Sport has a habit of forcing you into compromises. When Vincent Aboubakar volleyed in the most dramatic of tournament winners, doing it in the most raw and visceral of football atmospheres at Stade de L’Amitie, few people watching could say in good faith that they were not swept away by the moment. Cameroon’s fifth Africa Cup of Nations title was surprising by any measure, a patchwork team of relative unknowns visibly growing in confidence and momentum to achieve something special.
Hugo Broos and his players deserve immeasurable credit. Their joy was infectious as they left the stadium, and there was also the satisfaction that a competition with a reputation for producing dour finals had offered something spectacular this time. But as the dust settles and the rain — which had mercifully saved itself for the following day — hammers down on Libreville, the adrenaline checks itself slightly.
I think back to the tournament’s opening game, 23 days ago, contested between Gabon and Guinea-Bissau amid a fog of near-indifference from a local population more consumed by the political unrest that beset the country five months ago. Gabon and their talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang never really turned up at their own tournament.
My thoughts also stretch to an encounter I had in a poor district of Libreville with an orphaned boy living in near-squalor who entertained himself with an orange inflatable clapper hand, the kind given out for free to supporters at the stadium, that had found its way to him. The tournament is unlikely to affect him in any broader way, and anybody returning to Gabon in a decade’s time might be curious to see whether the millions spent on new grounds in Port-Gentil and remote Oyem have brought any long-term legacy or, as seems especially possible in the latter case, produced a mini herd of white elephants.
The question must be asked, and the scrutiny must remain firm; you can’t spend a month in this country without marking the sharp discrepancy between the oil-rich state’s reported $770 million outlay on this tournament and the typical standard of living.
In the medium term, the CAF travelling mini-state rolls on to Cameroon for the 2019 competition and there is at least solid justification for hosting it in a country with ready-made stadia and a rich football history. A new chapter of the latter was written on Sunday night in front of a capacity crowd packed with Cameroonian expats. If nothing else, it must be said that the spectacle in the stands was more palatable than those at many other major finals in the modern era, which tend to be packed with dignitaries and corporate hospitality clients at the expense of those with a genuine interest.
Again, the conflict and the compromise. On a basic level, the month’s football was enjoyable. The final was exactly what AFCON needed, and perhaps the tournament itself needed it, too. With the Premier League and La Liga proceeding and monopolizing attention like never before while the Cup of Nations unfolds, it is increasingly difficult for Africa’s showpiece to hold interest in the wider sphere. Sluggish football and turgid finals — the one occasion when you might expect a slew of casual viewers — in recent editions have hardly helped, as has the lack of any truly spellbinding African team.
It remains hard to make the case that the continent has a genuine top-quality side, but the playing field has levelled out and there are more teams now that play on the front foot. The 2017 Cup of Nations had the second-lowest goals-per-game ratio (exactly two per game) in the tournament’s history but that is a deceptive statistic: The proportion of spectacular or intricately worked strikes was remarkable, while very few of those competing set out with a “safety-first” approach in mind.
Underdogs such as Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe and Uganda all gave it a shot, and it was appropriate that Cameroon and third-place Burkina Faso, two sides short of stars but full of enterprise, ranked so highly. The quality may be in question, but at a time when major tournaments such as the European Championship often burn slowly, we enjoyed genuine entertainment from virtually the first whistle.
Gabon will eke a little more out of the infrastructure it created for this competition. It will host the Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations in May as a late replacement for Madagascar, whose facilities have been deemed unsuitable, and while the facilities will already be in place, this time there will be further disquiet about the cost of hosting a second continental event in four months. It will pass off amid far less international attention, and any boost to the country’s self-esteem probably won’t filter down to the wider population.
If that is a grim conclusion, then here is the counterweight: The thousands of Cameroonians celebrating throughout Libreville on Sunday night were a vibrant example of the sheer thrill that football can provide. And so the Africa Cup of Nations concludes with feelings mixed. There’s joy to be taken from a tournament that restored plenty of belief in its relevance on the pitch, but plenty of questions still hanging in the air off it.