16 January 2017

Africa: 5 Things We Learnt From AFCON Opening Weekend

Photo: Khama Billiat Facebook page
(file photo)

The opening weekend of the 2017 African Nations Cup finals in Gabon is done and dusted, and as expected there are a number of talking points to come out of the matches.
AllAfrica looks at five things we learned from the first four games.

Gabon are in trouble in their pool

The hosts are in trouble one game in, and that spells a nightmare for organisers.

Gabon were held to a 1-1 draw in their opening match by minnows Guinea-Bissau who, to be fair, are no pushovers but should still have been put away by a tentative home team.

There was the fear that Gabon would rely too heavily on star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and if he fails to fire, they are in trouble. He did get their opening goal of the tournament, but they were unable to put away the visitors.

With much tougher - on paper at least - assignments to come against Burkina Faso and Cameroon, who played to a 1-1 draw in their opening game, Gabon could be in a real fight for quarterfinal qualification.

And if they don't make it, then local interest in the tournament is likely to dwindle to nothing for the business end of the competition.

The organisation has left much to be desired

One of the exhilarating experiences for an international footballer is to stand, arm-in-arm with teammates singing the national anthem.

But both Burkina Faso and Cameroon were denied that chance after a farcical gaffe at the start of their Group A clash on Saturday that forced a quick apology from the Confederation of African Football.

The players lined up to sing their anthems and nothing happened, there was no music or explanation.

In the end embarrassed looking players gave up and started the pre-match handshake, at which point the Burkina Faso anthem started blaring from the PA system. Too little, too late.

CAF apologised for a technical glitch with the sound system and in the greater scheme of things it was a minor issue.

But it is also symptomatic of a larger lack of organisation in Gabon that has forced a number of teams to voice their displeasure over logistics and facilities.

In 2017 we should be doing better at a major international event.

Khama Billiat is the real deal

Among all the stars that lined up on the opening weekend of the Nations Cup, perhaps the one that shone brightest was Zimbabwe forward Khama Billiat.

The Mamelodi Sundowns playmaker showed his full array of skill and technical ability, as well as plenty of confidence, in the 2-2 draw with Algeria on Sunday.

He was unlucky twice not to get on the scoresheet, with an audacious volley from 35-yards that crashed against the post, and then in the second half when he showed tremendous skill to work a shooting chance, only for the Algeria keeper Raïs M'Bolhi to make a world-class save.

Billiat has been brilliant for Sundowns in 2016 and was unlucky to lose out to teammate Denis Onyango for the African-based Footballer of the Year prize, though we should take nothing away from the quality of the Uganda keeper.

But Billiat showed his full box of tricks against a quality defence and showed why he has now out-grown the South African Premier Soccer League.

Senegal need to sharpen up defensively

Senegal have high hopes of winning a first-ever African Nations Cup trophy at this year's tournament in Gabon, but will need to tighten up defensively if they are to go all the way.

It is a surprise that a country that has produced so much talent down the years has never before been crowned African champions, and with the squad they have in 2017, this could be their year.

Although they kept a clean-sheet in the 2-0 win over Tunisia on Sunday, they rode their luck and the North Africans spurned chance after chance, and probably should have come away with at least a point.

More clinical teams would have made them pay and that is what will await Senegal later in the competition.

Crowds are still a problem

Nobody likes to see empty seats at a major sporting event, but that has become an all too common theme at the Nations Cup down the years.

African fans tend to be highly passionate about their own sides, but give little time to others or seem to have the willingness to enjoy live action for what it is – a great spectacle of football.

The crowds in Franceville for the Group B matches were disappointing given the quality of the teams on display and those that were not there missed two fantastic matches.

It is not an easy thing to fix - ticket prices and the costs of going to matches when you include transport, food, drink, etc, are often the biggest deterrent to supporters.

But it does the image of the African game no favours when the continental championship is beamed around the world and behind the players all that can be seen are empty seats.

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