In the end it was a deserved triumph for Algeria. Djamel Belmadi’s Desert Foxes were quite the best side in this AFCON tournament in Egypt, not least in terms of playing quality, and the North Africans have ended with a second continental title, and a first in 29 years. Baghdad Bounedjah was the decider, his deflected goal after just 79 seconds was enough for the win against Senegal.
It was something of a vindication for Bounedjah, who has been a hard worker up front for Algeria in this tournament, but the striker had only scored once before this game, and that was a penalty in the first game against Kenya.
But take that away, and this was a rather underwhelming game. It was quite archetypal of a final, cagey, low in quality, (almost like an improvement – but not worthy of being called an upgrade – of the UEFA Champions League last month).
The second half was populated with Algeria trying to pull off consistent acts of gamesmanship, to an exasperating level, and Senegal not really doing much to be a threat.
And in a way, it was fitting and summed up the whole tournament in Egypt, more drama than quality.
Before this game, Senegal saw off Tunisia, in a semi-final more known for the drama of two saved penalties and an extra time own goal than any form of sustained quality.
Senegal’s win over Benin Republic in the quarter-finals was as similar, as was their victory against Uganda in the last 16. Even Nigeria’s 3-2 win over Cameroon, arguably the most exciting game of the tournament, was more of a show of drama and end-to-end vulnerability than actual quality.
That Algeria were the best side in this tournament owes as much to the lacklustre football of the rest as it does to their own game. Cameroon hardly found their feet, Nigeria hardly found conviction, Cote d’Ivoire were far from peak, neither were Ghana, nor hosts Egypt. Morocco were another side who looked to be sharp, but the fact is all their wins were 1-0 score-lines, while they came unstuck against Benin in the last 16, losing on penalties.
And that’s another feat of this low-quality tournament, fairy-tales and memorable runs, particularly for the less-fancied teams.
Benin qualified from a group involving Ghana and Cameroon (albeit in third place), knocked out Morocco and reached the quarter-finals, while debutants Madagascar also got to the last eight, beating Nigeria and topping their group along the way.
This might be common in 24-team tournaments, unfancied sides pulling off surprising and heart-warming runs. Northern Ireland got to the last 16 of the European Championship three years ago (despite losing two games), while Iceland got to the quarter-finals of the same. Even as far back as the 24-team World Cup, in 1990, unheralded names like Costa Rica and the Republic of Ireland reached the second round (at least).
Perhaps tournaments with a not-so-even layout of teams will have this, teams knowing that just a win or avoiding defeat in all group games might just be enough to get them to the next round set out to play on the back foot, and if it works, garner belief into the knockout phase, the footballing synonym for ‘anything can happen’.
Maybe the potential relative mismatch of teams might lead to constant low quality games, but that doesn’t explain low-quality games between teams of similar ilk.
One thing is certain, this is definitely not a tournament that will be remembered for its stunning football (albeit Algeria’s quality).
The football was far from the best. But that’s not to say this tournament won’t be worth remembering. Just ask the likes of Madagascar, Benin, and the champions themselves.