By Mark Gleeson
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Success for the home team in Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final ensured a storybook ending to a riveting tournament, with the Ivory Coast celebrating success both on and off the field.
The month-long tournament set new standards and had many thrilling matches, starting with a series of dramatic upsets and culminating in victory for the hosts.
The Ivorians beat Nigeria 2-1 in the final to complete a fairytale comeback after stumbling through the early stages and being handed the heaviest defeat ever suffered by a home country.
The 4-0 loss to tiny Equatorial Guinea in the last group match was the biggest shock in 34 editions of the Cup of Nations, stretching back more than six decades.
It left Ivory Coast on the brink of elimination but they squeezed through as lucky losers into the knockout stages, sacked their coach, altered the line-up and slowly built momentum.
"After that slap, it was difficult but it helped us come back even stronger to take our second chance and show everyone that we were the best," said Ivorian midfielder Seko Fofana.
The tournament seemed destined for a showpiece finish, having started with shock results that saw several heavyweight contenders tumble out early as unfancied teams proved more than competitive at the 24-team tournament.
The Cape Verde Islands, the smallest of the countries competing, eliminated Ghana early on and came within a penalty shootout of a semi-final place.
Equatorial Guinea’s exploits were also extraordinary and their 34-year-old captain Emilio Nsue, who plays for a third division club in Spain, ended as the tournament’s top scorer.
There were many headline players too but two of the biggest endured disappointing tournaments.
Egypt forward Mohamed Salah limped out with a hamstring injury, Sadio Mane went home after the last 16 as holders Senegal were dumped out and Morocco, who reached the World Cup semi-finals 14 months ago, were eliminated at the same stage, again failing to live up to their status as pre-tournament favourites.
The Cup of Nations has always been a colourful spectacle, and often enlivened by controversy on the field or rioting off it but many times also pilloried for the poor standard of matches. Past tournaments too have seen empty stands for matches not involving the hosts.
But the Ivory Coast, who put back the timing of the tournament six months to avoid the rainy season in west Africa, changed that perception, helped by a high quality of pitches and good attendances at most matches.
"With the image we showed today, Africa must be proud," said Ivory Coast captain Serge Aurier after Sunday’s final. “We have progressed, whether it be the teams, the stadiums, the living environment."
The 2025 Cup of Nations will be in Morocco, where the infra stricture is expected to be even better. But there is still no clarity from the Confederation of African Football on when the event will be held, either at the start of the year or in June-July when it would clash with FIFA’s new expanded Club World Cup.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)2024-02-12T10:18:15Z dg43tfdfdgfd