Africa’s most popular sporting event turns heads even at Concordia University.
Eight thousand kilometres away from Concordia University, 24 African countries have battled it out at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
After a month of competition, hosts Côte d’Ivoire defeated Nigeria in the 2023 AFCON final on Sunday, the tournament’s most exciting edition in recent memory. For example, none of the eight quarter-finalists in 2022 have made the same stage this year.
A tournament that brings people together
Soccer distinguishes itself from many other popular sports by how easy it is to play. The fact that you only need a ball to play has catapulted the sport into worldwide popularity. This is no different in Africa, where it’s bringing people together through AFCON.
Malik Lee, a Nigerian Concordia student, says his country unites behind the Nigerian national team during AFCON tournaments. “There’s a lot of diversity, like 300 languages, multiple tribes. So it’s one thing that really puts everybody together,” he said.
National teams can also turn enemies into friends. Mohamed Hazem Bonna, President of the university’s Egyptian Association, says games between Al Ahly and Zamalek, the country’s two biggest clubs, often get heated. “When they play against each other, in Egypt after the match, there will be a lot of fights, a lot of insults and whatever because the passion is crazy there in Egypt,” he said.
However, when the Egyptian national team plays, these rivalries disappear momentarily. “We all play with each other, as Zamalek players play with Al Ahly players. So we’re all one hand. We’re all supporting the national team,” Bonna said.
Such an important tournament inevitably sees cultural and political rivalries play out on the pitch. However, Lee believes these rivalries create a sense of unity within Africa during the competition. “And it’s so funny because it brings us together through us fighting,” he said.
Côte d’Ivoire rising like a phoenix from the ashes
Before the start of the tournament, Côte d’Ivoire would have been among almost everybody’s group of favourites to lift the AFCON trophy. Not only did they have one of the best squads on paper in the tournament, but they were also hosting the competition.
After a 2-0 win against Guinea-Bissau to open the tournament, they lost 1-0 to Nigeria and 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea to finish the group stage. Things looked so bad for Côte d’Ivoire that head coach Jean-Louis Gasset even resigned after the group stage. However, due to multiple favourable results in other groups, they finished as the fourth-best third-place team, the last qualifying spot for the round of 16.
The round of 16 marked the beginning of a dramatic redemption story. It saw Côte d’Ivoire eliminate reigning champion Senegal on penalties. In the quarter-finals, they scored in the 90th minute to force extra time, scoring yet again in the last minutes of extra time to beat Mali. A 1-0 win in the semifinal over the Democratic Republic of the Congo set up a rematch with Nigeria in the final. To the delight of the home crowd, they would win it by the score of 2-1, after two second-half goals by Franck Kessié and Sébastien Haller.
Nearly a first title in 11 years for Nigeria
Before the knockout round, The Concordian spoke with many Nigerian students during an inter-university soccer tournament organized by Concordia’s Nigerian Students Association. These students shared what they believe it would have meant for them to see their country win the AFCON for the first time since 2013.
Faisal Audu was pessimistic about Nigeria’s winning chances. “I really hope we can win because I’m not really positive about them. But it’s gonna be a good thing if we can win. Because I’m gonna brag a lot,” he said while smiling. “I have friends from countries that are better than us, like Senegal.”
Josh Njoku is a big supporter of the Nigerian national soccer team. “I support the Nigerian national team a lot, more than the usual Nigerian, you know? Despite all the mess-ups and all the bad times, I continue to support the players,” he said. A win after 11 years would indeed have meant a lot for supporters like Njoku.