AFCON 2023: The Takeaways 

By Matthew Ma
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Matthew Ma

“This tournament has also been a remarkable showcase of African footballing talent and prowess, with numerous memorable moments that will be etched into the annals of sporting history for years to come. The tournament has been a veritable rollercoaster ride, with many thrilling matches, incredible feats of athleticism, and heart-wrenching defeats that have kept fans on the edge of their seats throughout. One of the standout features of this year's tournament has been the exceptional quality of officiating, which has been a welcome change for fans who have been frustrated with inconsistent and often questionable calls in the past.”

Sports have always played a significant role in our lives, whether it be reminiscing childhood memories of kicking around little balls, playing catch with our fathers during our teenage years, or participating in team sports as adults. The thrill of competition, the bonds formed with teammates, and the lessons learned from both victories and defeats are all part of the experience. For some, sports is more than just a hobby; it is their profession, their livelihood. Athletes train for years to perfect their craft, competing at the highest levels of their sport. As fans, we are entertained while watching our favorite teams play. We cheer for them, we cry with them, and we feel their victories and losses as if they were our own. Recently, the African Cup of Nations attracted thousands of viewers rooting for the Super Eagles of Nigeria to win. The atmosphere was electric, with fans dressed in their team's colors chanting and singing in unison. Despite Nigeria's diversity with over 200 ethnic groups, there were no divisions or brawls among the viewers. Instead, everyone came together to celebrate the game, united in their love for sports. In the forthcoming paragraphs, we shall explore some noteworthy observations and insights gathered during the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2023. With great anticipation, let us now delve into the exhilarating highlights and takeaways from this captivating football extravaganza.

The unity of football
Nigeria, a country with over 200 ethnic groups, is no stranger to ethnic and cultural divisions. However, when it comes to football, these divisions dissipate. During a football match, it is a beautiful sight to behold when a Hausa man embraces an Igbo man, when a Yoruba man embraces a Tiv, Uhrobo, Jukun, or Fulani man, or when people from different regions of Nigeria exchange high-fives or hugs, all because of football. Football has always been a source of joy and happiness to Nigerians, and it has played a significant role in this African Cup of Nations. In this year's African Cup of Nations, Nigeria has once again demonstrated this same unity. The team brought Nigerians together, and the country was awash with excitement and anticipation. In some of the matches, the Super Eagles played remarkably well, and fans from different parts of the country rallied together to cheer them on. It's heartwarming to see how football has the power to unite people, even in the midst of diversity and division. In a nutshell, football is not just a sport in Nigeria; it is a way of life. Nigerians have an unwavering passion for football that runs deep in their veins. It is not just about rooting for their domestic teams but rather a shared experience that brings fans of different clubs together. The excitement of scoring a goal, the disappointment of a missed opportunity, and the sheer joy derived from the beautiful game are what make Nigerians happy. As the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) comes to an end, football enthusiasts in Nigeria are already looking forward to the remaining season of the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga Santander. Fans of popular teams, including Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and others, are sure to flock to viewing centers across the country to catch the matches. This is a testament to the popularity of these teams and the love Nigerians have for football.

Extraordinary triumph
The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations was a highly anticipated and exciting event that captivated audiences across the continent and beyond. The tournament, which began in January and ended on February 11, is one of the most intriguing and entertaining iterations in recent history. Right from the start, there were plenty of early shocks as some of the tournament favorites struggled to find their footing. The host nation, Ivory Coast, provided one of the biggest surprises of the group stage by losing two of their three games, including a 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea. As a result, the Ivory Coast coaching staff quickly took action and sacked head coach Jean-Louis Gasset. Despite their struggles, the Ivory Coast managed to scrape through to the knockout phase as one of the best third-placed teams. This was primarily due to the remarkable efforts of their interim manager, Assistant Emerse Fae, who took over the reins from Gasset. Fae managed to rally his team and guide them through the knockouts, defying all odds and expectations. Awaiting Ivory Coast in the final was Nigeria, who had beaten the Elephants 1-0 during the group phase. The Super Eagles were one of the few relatively consistent sides in the tournament, but they needed a penalty shootout to get past 10-man South Africa in the semifinals. Prior to that, Nigeria had put on strong performances, including a 2-0 win over Cameroon, one of the pre-tournament favorites. However, they were unable to overcome the determined Ivory Coast team in the final. In a thrilling match, the Ivory Coast emerged victorious by defeating Nigeria 2-1 on February 11, 2024. William Troost-Ekong gave the Super Eagles a first-half lead, but Franck Kessie deservedly leveled just after the hour mark. With just nine minutes of normal time remaining, Sebastien Haller, who had taken time out from football following a cancer diagnosis in 2022, prodded home the winning goal. The Ivory Coast's victory was all the more impressive given the adversity they faced throughout the tournament, and they became the first host nation to emerge as champions since Egypt back in 2006. This was the Elephants' third AFCON title and their first since 2015, putting them in an exclusive club alongside Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Egypt, which are the only teams to have won the tournament more than twice.

Low scoring Super Eagles
Nigeria has long been known for its football prowess but has not been able to achieve high-scoring victories in recent tournaments. Gone are the days when the Super Eagles dominated the field with a flurry of goals. In the ongoing African Cup of Nations, Nigeria has only managed to secure narrow wins except for their match against Cameroon, where they managed to score twice. The question that arises now is whether Nigeria can play beautiful football and still make it to the semi-finals or finals without being knocked out. Historically, Nigeria and Ghana are the only teams in the African Cup of Nations to have successfully secured second place in AFCON. Nigeria and Ghana currently share the unenviable record of having the highest number of Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) final defeats. Both nations have been runners-up at this prestigious tournament a total of five times. This is a significant statistic considering that the Afcon is the most essential football competition for African national teams. Despite their numerous appearances in the final, neither Nigeria nor Ghana has managed to win the trophy in recent times, leaving both countries hungry for future success in the competition. So, what can we learn from this defeat, and what should be the way forward for the Super Eagles? First, it's impossible to win a game by solely defending one goal for 90 minutes. Watching the final match, Nigeria needed a robust and efficient attacking force. Looking at the formidable defense line of their opponents, Nigeria's attackers could have significantly impacted the game if they had taken the game to their opponent by breaking through their defense. Ahead of the next AFCON, Nigeria must prioritize the development of a solid and united attacking force that can collaboratively generate scoring opportunities and secure triumph for their team. Second, the team needs a midfielder like the legendary Jay-Jay Okocha, who can command the midfield and provide Victor Osimhen with scoring opportunities. The Nigeria Super Eagles have had a rich history filled with numerous glorious moments and players. Going back to the pre-1994 era, the team made significant strides in the football world. One of the most notable achievements was at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, where Nigeria won a gold medal in football. The Super Eagles put up a stunning performance, beating both Brazil and Argentina in the process. This victory was a significant milestone for the team and a source of immense pride for Nigerians around the world. Thanks to players like Jay-jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, and Celestine Babayaro. It is high time for Nigeria to develop players who are versatile and can score goals, including defenders. This will not only strengthen the team's attack but also provide them with more options during crucial moments of the game. To increase our chances of success in international football tournaments, the Nigerian Football Federation must adopt proactive measures by incorporating local talents into the national team. Evidence from the recent African Cup of Nations points to the effectiveness of this strategy, as exemplified by South Africa's team, which performed exceptionally well. By tapping into the vast pool of skilled players within the country, the Nigerian Football Federation can enhance the level of competitiveness of the national team and ultimately achieve tremendous success on the global stage. Unfortunately, the current state of our domestic league is a cause for concern. Several issues need to be addressed, such as poor management, inadequate funding, and insufficient infrastructure. These problems have resulted in a decline in the quality of the league, which has subsequently impacted the quality of players produced. Therefore, the Nigerian Football Federation must take immediate action to address these issues in order to create a more conducive environment for the development of football in Nigeria. With this strategic approach and the right players, Nigeria will have the potential to reclaim its position as a dominant force in African football and recapture the glory days of the Super Eagles.

Overconfidence Senegal
In the latest edition of the African Cup of Nations tournament, the reigning champions, Senegal, were expected to defend their title with their previous experience and success. However, despite being the favorites to win, the team ultimately failed to retain their crown. The reason behind Senegal's downfall can be attributed to their own sense of complacency and overconfidence. They were perhaps too over-reliant on their previous success and experience, failing to account for the ever-evolving nature of African football. Moreover, Senegal underestimated the competition and wrongly assumed that their current form was enough to carry them through to victory. They were apparently not ready to face the formidable challenges posed by the highly competitive underdogs who were emerging in the African football arena. These underdogs were prepared to challenge the champions and eventually succeeded in doing so. The team's lack of focus and underestimation of their opponents proved to be their undoing, as they were unable to keep up with the pace of the tournament. As a result, Senegal failed to defend their title and ultimately fell short of their goal. This goes to show that complacency and overconfidence can lead to the downfall of even the most successful teams if they fail to recognize the emergence of new contenders and the ever-evolving nature of the sport. This is a reminder that success is not a permanent state and that one must remain vigilant, adaptable, and open to change in order to continue succeeding in any field.

The egoistic Moroccan team
The Moroccan national football team participated in the African Cup of Nations with high confidence and determination to succeed. This self-assurance was derived from their impressive performance in the previous World Cup held in Qatar, where they managed to reach the quarter-finals and take the fourth position. Such a feat instilled a sense of pride in both the players and their supporters, who had high hopes for their performance in the AFCON tournament. However, things went differently than planned during their match against the DR Congo. There was a heated exchange between the Moroccan coach and the DR Congo captain, which left some individuals who witnessed the incident disappointed. They expressed their disappointment with the Moroccan team and even wished for them to fail in their pursuit of victory at AFCON 2023. The reason behind this negative sentiment was that they believed the Moroccan team was too arrogant and full of themselves. Despite their previous success, the Moroccan team was unable to live up to their fans' expectations in the AFCON tournament. They were knocked out of the competition in a painful and humiliating way. The team's overconfidence and arrogance may have played a part in their downfall, and it served as a reminder that one should never underestimate their opponents. In the context of soccer competitions, it is crucial to maintain an attitude of humility and respect towards every team that qualifies for a tournament. Regardless of a team's reputation, previous performances, or perceived weaknesses, every team that competes in a tournament has a unique set of strengths that can pose a challenge to any other team. Underestimating any team can lead to complacency, which can ultimately result in unexpected losses and exit from the competition. Unfortunately, the Moroccan soccer team had to learn this lesson the hard way when they were defeated in a crucial game, leading to their exit from the competition. The team may have underestimated their opponents, or perhaps they were not fully prepared for the tournament. This experience serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of humility, respect, and thorough preparation in soccer competitions. Approaching every match with equal vigor and determination is crucial for any team's success in a soccer competition. Regardless of the opposition's perceived strength, every match must be treated as a challenge that requires total commitment and focus. The Moroccan soccer team's defeat underscores the importance of these values and highlights the need for teams to remain humble, respectful, and well-prepared to succeed in competitive soccer.

Social media banters
The way in which Nigerians engaged with the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) on social media was truly exceptional. The level of interaction and banter surrounding the event was remarkable, with even government and security agencies getting involved. The Super Eagles' performance played a significant role in this phenomenon, as their victories and defeats sparked passionate reactions and discussions online. One of the most notable aspects of this social media engagement was the clever and witty slogans created by Nigerians. For example, the 2023 AFCON motto, "We no dey gree for anybody," was a perfect representation of Nigerian resilience and determination. The phrase quickly gained popularity and became a rallying cry for fans across the country. As the tournament progressed and some of the favored teams were eliminated, the banter intensified, particularly between Ghana, Cameroon, and South Africa, all rooting against Nigeria. Some individuals even went so far as to predict that if Nigeria made it to the quarter- or semi-finals, they should be labeled "bastards." Social media influencers even called for President Tinubu to intervene and caution Nigerians against further banter. Despite the intense online discussions, many argued that Nigeria should not win the tournament as it would be too much for social media to handle. However, as the tournament came to a close and Nigeria did not emerge victorious, everyone seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Overall, the way in which Nigerians took the AFCON social media engagement to new heights is definitely worth analyzing and celebrating.

The VAR system
The African Cup of Nations 2023 has been a fantastic showcase of high-quality football, and one of the remarkable features of the tournament has been the successful implementation of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. The VAR system, which has been utilized in several high-profile football leagues worldwide, has been highly lauded for its effectiveness during this tournament. Many football enthusiasts have commended the use of VAR in this tournament, rating it higher compared to what we see in top European leagues. It has played a significant role in ensuring fair play and accurate decision-making during the matches, and its introduction has not only increased the level of transparency but also added excitement and drama to the games. For example, in the semi-final match against South Africa, Nigeria managed to survive a tense semi-final match, which was marked by VAR controversy. Despite being three-time winners, Nigeria was given a real scare by the South African side, who managed to hold them to a 1-1 draw at the end of regular time. The match then went into extra time, but neither side could manage to score, leading to a penalty shootout. In the shootout, Nigerian goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali emerged as the hero for his team, as he managed to save two penalties to guide his side to a 4-2 victory. With this result, Nigeria have booked their place in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, where they will be looking to claim their fourth title in the tournament's history. The VAR system was instrumental in ensuring that the right decisions were made and that no team gained an undue advantage during the matches. It has been used to check for offside decisions, fouls, penalties, and other contentious issues that could affect the outcome of the games. Furthermore, it helped the referees make accurate decisions in real-time, resulting in a fairer and more entertaining outcome for the matches. Overall, the successful implementation of VAR has been one of the major highlights of the African Cup of Nations 2023. It has set a new standard for football leagues worldwide, and its effectiveness has been highly commendable. With the successful implementation of VAR in this tournament, one can only hope that more leagues worldwide will adopt this system to ensure fair play and accurate decision-making in football matches.

Baseless negativity
One of the significant challenges facing the country is the tendency among Nigerians to be overly critical and judgmental. This is particularly evident in the way we treat our national teams, including the Super Eagles. Even before the commencement of the tournament, there was a lack of confidence in the Super Eagles. In fact, there were social media influencers and armchair critics who were spreading baseless negativity about our team and coach. Despite the team's best efforts and impressive performances, some people continue to attribute their success to luck or other factors rather than acknowledging their hard work and talent. This pervasive negativity is highly concerning, as it can undermine the confidence and morale of our national teams. It's important to remember that our success as a nation is dependent on our ability to work together and support one another, especially during difficult times. While it's understandable to have concerns about the performance of our leaders and the state of the economy, it's important to channel our negative sentiments constructively. Rather than hating our fellow Nigerians, we should focus our attention on the leaders who are making bad economic decisions. As a student, I once had a history professor who said something that has stuck with me ever since. He stated that if we dislike history, we should not hate him but rather hate the course. In other words, we should not direct our hatred of the course toward him, but rather the course itself. This same principle can be applied to different areas of our lives as well, including our attitudes toward our leaders and our sports teams. For instance, in Nigeria, there is a lot of frustration and anger directed toward the government due to its poor economic decisions. However, this anger should not be directed toward our soccer players who represent our country with pride and passion. These athletes have dedicated their time, talents, and energy to playing for our national team, and they deserve our support and admiration. Instead, we should direct our negative sentiments toward those in power who are responsible for making decisions that negatively impact our economy and our people. By doing so, we can work toward creating a better future for ourselves and our country as a whole. Therefore, we should continue to pray for better leaders to rule our country so that we can achieve peace, love, unity, tranquility, and prosperity. As we strive for a better future for our country, it's essential to be mindful of our actions and words. We should continue to support the Super Eagles and all our national teams as they represent us on the global stage. By working together and supporting one another, we can create a brighter future for Nigeria.

As the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations draws to a close, it is of paramount importance to express our deep gratitude to the Ivory Coast, the gracious host of this year's tournament. Ivory Coast has left no stone unturned in ensuring that this event was a resounding success, from the immaculate playing fields to the excellent hospitality and security measures in place. The country's warm and welcoming people have made the experience all the more memorable for the players, officials, and fans alike. We owe a debt of gratitude to Ivory Coast for making this year's Africa Cup of Nations a truly unforgettable event. This tournament has also been a remarkable showcase of African footballing talent and prowess, with numerous memorable moments that will be etched into the annals of sporting history for years to come. The tournament has been a veritable rollercoaster ride, with many thrilling matches, incredible feats of athleticism, and heart-wrenching defeats that have kept fans on the edge of their seats throughout. One of the standout features of this year's tournament has been the exceptional quality of officiating, which has been a welcome change for fans who have been frustrated with inconsistent and often questionable calls in the past. The introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) has brought a new level of fairness and transparency to the game, ensuring that the best decisions are made on the field. This has resulted in a tournament that has been a joy to watch for football fans around the world. However, the impact of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations goes beyond the world of football. This tournament has brought together people from all walks of life and has served as a unifying force for the continent. It has showcased Africa's rich cultural heritage and diverse traditions, providing a platform for fans from around the world to experience the unique flavors and sounds of this vibrant continent. It has also helped to foster a sense of pride and belonging among Africans everywhere, creating a shared sense of identity and purpose that will continue to resonate long after the tournament has ended. In conclusion, the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations has been an incredible journey filled with excitement, passion, and unforgettable moments. It has been a testament to the talent and determination of African footballers and a celebration of the rich cultural heritage of this beautiful continent. As we bid farewell to this year's tournament, let us remember the impact it has had on Africa and the world and look forward to the next chapter in the story of African football.

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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