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Men's Football Africa Cup spectacle ends after a month of thrills and upsets

MANY are calling it the best-ever Africa Cup of Nations. The 34th edition of the biennial football tournament served up more goals, plenty of late drama and surprising twists and turns as underdogs had their day.

It finished with a happy ending for host nation Ivory Coast after their remarkable path to the final, including near-elimination in the group stage.

The Elephants defeated Nigeria 2-1 in Sunday’s final in the 60,000-capacity Alassane Ouattara Stadium to set off unbridled celebrations across the country. It affirmed locals’ belief that God was helping the team.

The supporters helped create a vibrant spectacle with ceaseless dancing to drumbeats and vocal support. Many painted themselves in their countries’ bright colours, others wore costumes and a festival feeling developed among rival fans.

Few could have imagined Ivory Coast reaching the final after a humiliating 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea left them on the brink of elimination.

But highly unlikely results in other groups favoured the home team. Ghana’s late collapse — conceding two goals in injury time to Mozambique — and a subsequent win for Morocco over Zambia meant Ivory Coast squeezed into the knockout round.

It prompted the Ivorian football federation, who had already fired their coach, to look for another, but they failed to “borrow” the France women’s team’s coach for the rest of the tournament.

Ivory Coast’s interim coach Emerse Fae did not allow the clear lack of confidence from his federation affect him as he quietly prepared the team for the knockout round. And so the country’s scarcely believable run began.

Nigeria’s progress was much more straightforward, as Super Eagles coach Jose Peseiro banked on defence for success.

Nigeria did not concede a goal in four games straight after an opening 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea, and goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali was the hero with two saves in the penalty shootout win over South Africa in the semi-final.

Nigeria star Victor Osimhen, the African player of the year, only scored one goal. The Napoli forward was unlucky to have three ruled out over the tournament, and his inspirational performances helped his team to the final.

Equatorial Guinea forward Emilio Nsue finished the tournament as top-scorer with five goals. Nsue is a 34-year-old right back for a third-division team in Spain.

It wasn’t the only surprise. Seven-time champion Egypt flopped as they failed to win a game despite sacrificing a cow.

Defending champion Senegal were knocked out by Ivory Coast in the round of 16.

Five-time winner Cameroon, four-time champion Ghana, and former winners Algeria and Tunisia were all been knocked out before the quarter-final stage, which had a fresh-looking line-up compared to the last edition.

None of the eight quarter-finalists from the previous Africa Cup in Cameroon — Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Cameroon, Egypt and Morocco — made it to the last eight this time.

Congo made it to the semi-finals despite only winning one game in regular time. The Congolese players drew attention to the humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo with a gesture before their semi-final against Ivory Coast.

South Africa also made it to the final four by upsetting World Cup semi-finalist Morocco on the way.

Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Ronwen Williams followed up with four penalty saves in a shoot-out win over Cape Verde in the quarter-finals.

The tournament was tough on the men in charge. Egypt coach Rui Vitoria, Ivory Coast coach Jean-Louis Gasset and Ghana coach Chris Hughton were all fired.

The Tanzania coach was suspended after one game, the Gambia coach resigned, the Senegal coach was hospitalised, the Tunisia coach’s contract ended, and Burkina Faso have a coaching vacancy.

The futures of Cameroon coach Rigobert Song and Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi remain uncertain. Algerian Football Federation president Wali Sadi said he agreed to end Belmadi’s contract, but Belmadi was reportedly unhappy with that announcement and is yet to finalise his departure.

Samuel Eto’o, president of the Cameroon Football Federation, offered his resignation if other members followed suit. They declined.

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