How AFCON proved its critics wrong

Ahead of the African Cup of Nations, racist predictions of a sporting disaster abounded. But they were all wrong.

Senegal's players celebrate with the trophy after winning the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 final at Stade d'Olembe in Yaounde.
Senegal's players celebrate with the trophy after winning the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 final against Egypt at Olembe stadium in Yaounde on February 6, 2022 [AFP/Charly Triballeau]

The 2021 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon came to an exciting denouement last Sunday as the Teranga Lions of Senegal, inspired by Sadio Mané and Édouard Mendy, defeated the Pharaohs of Egypt, led by Mohammed Salah. Coming after both sides failed to score in the 120 minutes of regular and extra time, a penalty shootout secured Senegal’s historic victory.

It was not only the country’s first-ever AFCON trophy, but it also marked a significant triumph for African indigenous coaches having been tactically orchestrated by Aliou Cissé and his backroom staff. After failing as captain to lead Senegal to victory in the 2002 AFCON final against Cameroon, Cissé, who has been in charge of the Senegalese team since 2015 and guided them to the 2018 World Cup in Russia as the only Black coach, finally waltzed into a glorious redemption. Senegal’s historic success underscores the potential of African coaches to excel when given sufficient time and resources to work – as is often the case with European coaches who work in Africa.

Pundits and commentators, including Nigeria’s former captain and coach Sunday Oliseh, have noted how this year’s AFCON became the most qualitative in the past 20 years especially in terms of tactics, passion, and surprises. The same sentiment was expressed by Samuel Eto’o, current president of the Cameroonian Football Federation, who took to Twitter to laud the organisation of “a legendary tournament” in Cameroon.

But as we cast a retrospective glance at the finest moments from Cameroon 2021, the accomplishments of the entire tournament itself brings into view the ambivalent forces that are sometimes entangled in sport. Understanding the import of Cameroon’s AFCON success is pertinent, considering the prevailing narratives of doom and crises that overshadowed this particular edition of the African Cup of Nations.

With cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 surging worldwide by the beginning of 2022, the pandemic became a pretext to excavate the colonial archive of negative stereotypes that stubbornly reifies a culture of disdain in media representations of Africa. In advance of the first kick-off, The Sun newspaper in the UK wrote about how COVID-19 cases would leave the tournament “in tatters”, while the UK’s Daily Mail sneeringly headlined a story with warnings of “AFCON terror” based on the escalation of separatist conflicts in Cameroon.

Meanwhile, the European Club Association (ECA) went as far as writing to the world football governing body FIFA to articulate needless anxieties about the potential endangerment of Europe-based players of African descent participating in AFCON.

It was clear even before the tournament started that the troubling mode of writing and talking about Africa as a hounded and helpless continent remains firmly embedded in a section of Western media and football officialdom. This disturbing tendency goes hand-in-hand with the racist portrayal of African players whether in African tournaments or abroad.

The verbal attacks on AFCON prompted Crystal Palace coach Patrick Vieira to denounce the disrespectful attitude of some Western journalists to the sporting event. Vieira’s belief that the African Cup deserved more respect was shared by several other public figures, including former England striker Ian Wright, who argued in a video posted on Twitter that media coverage of AFCON was racially tinged.

Despite these negative stories and expectations – of terror, disease, and danger – the African Cup of Nations was a success that is worth celebrating, especially considering that it was a major event that took place amid a pandemic. To understand why this is crucial, we need to recall that other countries around the world have struggled with international sporting events.

In 2020, for example, as opinions remained divided about holding the Summer Olympic Games amid the global pandemic, public health concerns eventually forced the unprecedented postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year. Unlike the COVID-19 warnings preceding Cameroon’s hosting of AFCON, those were legitimate concerns given Japan’s public health crisis at that time. When the Olympic Games eventually did take place, Tokyo had to be put under lockdown, while spectators were not allowed into the venues.

Six months after the Summer Olympics, China, the host of the winter iteration of the Games, is also struggling with the pandemic. It has barred foreign visitors and closed the sale of tickets to the general public. Its zero-COVID draconian measures have resulted in confusion and condemnation by some athletes.

The pandemic was also a challenge for Cameroon, but it did not result in a major public health disaster, as was predicted before the event. That said, AFCON 2021 was not a completely smooth ride. On January 24, eight people died during a stampede at Olembe stadium in Yaounde before the Cameroon-Comoros match.

There were other issues as well that took the shine off Cameroon’s organisation of the tournament, including the wrong national anthem being played for Mauritania and the Zambian referee, Janny Sikazwe ending the match between Tunisia and Mali in the 85th minute before changing his mind. Reports later emerged that Sikazwe had suffered heatstroke and needed medical attention. And, of course, looming over the entire tournament itself was Cameroon’s imperious response to the demands of its Anglophone citizens.

These poignant moments aside, the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon was a huge success, proving wrong the chorus of critics that lined up in the run-up to the event. The tournament was a festival of tactical displays and captivating performances that underpinned how much the game has evolved on the continent. Looking ahead, it is important to build upon these achievements by revitalising local leagues and developing the necessary infrastructures for more talent to thrive.

Africans also need to continue resisting racist, colonial representations in football and beyond. One way to consolidate this project of resistance is by empowering ourselves, decolonising our societies, and insisting on solid economic and infrastructural transformations that truly stem from and address local needs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.