After a dramatic African Cup of Nations final, Africa has a first-time champion in Zambia. Here's some thoughts on a riveting tournament:
1. Emotion. This was the Cup of Tears. There was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang weeping after missing his quarterfinal penalty, the burden of carrying Gabon's expectations too much for him. There was Seydou Keita weeping for Mali and its war. And there was the entire Zambian squad weeping after its victory in the final, in the city off the coast of which 18 of its players died on their way to a World Cup qualifier in 1993.
Maybe the soccer wasn't of the very highest quality -- certainly there was no side of the quality of Egypt in 2008 -- but the joy and the drama and the sheer emotion more than made up for that. Sometimes sport isn't about technical excellence.
2. Ticking clock. Poor Didier Drogba. He has been the leader of one of the greatest generations of players any African nation has ever produced -- and has, for the most part, led them well. Forget the snarling, occasionally petulant figure he can be at Chelsea; for his country, Drogba is a true inspiration, always encouraging, usually calming potential flash points. He wasted an easy chance with 10 minutes of the 2006 final remaining and then missed his penalty in the shootout as Ivory Coast lost to the hosts Egypt. On Sunday, he will again carry the majority of the responsibility having missed from the spot with 20 minutes remaining, his second penalty failure of the tournament. Once again, though, he has led the line superbly.
3. Low attendances. Ticket prices don't help (the cheapest in Malabo was $10 in a country in which EG Watch says 70 percent of the population lives on under $2 a day), but the issues run deeper than that. For one thing, in a country in which so few people have any disposable income at all, any price is going to be too much. And for another, even when fans were allowed in for free, as they were for the two semifinals (in a well-ordered way in Libreville and in a chaotic last-minute way in Bata) very few turned up. There's just no culture of going to matches, no sense of wanting to be there or to see top-class sport in the flesh. The habit of watching Champions League games on television, whether at home or in bars, only reinforces that.
4. Refereeing. It's habitual in Cup of Nations reviews to complain about the pitches, the goalkeeping and the referees. Here, though, the pitches have been fine -- even the surface in Bata responded remarkably well after heavy rainfall before and during the second set of games; the goalkeeping has been fine; and the refereeing has been genuinely good. The only major point of controversy came in Senegal's defeat to Equatorial Guinea when the Sudanese official Khalid Abdel Rahman declined to award Senegal a penalty for a trip by Lawrence Doe on Issiar Dia with the score at 0-0; had that been awarded and scored, then Senegal might have lived up to the early expectations. The interpretation of the laws may have been on the liberal side, but it was consistently so, and there were remarkably few complaints. The Gambian official Bakary Gassama was particularly impressive, ignoring the passionate home support and awarding a penalty to Morocco in the final minute of its game against Gabon when he had every excuse to rule that Charly Moussono had handled accidentally.
1. Edmond Mouele, Gabon. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took most of the plaudits, as forwards often do, but the real standout player on the co-host's side was the right-back Edmond Mouele. In the globalized world of modern soccerl, in which it's rare to see an impressive player without at least having heard something of his background, Mouele marked a happy exception. He is 29 and plays for Mangasport in Moanda, Gabon, so the chances are that he'll never get a move to Europe, but he is quick and intelligent, overlapped superbly, and can cross a ball as well.
2. Dede Ayew, Ghana. Herve Renard, the Zambia coach, believes Ayew's as good as Yaya Toure, but doesn't get the recognition because he plays for Marseille rather than Manchester City. In a generally disappointing tournament for Ghana, he was one of the few pluses, playing not merely with great skill and great intelligence, but also with spirit. In the space of a minute against Tunisia, he was elbowed on the jaw and took a boot to the chest, but far from being intimidated, he seemed almost to revel in the attention, taking the ball next time it came to him, accelerating through three challenges and playing a backheel in the box. As his hair recedes and his mustache thickens, he looks increasingly like his father, Abedi Pele. He's playing increasingly like him, too.
3. Rainford Kalaba, Zambia. Zambia two years ago was a neat and tidy team, but they lacked a little thrust. The result was that, against Nigeria in the quarterfinal two years ago, it dominated, but couldn't turn a wealth of good possession into meaningful chances. Kalaba, though, has changed that. He is lightning fast and direct and, particularly when Zambia counterattacks, he terrifies defenders. It was Kalaba as much as anybody who led the demolition of Senegal in Zambia's first game, Kalaba whose run created the chance for Emmanuel Mayuka's winner in the semifinal, and Kalaba who was pulled down by Derek Boateng in that same game, leading to the Ghana midfielder's second yellow card and his sending off.
4. Yaya Toure, Ivory Coast. When Kolo Toure used to insist his little brother was better than him, most people smiled and acknowledged his humility and sense of family loyalty. It turns out, though, that it's true. Yaya Toure has developed into probably the most complete midfielder of the modern age, able to play in front of the back four and behind the front two, often in the course of the same game, starting out as a more attacking player before dropping back once his side is in the lead. His set-plays too are an overlooked strength: he set up Didier Drogba's second in the quarterfinal win over Equatorial Guinea and then curled in a beautiful free kick himself later in the same game.
5. Kily, Equatorial Guinea. Fairy tales don't come much better than Kily's. He might have been at Atletico Madrid player, but he suffered serious ankle trouble just before making his debut after which he drifted into the Spanish fourth flight. His Equatoguinean heritage earned him an international call-up, though, and his willingness to play for Equatorial Guinea brought him one of those moments that transcends its moment. Senegal had just equalized when, in the fourth minute of injury-time, he ran onto the ball 25 yards out. He must have been exhausted, having plowed up and down the right flank, but he put his head down and struck the shot, which arced gorgeously into the air before swishing into the top corner. A brilliant winner to take Equatorial Guinea into the quarterfinal and, almost certainly, to earn him a professional contract in the summer.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.