, will ever forget? You could even argue -- although I'm not sure how you'd ever prove it -- that the spirit of goodwill generated made it $60M well spent even in purely financial terms; after all, a decade on, I'm still telling people how great Mali is and how you really should visit -- I've heard other journalists who were there doing the same.
But leaving that aside, there is a qualm. Can the temporary joy -- and the longer-term memories -- of a soccer tournament, really be set against more fundamental development. To argue it can seem to be legitimizing the "bread and circuses" approach to government satirized by Juvenal. (Actually Juvenal's initial point has been slightly lost; "for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions -- everything," he wrote, "now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses." His attack was on a populace that has turned from lofty ideals to the satisfaction of base desires; he doesn't condemn the imperial government for providing these things.)
Even taking the more familiar interpretation of the phrase -- that is, that so long as governments feed and entertain their people, nobody much cares about anything else -- straight condemnation seems over simplistic. Whatever you may think of the governments of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon -- whatever you may think, indeed, of the way Equatorial Guinea has put together its squad, trawling the world for those of Equatoguinean heritage and those happy to accept a passport of convenience -- do their people not deserve a little joy? Is soccer, perhaps life itself, not richer for moments like those produced by Kily and Mbanagoye?
Separating national team from national government isn't easy, but sometimes it has to be done.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.