After months of exhausting qualification rounds and a short but fierce main tournament, the African Nations Championship wrapped up on Sunday, February 7th, with the victory of Team Morocco, a triumph that signifies the North African Soccer team’s second title.
The squad led by coach Lhoussaine Ammouta faced Mali in an intense, defense-heavy matchup, but in the end, the cherry-colored team managed to finish 2-0 in the final of the African Cup of Nations. The goals were scored by Bouftini and El Kaabi.
The Road to the Final
Both teams faced a tough and bumpy process during the knockout stages of the tournament. Runner-up Mali finished first in Group A, with 7 points, and ahead of Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, and host nation Cameroon. Morocco also finished in the top spot of Group C with 7 points, as they overwhelmed rivals Rwanda, Uganda, and Togo.
The direct elimination rounds were particularly painful for Mali since they faced an ordeal both in the Quarter-finals against the Republic of Congo and in the semifinal when they met tournament sensations Guinea; they won both games after going 0-0 in 120 minutes and winning in penalties 5-4. Morocco, on the other hand, gave a resounding 3-1 victory against Zambia in the Round of 8 and advanced to the final by obliterating hosts Cameroon 4-0. In the third-place match, celebrated on February 6, Guinea rounded up their impressive participation by defeating Cameroon 2-0.
Morocco Finishes on Top
Right from the start, the Moroccans tried to gain an edge with their solid attack, known for their possession keeping and pass security, but they were facing a physically tenacious, quick-moving defense. Forward Ayoub El Kaabi signified a threat from the early minutes, but goalkeeper Djigui Diarra was keeping his goal safe.
Nevertheless, Morocco proved superior in the second half, even after the Malian squad was approaching the goal with a dangerous corner-kick header by Sadio Kanouté. Curiously, it was another corner header in the 73rd minute, this time for Morocco, that gave the North Africans the advantage, via central defender Soufiane Bouftini.
To seal the fate of the game, El Kaabi repeated the formula and netted Morocco’s second with the head, defeating Diarra’s goal in minute 79.
A Uniquely African Tournament
One of the distinguishing features of the African Nations Championship is that, contrary to the Africa Cup of Nations, this intercontinental competition does not allow footballers who are currently playing in countries other than their own, let alone other continents, which means that this peculiar tournament will not feature the likes of superstars Andre Onana, Sadio Mane or anyone else defending European club colors.
The 2021 Championship is only the sixth edition of its kind, having being founded in 2009, and it’s played every two years. This tournament should have started in Summer of 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic put a hold on the preparations, and the event was postponed until the begining of 2021.
Morocco won its second trophy, and became the first to win back-to-back titles; in 2018, they destroyed Nigeria 4-0 in the final. Other champions include the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009 en 2016, Tunisia in 2011 and Libya in 2014. The MVP of this latest edition was Soufiane Rahimi, who led in scored goals with 5.
Main Image Credits- Embed from Getty Images