Senegal were clear favourites before the tournament, as the Lions of Teranga are the highest ranked African team by FIFA. They also had the easier road to the final, having to beat Cape Verde, Equatorial-Guinea and Burkina Faso in the play-offs, while Egypt had to play three ”small finals” against Ivory Coast, Morocco and Cameroon: all three matches decided after 120 minutes, and two in a penalty shoot-out.
Mané has also been named Man of the Competition, while his team-mate, Chelsea keeper Édouard Mendy, who had to miss the start of the tournament as he was recovering from COVID-19 infection, became the Best Goalkeeper. Cameroon captain Vincent Aboubakar has become the tournament’s top scorer with 8 goals. The 30-year-old currently plays for Saudi side Al Nassr – it is yet to be seen if his performance may spark interest from top clubs and bring him back to Europe: Aboubakar used to play for Porto and Besiktas, among other clubs, for several seasons.
All in all, the tournament provided some memorable games and individual performances. Remarkable achievements by nations like debutants Comoros and Gambia, or underdogs Equatorial Guinea or Burkina Faso also showed that football on the continent has a promising future. Burkina Faso also boast the best young player of the tournament – 20-year-old right-back Issa Kaboré, who is currently on loan at Ligue 1 side ESTAC Troyes from Manchester City (both clubs members of the City Football Group), registered three assists, the joint highest of any player at the competition.
Rough start and conditions
The 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations was organized in recent weeks in Cameroon, after years of delays and postponements, and amid continuous concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cameroon was due to host the continental tournament in 2019, but Confederation of African Football (CAF) denied the country’s hosting rights in 2018, because of infrastructural concerns. Cameroon received hosting rights again for AFCON 2021, which was eventually postponed to 2022, and started on the 9th of January. Attendance at Cameroon’s matches was capped at 80% of stadium capacity, whereas for all other matches at the tournament that number came down to 60%.
Before the competition, several European clubs expressed apprehensions to release their players due to COVID concerns and their congested match calendar. Clubs were supposed to let their players leave for the tournament by 27 December, but eventually FIFA and CAF agreed and let them join their national teams up until 3rd January. The late release of players encumbered adequate preparation, which had already been derailed by cancelled friendlies, injuries and fresh surges in COVID-infections. As a consequence, many nations started the tournament with close to no time to practice with their full squad due to late joiners or key players in quarantine. It impacted on-pitch performances as well: in the first round, nine out of 12 games ended 1-0, while a further two finished goalless.
With the emergence of the more transmissible Omicron variant, COVID posed a constant threat throughout the competition. Indeed, there were many infections reported during the tournament, both among players and staff. The fact, that AFCON 2021 was the most diverse tournament with players coming from 390 clubs in 69 countries, made it even more difficult to keep the virus under control. In some cases, inappropriate health protocols added to the difficulties: Gambia coach Tom Saintfiet complained at a news conference about their squad’s accommodation, as six players had to be in one room, sharing showers and toilets, while others had to share double beds.
Climatic conditions also had an effect, especially early afternoon games with temperature climbing to 31 Celsius, accompanied by 80% humidity. At the game between Mali and Tunisia, the referee was reported to have a heatstroke when he mistakenly ended the game in the 85th minute, and, after resumption, blew for full-time again in the 89th minute. Later on, however, players found their goal-scoring shoes. Not everyone though: title holders Algeria were eliminated early in the group phase, with only one point collected after two losses against Ivory Coast and Equatorial-Guinea. Similarly, Ghana, another favourite, were denied the chance to progress from their group, after a shocking 3-2 loss against Comoros.
Above all, a stampede at the gates before the Cameroon-Comoros tie at the Olembe Stadium in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé, killing eight and injuring further 50 people, cast a dark shadow over the whole tournament. After the deadly crush, the facility was closed, but later the stadium was reinstated for the semi-final between Cameroon and Egypt and the finals.
Debutants Comoros (ranked 132nd by FIFA and home to only 815k people) started out with two defeats against Gabon and Morocco, before stunning Ghana and thus marching into the round of 16, where Cameroon ended their fairy tale with a hard-fought 2-1 win. In that match, Comoros had to place left-back Chaker Alhadhur on the goal line as all goalkeepers were out with injury and/or COVID infections – Alhadhur performed some heroic saves, despite sometimes trying to save with his hands behind his back, acting according to his usual role as a defender. Earlier, Comoros keeper Ben Boina, who is playing in the French fifth-tier, became man of the match against Morocco, after saving Sevilla’s En-Nesyri’s penalty.
One of the best performances of the tournament was shown by the young team of Burkina Faso, who in the end finished fourth, beaten by hosts Cameroon on penalties in the bronze match. The Stallions reached the semi-finals despite being without star players in the group matches, such as Bayer Leverkusen’s Edmond Tapsoba and Aston Villa’s Bertrand Traore due to COVID. Moreover, a military coup staged in Burkina Faso on 23 January, during the tournament did not distract the team – in contrast, the success of the national team brought some ease to the country in the midst of revolt, as supporters marched into the streets celebrating their wins.
Media and Sponsors
According to the organizers, the TotalEnergies AFCON 2021 was broadcast live in 157 countries by major broadcasters, such as beIN Sport across North Africa, the Middle East, in the Asia-Pacific region and North America, including the United States, and ESPN in its Latin American territories, while coverage in the UK was provided by the BBC and BSkyB. For areas not covered, CAF streamed all matches live on its YouTube channel. In terms of social media, AFCON’s official page was represented only on Facebook, but claims 5.3 million followers, which makes AFCON 21 the 10th most popular football competition on Facebook. The tournament, however, was heavily promoted on CAF’s social channels – in fact, according to our Social Media Analytics Tool, CAF is the third most popular football confederation on social media, behind only FIFA and UEFA, with 8.4 million followers combined on its channels (Facebook: 633k; Instagram: 2.3 million; Twitter: 2.2 million; Youtube: 991k; Tiktok:2.3m).
AFCON 21 had one title sponsor, along with eight official and three national sponsors. Some of them were announced, rather unusually, only shortly before the start of the tournament, with cryptocurrency exchange platform, Binance being revealed only several days before kick-off. The brand featured for the tournament’s “assist awards” (of the day, week and tournament). Similarly to Binance, Tiktok, Umbro and 1XBET became last-minute sponsors. Umbro kitted all referees, volunteers, and associated personnel as well as providing the official match ball ‘Toghu’, which was named after traditional Cameroonian outfits. French energy company Total Energies was the title sponsor of the tournament: Total entered into an eight-year partnership with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 2016, becoming the title sponsor of 10 CAF-organized tournaments: the deal is reportedly worth a total of USD 250 million.
Before the tournament CAF increased the prize money for the competition. The winners get USD 5 million, an increase of USD 500,000, while the runners-up receive USD 2.75 million, an increase of USD 250,000.