Senegal have now become the nearly men of African football and it’s hard to see them recovering from their latest setback anytime soon
No one saw Algeria coming, but the whole world saw them leaving as champions of Africa.
Senegal played the game of their lives–by far the best of the tournament– but their best was not good enough to win their first-ever Africa Cup of Nations trophy.
Instead, it was the North Africans; 46 places below them in the FIFA ranking, that played the football that wins tournaments.
In beating The Lions of Teranga for the second time in the same tournament, after also beating Ivory Coast and Nigeria in the knockout phase, The Desert Foxes proved that their second-ever AFCON title was no fluke.
In scoring 13 goals, four more than second-highest scorers Nigeria, and conceding just twice, they showed the rest of Africa that in the modern game, high sounding names, big reputations and FIFA rankings are not necessarily the best yardstick for football greatness.
They had Riyad Mahrez, 2016 African Footballer of the Year, and one of the best players in Egypt but he was never their outstanding performer.
It was Napoli’s 21-year-old Ismail Bennacer, a playmaker now, of burgeoning reputation, who left an indelible mark on the tournament.
With a left foot as mesmerizing as Mahrez’s blinding free-kick at the death in the semi-finals against Nigeria, Bennacer was everything that established international stars Mohamed Salah, Wilfried Zaha, Alex Iwobi, Andre Ayew, Adama Traore, Cedric Bakambu and Islam Slimani were not. In a sense, he was the computer and engine at the same time.
If he wasn’t creating, he was probing and harassing opponents in possession. Tenacious as he was in every game, his flair never left him.
Playing behind Baghdad Bounedjah and alongside Adlene Guedioura in midfield, the trio illuminated dull matches with their combined technical skills and zest. But for them, results in the semi-final and final could have been different.
Sadio Mane, Idrissa Gueye, Henri Saivet and Ismaila Sarr were as hot as coal in the final, forcing incredible saves from goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi, but the lack of precision and over-indulgence at times, betrayed their purpose.
Senegal had carried the favourites tag and the players started believing their own hype. In 2002, Senegal lost to fellow West Africans Cameroon in the final and they didn’t think too much about the significance of their group 1-0 defeat to the North Africans.
They would have studied Djabel Belmadi’s team– a local coach–and understood that this is a team that came to Egypt well knowing their limitations.
For experience, they knew they had suffered heartaches in the past against West African opposition due to the difference in physicality and aggression.
Belmadi also knew that West African teams rely a lot on professional players whose passion and commitment to African football is always in doubt.
Of all the 24 teams in Egypt, Algeria were the most committed to the cause and it showed in their hard work and relentlessness.
Striker Bounedjah’s bucketful of tears after his missed penalty in the quarter-finals against Ivory Coast before his team emerged winners following a penalty shootout were inglorious.
It was that disappointment that acted as motivation for the remainder of the tournament and as fate would have it, he scored the historic goal that has reminded Africa of Algeria’s football heritage.
The reverse for Senegal is not inspiring. Their coach Aliou Cisse; a loser in 2002 final as captain, was not convincing with his preparations for Algeria.
The North African’s showed a lot of tactical adeptness on the way to the final and they deserved more respect than the lax approach Senegal showed at the start.
Senegal have now become the nearly men of African football and it’s hard to see them recovering from their latest setback anytime soon.
That the top four places were equally shared between North and West Africa must also not be ignored.
More revealingly, both Algeria and Tunisia who finished first and fourth respectively have been in the shadows of Egypt and Morocco in the last decade.
For the West Africans, Nigeria, who came to Egypt with genuine hope of challenging for the trophy, are the ones who demonstrated the willingness to move on from their failed generations.
They showed hunger and unlike the teams of the past, are embracing the team ethos away from the individual.
They eliminated defending champions Cameroon in the round of 16 purely because they were more of a unit than the Indomitable Lions.
The script that had underdogs repeatedly shock and confound more established opponents from the group stage was always going to end that way – in shock.