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Afcon 2017 – something's missing!

There is something missing at Afcon 2017. I can’t seem to put my finger on it.

Is it the psychological depression of not been a part of the party in Gabon that is personally depressing me, or what?

For whatever reason, I have not been as excited about the ongoing championship as I should be, given the general expectation that it will showcase African football as catching up fast with the more developed football cultures of the world.

Obviously, Afcon 2017 does not confirm or even reflect that at all, and has not captured the imagination.

When the celebrated African footballers in Europe fail to shine in their domestic African championship; when Pierre Aubameyang, probably Africa’s best player in Europe at the moment, fails to lead his team, Gabon, the host of the African championship, past the first round and exits the championship without making a dent; when the crowds thin out immediately after the exit of the host team in the first round of matches; when Africa’s recently decorated Player of the Year, Riyad Mahrez of Algeria, fails to lead Algeria beyond the first round; when Cote D’Ivoire and its army of celebrated ageing stars fail to inspire and go past the first round; when a ‘finished’ Emmanuel Adebayoor is the one leading Togo to yet another mediocre performance and both player and country fail to make it past the first round; there are many things missing at this Nations Cup tournament.

Is it also possible that the absence of some teams, particularly, the African giants, Nigeria, again at the African Cup of Nations, is depressing the entire championship?

It is like Brazil missing from the World Cup. Of course, the championship would not be the same!

On a personal note, beyond the impact and competitive edge Nigeria presents at the Africa Cup of Nations, whenever the country qualifies it is boom time for the sports business in the west African sub-region.

Whenever Nigeria fails to qualify, the opposite is the case - a massive financial disaster for those of us in an industry that is unfortunately driven by the degree of success of the Super Eagles.

Missing the Afcon once is bad enough. Missing it two times in a row is a real catastrophe. That’s the psychological depression I have found myself in since Afcon 2017 began on 14 January and Nigeria are not there for the second successive time.

So, surrounded by the gloom on the faces of Nigerians, I have been struggling to watch the matches on television and still do my job of writing about it.

Through the misty clouds of my vision what I have seen so far have been a mixture of a few average matches, one or two great ones with plenty of goals, particularly the thriller between Tunisia and Zimbabwe, a sprinkling of some individual brilliance, a dearth of truly exceptional new talent, and some shocking results.

The following are my humble conclusions.

Although there may not be minnows any more in African football, from the evidence of performances in Gabon the game has not undergone any massive movement up the ladder of technical development.

Once again, the worst part of the entire championship has been the simple matter of the poor state of the playing turfs. Africa has, so far, not been able to replicate the lush, flat, and undulating green surfaces of Europe and South America to allow for the best standards of football.

When I served on the players’ committee of Caf many years ago alongside some great African football legends, Abedi, Francois, Boli, Abega, Miller, Shubair, and so on, one of the major conversations with the Caf leadership was the state of football playing grounds across the continent, how they affected coaching, understanding and developing team tactics, and how they hindered the complete expressiveness of the individual players.

They listened but never quite understood the import of our concerns. Their response was to go on and proliferate the continent with artificial playing turfs. Whilst this was good business for a few members of the Executive Committee, promoters and dealers in the technology, it was definitely a step backwards for genuine African football development.

To rise above the present level of African football and reach for the highest levels in Europe essentially requires, amongst other things, some radical new thinking about investing in simple, lush green grass grounds for effective coaching, training and matches.

Unfortunately, only the deep can understand the deep!

Otherwise, Afcon 2017 has been a feast for die-hard football followers.

Matches have been physically well contested and football has lived up to its well-established traditions of unpredictability, shocks and surprises.

Giants have fallen by the wayside (Cameroon, Algeria, Cote D'Ivoire); minnows (Gabon, Togo, Uganda) have once again come, seen and have been conquered; the usual warriors remain standing as we approach the finish line (Egypt, Morocco, Ghana, Senegal and Democratic Republic of the Congo).

The benches of many teams are littered with the aged and battered faces of recycled foreign coaches that continue to play the ‘journeyman’ role across the continent.

As far as I am concerned this is clearly a demonstration of a lack of human capacity development in the technical department of African football. These foreign coaches cannot take African football to higher levels and are not the answer to what needs to be done!

Otherwise, the officiating of matches has generally been good, the television coverage great, the use of video technology effective, and the match analysis by retired players, spot-on.

Attendance at the matches has also been average since Gabon exited the championship!

Four teams have impressed me very much - Senegal, returning to the top-flight of African football, playing some of the best football in the championship so far; Ghana, consistent year after year, tournament after tournament even without being at their best this time; Egypt, with their mastery of African football, confirming their status as the most successful African national team in Afcon history; and the Democratic Republic of Congo, displaying the product of heavy and consistent investment in the domestic game and showcasing its impact on the national team.

A few players have also caught my eye – Mane of Senegal, Atsu of Ghana and Kabananga of DRC.

This weekend, as the championship enters the quarterfinals, any slip up here will be punished with an immediate exit.

Senegal look to me like the team to beat. It would not surprise anyone should they run away with the championship this year!

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