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How did Ivory Coast manage that?! 2023 AFCON winners and losers as Mohamed Salah’s wait for continental glory continues and Sadio Mane wilts under pressure in tournament for the underdogs

AFCON

In a tournament overflowing with underdogs stories, it’s fitting that Ivory Coast’s name has ended up on the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations trophy. On the surface, it may not seem that uplifting that the hosts and 2015 winners came out on top, but that assessment does not take into account just how shambolic their group-stage campaign was, with the Elephants becoming the first team to lose two games and still win a major international tournament – excluding any league formats.

Ivory Coast’s unlikely victory only scratches the surfaces of the myriad of captivating storylines the tournament cooked up, too. We had footballing backwaters cutting the giants of the continent down to size, some huge names of African football failing to turn up and even some new stars seemingly emerging on the biggest stage.

GOAL reviews a staggeringly good tournament by breaking down all the winners and losers from the 2023 AFCON…

LOSER: Jean-Louis Gasset

“There are sometimes nightmare matches, matches where everything seems to be against you. A catastrophic scenario,” Ivory Coach boss Jean-Louis Gasset mused following his side’s awful 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea.

The tournament was a huge chance for the 70-year-old. Managerial stints at the likes of Montpelier, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne had previously ended trophyless, and, in the twilight of his career, he was surprisingly gifted the opportunity to lead a football-obsessed nation at a home AFCON.

However, even with a vociferous crowd backing them, Gasset’s charges were well off it from the outset. Prior to that 4-0 humiliation, they squeezed past Guinea-Bissau in their opener and were beaten by Nigeria, leaving them on the brink of elimination.

But the Ivorian Football Federation were in no mood to wait around to see if they would be gifted a spot in the knockout stages as one of the best losers. Instead, Gasset was sacked on the spot – which proved to be an inspired decision.

WINNER: Ivory Coast

With their uninspiring leader out of the picture, the Elephants staged a quite remarkable recovery under interim boss Emerse Fae. After sneaking through to the knockout stages as one of the best third-place teams, not many expected them to get past Senegal in the last 16 – but some penalty heroics assured them of a quarter-final tie with Mali.

That game was even more dramatic. After Odilon Kossounou was sent off on the stroke of half-time, it seemed like the hosts would be heading out; with Mali eventually breaking the deadlock as expected 19 minutes from the end. But, not for the last time in the tournament, Fae’s troops refused to accept their fate, with Simon Adingra scoring a last-gasp equaliser to send the game to extra-time.

Even with 10 men, the Elephants refused to be beaten, and after anxiously holding on in the final throes of the additional period, Seko Fofana’s shot from the edge of the box was diverted in by Oumar Diakite, booking Ivory Coast’s place in the last four just 10 days after Gasset’s departure.

WINNER: Sebastien Haller

In said semi-final, the hosts were pitted against DR Congo. It was a drab affair for the first hour or so, particularly when compared with Ivory Coast’s exploits in previous rounds, and they were in need of a hero to turn the tide in their favour. And, after a quiet tournament leading up to the semi-final, Sebastien Haller eventually emerged as that inspirational figure.

Just after the hour mark, 100-plus-caps veteran Max Gradel stretched to swing in a cross from the byline. It wasn’t very good, looping high, wide and not very handsome into what looked like a harmless area. Haller had other ideas, though. Spotting the flight of the cross early, he quickly shimmied a few paces back and just about made contact. His volley sent the ball travelling on a quite bizarre trajectory, as it smashed into the ground before rising high – too high for DR Congo goalkeeper Lionel Mpasi in fact, who could only watch as it slowly drifted past his outstretched hand.

After booking his side’s place in the final, Haller made sure to rise to the occasion once again, and his winner at the the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe was just as inventive. With the scores level at 1-1 and 10 minutes left on the clock, the electric Adingra burst into some space on the left touchline and fizzed a wicked, low cross to the front post.

A few seconds later, the ball was in the back of the net. In real time, it was hard to see how Haller had managed it, with Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong stuck to him like glue. Fortunately the replay provided some clarity. That showed Haller displaying his lethal striker’s instinct, with the Borussia Dortmund man sending Adingra’s cross into the far corner by simply sticking his toe out.

It was a fittingly unorthodox goal for unorthodox winners and was exactly what Haller deserved after battling back from his testicular cancer diagnosis in 2022.

Reflecting on the triumphs, and likely with his star striker’s inspiring comeback on his mind, Fae said at full-time: “It is more than a fairy tale. I am struggling to take it all in. When I think about all we have been through, we are miracle survivors. We never gave up and we managed to come back from so many tough blows.”

LOSER: Nigeria

While Nigeria will be pleased to have made a significant improvement on their last-16 exit in 2021, they will also head home from the Ivory Coast feeling pretty deflated. Despite going ahead, they were far from at their best in the final, and manager Jose Peseiro might reflect that his side became too passive as they looked to cling onto their early lead.

There is a wider debate to be had around whether the defensively-minded coach is the best man to lead the Super Eagles forward in the long term. No African team possesses as much strength in depth in the forward positions than Nigeria, but they only scored more than once in one of their seven games at the tournament.

While that does suggest that the team were holding something back going forward, you could argue that some structure and conservatism is exactly what the Super Eagles need to be successful at tournaments. Regardless of what side the federation falls on this particular argument, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the final represented a big opportunity missed for this stacked Nigeria squad.

WINNER: Stanley Nwabali & William Troost-Ekong

There were reasons for Nigeria to celebrate before they fell at the last hurdle, at least. Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali brought fans plenty of joy with his assured performances between the sticks, making two penalty saves in the Super Eagles’ semi-final victory over South Africa.

His performances might just earn him a life-changing move too. Nwabali is currently plying his trade at mid-table South African side Chippa United, but his agent has hinted that there is interest from Saudi Arabia and France in his services.

Troost-Ekong has come out of tournament in good shape as well, putting in a string of captain’s performances in the absence of Ahmed Musa. He netted winners in two of the Super Eagles’ matches and then opened the scoring in the final, so it was little surprise to see him earn the TotalEnergies Best Player award over some higher-profile stars, such as team-mate Victor Osimhen, who never hit his best form.

LOSER: Andre Onana

One frenzied private jet flight, but zero saves; that just about sums up Onana’s horrendous AFCON. After leaving it as long as possible to fly to the Ivory Coast, in order to minimise the matches he missed for Manchester United, he did not feature in Cameroon’s opener against Guinea.

After being informed of his omission, he was reported to have bellowed: “then why did I come here on a private jet?” at the coaching staff – an incident which set the tone for a tournament of off-field turmoil. Onana was at least included in the starting XI for his side’s second game against Senegal, but he endured a difficult time, failing to register a single stop in a 3-1 defeat.

Quite incredibly, the United No.1 then dropped to the bench for Cameroon’s group-stage decider against Gambia amid reports of his feud with federation president Samuel Eto’o – who has since become embroiled in a match-fixing scandal – deepening.

Cameroon made it through in dramatic fashion, but Onana was again left out of his side’s last-16 clash with Nigeria, a game they lost 2-0. In the end, even though he ended up missing just one game for his club, it’s hard not to view his decision to reverse his international retirement as a colossal waste of time. No wonder he’s considering calling time on his Cameroon career again.

WINNER: Mauritania

Mauritania’s rise to football relevance over the past decade has been remarkable. Back in December 2012, only Bhutan, San Marino and the Turks and Caicos Islands were lower on the FIFA rankings. A little over 11 years later, the desert nation were toasting their first-ever AFCON win and an improbable progression to the knockout stages.

In a tournament filled with inspiring stories, Mauritania stood out among the rest. They looked down and out after two games, having suffered one-goal defeats to Burkina Faso and Angola. Getting a result against giants Algeria was their only hope and, somehow, they pulled it off, with a solitary Mohamed Dellah Yaly strike securing a 1-0 victory.

Although they would go out in the round of 16 to Cape Verde, their staggering progress deserves nothing but praise. This shock success will only accelerate the footballing revolution currently going on in Mauritania, with an increased demand for the beautiful game going hand in hand with a sustained – and much-needed – investment in football infrastructure in the country in recent years.

LOSER: Algeria

One of the outside picks for the trophy heading into the tournament, two-time winners Algeria finished stone-dead last in their group for the second AFCON running. Their campaign began with them throwing away a 1-0 lead against Angola and they never recovered from there, requiring a last-gasp leveller to take a point from their clash with Burkina Faso before losing to Mauritania.

Star man Riyad Mahrez was a million miles from his best throughout, and was even dropped for his side’s final group game. He was eventually introduced in the second half, but it was too little, too late, and drama followed once their exit was confirmed too.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, coach Djamel Belmadi resigned in the wake of their exit… or did he? While some reports claimed he announced his departure to the squad after the Mauritania loss, Belmadi is currently seeking full compensation from the football federation. It’s a messy end to a horrific tournament.

LOSER: Achraf Hakimi

Algeria were not the only North African heavyweights to underwhelm in the Ivory Coast. World Cup semi-finalists in 2022, Morocco were also dumped out early on, falling to South Africa in the round of 16.

There were few signs that Africa’s highest-ranked side would fail to progress against Bafana Bafana, having breezed through the group stages with seven points. However, with forwards Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal ruled out, they conspired to miss a host of brilliant chances, gifting the underdogs a historic victory.

It could have all been very different had Achraf Hakimi taken a golden chance in the 85th-minute. After Mothobi Mvala was penalised for handball in the box, the Paris Saint-Germain star grabbed the ball and placed it on the penalty spot – only to smash his effort against the woodwork.

With Morocco 1-0 down and scrambling to preserve their AFCON status, Manchester United star Sofyan Amrabat saw red in stoppage-time before Teboho Mokoena curled home a spectacular free-kick to put the gloss on South Africa’s stunning win. Hakimi will have had his missed penalty haunting his dreams on the flight back.

WINNER: Cape Verde

Cape Verde are no strangers to AFCON overachievement, having made it to the quarter-finals during their debut tournament in South Africa back in 2013. And they managed to repeat the trick in the Ivory Coast this time around.

Despite boasting a population just over half a million, the island nation stormed through a very tricky group containing Ghana, Mozambique and Egypt without losing a game. Former Manchester United flop Bebe rightly attracted headlines for his excellent performances, but as a collective Cape Verde were extremely well-drilled and thoroughly deserved their dramatic progression against fellow surprise package Mauritania in the last 16.

A quarter-final against South Africa would ultimately prove to be a bridge too far, but Cape Verde still managed to further establish themselves as a genuine power in African football at the tournament.

LOSER: Avram Grant

“Ooooohhh, so that’s what he’s up to these days?!” That was most casual African football fans’ reaction to seeing former Chelsea and Portsmouth boss Grant prowling the touchline for Zambia last month.

It could have been a great story; the ex-Premier League manager called on for one last job before riding off into the sunset. But it wasn’t to be for Zambia. A draw against Tanzania – where they had a player sent off – meant they needed a result against Morocco in their final group game.

And the powerhouses had too much for Grant’s side, with Ziyech’s first-half strike meaning Zambia departed at the group stages. Whether Grant is still in the hot seat for the next tournament in two years’ time remains to be seen.

LOSER: Sadio Mane

“Football is cruel. The God of football was not with us tonight,” Mane somberly reflected following Senegal’s surprising AFCON exit to hosts Ivory Coast.

It had been quite the afternoon for the Al-Nassr forward. He may have set up Habib Diallo’s early opener with an excellent cross, but he probably should have seen red for a vicious tackle on Franck Kessie before the break, and he then blew a golden chance to bury the game 15 minutes from time, dragging a shot from inside the penalty area well wide when under little pressure. Ivory Coast would equalise seconds later and went on to knock Senegal out on penalties.

There was a lot of pressure on the holders heading into the competition, and after impressing in the group stages, they were found wanting at the crucial moment. Star player Mane has to shoulder a sizeable portion of the blame, which will sting harshly for the ex-Liverpool man. Now 31 and playing in the Saudi Pro League, he only has a select few tournaments left in his legs.

LOSER: Mohamed Salah

At least Mane got to spend plenty of time on the pitch, though. His ex-Anfield team-mate, Salah, was not so lucky. After netting in his side’s disappointing draw with Mozambique, Salah was forced off through injury just before half-time against Ghana on matchday two.

And it did not take long for Liverpool’s, Egypt’s and Salah’s worst fears to be confirmed, with initial tests confirming a hamstring injury. The player opted to return to Merseyside for treatment – a decision which did not go down well with some of his compatriots. Ex-Tottenham striker Mido responded to a video of Salah’s recovery at Melwood by quipping: “Oh, these exercises are so dirty and rigid, it is difficult to do them except in Liverpool.”

But Klopp was more supportive, insisting that Salah was 100 percent committed to his country. “Egypt and Liverpool both have the same interest, we want Mo Salah fit as soon as possible. If he stays in Africa and they can’t do the proper treatment, it will just delay everything, especially for Egypt if they go through the tournament,” he said.

“We bring him here not because we want to take him away from Egypt, but just to offer the best medical treatment. It’s all agreed. If Salah is fit and Egypt go to the final, it was always clear, he goes back, 100%. Mo wants that, we want that.”

Without their talisman, Egypt endured an underwhelming AFCON, departing at the round of 16 on penalties to DR Congo. Their wait for a first continental title since 2010 goes on, and Salah will hope he is still capable of operating at a world-class when the 2025 iteration rolls around.

WINNER: Ronwen Williams

Ronwen Williams’ display in South Africa’s quarter-final victory over Cape Verde inspired the quote of the tournament, with team-mate Grant Kekana suggesting the goalkeeper “be made the minister of finance – he can save South Africa’s economy.”

Kekana’s quip came after Williams had become the first goalkeeper to save four penalties in an AFCON penalty shootout. He went so close to keeping a rare clean sheet too, with Bryan Teixeira’s spot-kick only narrowly avoiding his outstretched hand.

Although he could not repeat his penalty-saving antics in the semi-finals against Nigeria, Williams’ outstanding goalkeeping played a vital role in Bafana Bafana upsetting the odds by reaching the final four. It was fitting that he claimed the Golden Glove after some more penalty saving in the third-place game, where South Africa edged past DR Congo to earn the bronze medal.

LOSER: Ghana

Ghana’s doomed campaign began with an angry fan attempting to punch manager Chris Hughton at the team’s hotel following a disastrous defeat to Cape Verde, and, unsurprisingly, it ended with the ex-Newcastle boss being given his marching orders.

The Black Stars were hardly in vintage form coming into the tournament, having been battered 4-0 by the United States and even losing to Comoros in the months prior, but there was still hope among fans that they could make it through the group. However, when star man Thomas Partey was ruled out, these aspirations took a significant hit.

And even with Mohammed Kudus at their disposal, Hughton’s side drew their other two group games, condemning them to second consecutive exit at the first hurdle. They had a poor 2022 World Cup, too, and there was little dissent when Hughton was sacked.

“Our performances have not been good. We played three games, conceded two goals in each game and have ourselves in a difficult situation. My assessment of my results is that they haven’t been good enough,” Hughton said just before his departure.