African Football Won the 34th Afcon, With Côte d’Ivoire a Close Second

The 34th Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) came to an end in Côte d’Ivoire with millions of viewers around the world shouting at TV screens, and an astonishing performance by Côte d’Ivoire both on the field as champions and off it as hosts.

The west African country beat Nigeria 2-1 in the final but the good news was bigger than the match. The group stage of the most important national tournament in Africa produced an average of 2.47 goals per game – the highest in the competition for over a decade.

As a sports communication and African football scholar watching the matches, I’ve noted three particularly pleasing trends at this year’s event. African football revealed its depth of talent at a national level; refereeing was by and large fair; and a tough approach to broadcasting rights has paid off. The 34th Afcon attracted record TV viewership and, with that, most likely record revenue too.

Depth of talent

On the field, the 2019 decision by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) to expand the tournament from 16 teams to 24 is paying off. Critics had believed it would bring down the level of action because of the perceived talent gap between the top nations and the rest of the continent.

But if a read of the media around Afcon is anything to go by, results on the field proved the opposite. Upsets drove emotions and no doubt developed new fans, especially in underdog nations.

The eight teams to reach the quarter finals were different from the eight that reached the quarter finals in the previous Afcon. Although the two teams that ultimately played the championship game have now each won three editions of the competition, neither was particularly high on the list of likely winners when the tournament started.

The progress of the continent was underlined by accomplishments made by the likes of Angola, Mauritania, Namibia and Cape Verde. They overcame far better known countries to get to the knockout stage.

Video assistant referees

The use of video assistant referees (VAR) was instructive at Afcon. This is a system used globally where referees analysing television footage of the action are asked to rule on decisions.

Read more: Why African football fans should welcome video assistant referees at the World Cup

The use of VAR was roundly praised in Côte d’Ivoire compared to the kind of controversies over biased or incorrect VAR decisions in European leagues. Former UK player Gary Neville said that Europe had a lot to learn from Africa. Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho praised Afcon’s “unbiased” VAR decisions for ensuring every team had a chance to perform at their best.

But it was not simply the use of VARs. The match officiating by on-field officials was credible, generating few controversies.