Cape Town - Mo Salah’s dream of leading Egypt to glory at the Africa Cup of Nations lives on and despite Salah’s massive international media profile, the Egyptian goalscoring king is not the only reason there has been such extensive and mass international coverage of the African continent’s most elite competition.
It is because of the quality of players competing at Afcon and the familiarity of these players in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
I’ve followed the international coverage very closely in the past fortnight and, in especially English-speaking publications, there has been saturation when compared to the meagre offerings of the very popular Copa America.
South America’s premier international competition, for me, has always been a tougher one to win than even the World Cup because of the quality of the respective national teams in South America.
Lionel Messi, by way of just one example, always commands a headline for Argentina and so does Neymar for Brazil, as another example.
Europe’s international showpiece understandably stands alone in terms of global coverage, but never before have the eyes of the soccer world so closely monitored Afcon – and it is because there are just so many good players not based in the African continent or playing out of Africa at the event.
This is certainly not a sleight on the many wonderfully skilled and talented African continent-based players, but rather an acknowledgement that the world finally can’t ignore just how much soccer talent there is in Africa and how influential African players are on the global club stage.
France’s premier division, Ligue 1, released 56 players to Afcon. The UK’s Premier League released 31 players, with 16 of the 20 clubs contributing players to Afcon. Italy’s Serie A’s complement was 25, Germany’s Bundesliga was 12 and Spain’s La Liga contributed 11 players.
Salah, given his form for Liverpool and the global presence of a club like Liverpool, was also unsurprisingly the pre-tournament poster pin-up, and the competition organisers will be damn pleased that Egypt and Salah are through to the quarter-finals after a dramatic last-16 penalty shoot-out against the Ivory Coast.
Salah has also spoken of the prestige of Afcon and of playing for and representing his country in Africa’s biggest tournament. He has stated that winning Afcon would be the greatest achievement of his career. Salah has won the Premier League and the Champions League with Liverpool, but it is to be crowned the Kings of Africa that inspires him most.
It inspired me reading Salah’s love for playing for his country and commitment towards his country and the value he has placed on Afcon.
Hopefully, what Salah has consistently said about winning Afcon, will also inspire South African players, regardless of where they are based, as to the privilege of playing for Bafana and how the world’s best African players aspire to Afcon glory.
You only had to follow the media coverage of Afcon to realise what South Africa is missing out on.
There has been on-field controversy and there haven’t been many high-scoring matches. There has also been the tragedy that preceded Cameroon’s match against Comoros, when eight people lost their lives in a crowd stampede.
The standard of soccer has made a statement about the quality of African players and, as football journalist Maher Mezahi wrote for BBC Sport, the deaths of fans at a stadium will always make for mixed feelings when reflecting on the tournament.
Afcon, to quote Mezahi, is a celebration of African soccer, adored by everyone on the continent and intrinsically linked to pan-African values, with the first two in 1957 and 1959 used in part as a statement against apartheid in South Africa.
There is so much history to Afcon, and Bafana, in winning the tournament as the host nation in 1996, contribute to the on-field and off-field history, which is why in the future we in South Africa have to be spectators with a vested interest because of Bafana’s participation.
Afcon, so respected as a continental tournament across the globe, also demands similar respect from within the South African soccer community and from the custodians of the national squad.
This is Africa’s biggest soccer event and it should hurt that Bafana are not a part of it.