WITH the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon now whittled down to the last 16, the group stages action has served up goals, surprises, shocks, heartaches, disappointments, drama and controversy that come and go with the game.
This has generated some major talking points.
The tournament’s first round concluded yesterday (Thursday), with teams that progressed to the knock-out stage getting back into action starting on Sunday to battle for quarter-finals slots.
Sadly, Zimbabwe will now follow proceedings from the sidelines after the Warriors were laminated at the first hurdle.
The Warriors were largely expected to progress after a getting a relatively fair draw — if not as one of the top two teams in their Group B, then among the four best third-placed teams.
Their performance in the opener was gallant although they narrowly fell to an agonising 0-1 defeat to Senegal deep into optional time.
Then they wobbled to another loss to Malawi.
As if to make up, they returned to winning ways at the finals after falling short at the 2019 and 2017 editions.
They had last tasted victory in 2006 and 2004 with identical 2-1 results over Ghana and Algeria respectively.
The Warriors had come unstuck in their hunt of the Teranga Lions and could not extinguish the Flames before managing to tame the National Elephants.
Their solitary victory was somewhat unexpected.
Given how the team had lost to Malawi and Senegal, going into the match very few had given the Warriors a chance against Guinea who were hitherto unbeaten in the group, but the team upset the apple-cart.
Although coach, Norman Mapeza and his charges reserved the best for the last, it was sadly a case of too little too late as it was not good enough to take us through to the next round.
We, therefore, could not salvage anything from a faltering campaign that had kicked off on a wrong foot.
Standing out to be celebrated as a first scored, the AFCON finals had a woman — 35-year-old Salima Mukansanga of Rwanda — officiating a match for the first time in the competition’s history.
She handled the tie between Zimbabwe and Guinea.
Comoros, making their maiden appearance at the finals, scored their first goal and also clinched a maiden victory in stunning style by overpowering the fancied Ghana 3-2.
Gambia also got off to a perfect start in their debut campaign by edging Mauritania 1-0.
It was inevitable that some minnows carrying the underdogs tag would have their day at the tournament.
Those perceived as lightweights managed to pull their weight.
As well as Comoros and Gambia, Sierra Leone forced 2-2 and 0-0 draws against Côte d’Ivoire and Algeria respectively in their opening two games.
Cape Verde also did well by their standards to hold Cameroon 1-1.
Going by the first round of matches, powerhouses, Nigeria are being touted as the favourites, while Cameroon captain, Vincent Aboubakar is tipped to scoop the golden boot as he led the scoring charts with five strikes in three matches.
The last edition’s finalists — winners, Algeria and runners-up, Senegal — have largely been underwhelming, to say the least.
Although the former topped our pool on five points, they had managed a single goal in three matches — two less than the bottom-placed Warriors’.
Traditional giants, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have also not been at their imperious best.
Superstars like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane remain subdued.
The biggest shock so far has been four-time champions Ghana’s elimination at the first hurdle.
They finished bottom of the pile in Group C after drawing just one of their three games and losing two.
The chastening 3-2 reverse against debutants Comoros sealed their fate on a disastrous note.
On the whole, this is a tournament that has largely frowned upon the continental game’s heavyweights.
Drama and controversy
The AFCON finals would not have been complete without controversy and drama.
Zambian referee, Janny Sikazwe, who is not new to controversy, hogged the limelight for the wrong reasons in the contest pitting Tunisia and Mali.
He ended the match twice— on 85th and 89th minutes — before the 90 minutes of regulation time were up.
He also sent off a Mali player in the 87th minute and rejected a video assistant referee (VAR) decision that it was not a red card.
Earlier on he had awarded either team a penalty kick, with Mali converting and Tunisia fluffing theirs.
However, the match could not resume as the Tunisians were already in the locker room for some ice baths when they summoned to return to the pitch.
Ivory Coast keeper, BadraAli Sangare, perhaps inadvertently, provided the comic relief to the spectacle after his howler when fumbled a back-pass header and gifted Sierra Leone with an equaliser late on.
Feigned or real, he sustained an injury that forced defender, Serge Aurier to take up his position in goals as the team had used all its substitutes.
As action continues, by the time the curtain comes down on the biennial AFCON showcase on February 6, a find of the tournament — be it an individual or team — will have emerged.