Africa Cup of Nations 2019: highs, lows and moments of mayhem

From basketball-style thrillers to great goals and Algeria’s final triumph we pick the highlights from a hectic tournament

Match of the tournament

Algeria’s quarter-final victory against Ivory Coast felt like two top sides going head to head, the tension cranking up after Jonathan Kodjia’s equaliser and both teams hellbent on finding a winner during extra time. For aggro and drama, Senegal’s win over Tunisia in the semi-finals ran it close. Madagascar’s vibrant 2-2 draw against DR Congo, in which they came through on spot kicks, deserves a mention. For basketball-style mayhem, though, there was no more entertaining match than the Kenya and Tanzania east African derby, which was somehow restricted to a mere 3-2 win for the former.

Player of the tournament

Early on it looked as if Mohamed Salah, whose two flourishes in the group stage papered over the cracks in a dreary Egypt side, might make this tournament his. But that did not last and the biggest impacts came from less celebrated names. Ismael Bennacer, apparently not good enough for Arsenal, was a force of consistency and intelligence in Algeria’s midfield and takes the gong. Most of the contenders wore Algeria shirts although Idrissa Gueye was outstanding and wielded a bigger influence on Senegal than Sadio Mané.

Goal of the tournament

It was not an Afcon of great goals and the winner is easy to pick for its blend of execution and theatre. Algeria looked to be tiring in their semi-final with Nigeria and extra-time seemed inevitable. Then Riyad Mahrez, who otherwise flitted in and out of the tournament, whipped a brilliant free-kick into the far corner with the last kick of the game. A few other sparkling strikes were available: Madagascar’s two goals against DR Congo encapsulated the brio in the underdogs’ play while Youssef En-Nesyri’s winner for Morocco against Ivory Coast came from a beautiful move. Overall, though, much of the action in front of goal was scruffy.

Biggest disappointment

Morocco proved doubts about their efficiency correct when, having created enough chances to win several games, they fell on penalties to a stodgy Benin in the last 16. Hakim Ziyech’s added-time miss from the spot will stay with him and the tournament would have been better for an extended viewing of its most entertaining side. The hosts’ no-show against South Africa also subtracted something even if their exit was deserved. Perhaps a barely watchable final was the biggest disappointment of all, particularly given that it involved two decent teams, even though expectations should always be managed before such occasions.

Baghdad Bounedjah prepares to shoot – his heavily looped, deflected goal early in the final gave Algeria victory over Senegal.
Baghdad Bounedjah prepares to shoot – his heavily looped, deflected goal early in the final gave Algeria victory over Senegal. Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

Biggest gripe

There are a few, which is no surprise when a confederation on its knees, a hastily knocked-together tournament and a paranoid, repressive host state are combined. The first few days were a mess as accreditations went awol and supporters struggled to buy tickets for games that were played to near-empty stands. The latter was an issue from start until the very finish, with the final played to banks of vacant seats. Supporters were the last people to benefit from the Fan ID system, which is patently unsuited to a Cup of Nations. The level of personal detail required of those who did sign up, in a country whose authorities will take a mile when offered a millimetre, did little to attract locals. Where the football was concerned, a 24-team tournament made for genuinely exciting knockout rounds but at the cost of real interest during the group stage.

Team of the tournament (4-3-3)

M’Bolhi (Algeria); Métanire (Madagascar), Koulibaly (Senegal), Benlamri (Algeria), Sabaly (Senegal); Bennacer (Algeria), Gueye (Senegal), Ndidi (Nigeria); Chukwueze (Nigeria), Ighalo (Nigeria), Belaili (Algeria)

Funniest moment

It was a hospital pass of epic proportions when yours truly persuaded the Observer’s Ed Aarons, arriving in Egypt a day later, to transport the entire Burundi squad’s new match boots with him. When Ed found himself held up at customs for three hours in the middle of the night and threatened with a £6,000 fee for bringing his suspicious-looking packages into the country, things became fraught. It eventually ended with laughs all round although Burundi, who finished with no points and no goals, had clearly not been shopping in the “shooting” aisle of the boot store.

Personal highlight

It was a pleasure to get to know Madagascar and their coach, Nicolas Dupuis. His rise has been as big a fairytale as that of his team and his personal pride at leading them to the last eight was very touching.

Egypt is clearly not a happy place and it quickly became clear that a Cup of Nations offered little more than bread and circuses to most locals. The apathy when Egypt slunk out in the round of 16 was striking. A month in Cairo – relentless, intense, cinematic – may have taken a decade or two off this writer’s life but it will be a wrench to leave. It did not take long for the hospitality and genuine desire to assist – even among the generously-staffed security forces, whose inscrutability could be melted with a little effort – to get under the skin.It is one of the world’s great cities and deserves better days.


Nick Ames in Cairo

The GuardianTramp

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