Not a football tournament goes by without some dozy muppet simulating the results on Football Manager to see just how accurate the management sim is. With AFCON kicking off this week, I decided that it’s my turn to be that dozy muppet.
The African Cup of Nations is being hosted in Cameroon this year, but you and Football Manager already know that, right? I know that is at least 50 percent correct, as Football Manager perfectly set up all the groups after I’d vacationed through to January in a fresh save. The fixtures were slightly muddled – Cameroon hosted Cape Verde instead of Burkina Faso in the opening match, but the dates aren’t important, the results are.
After an impressive opening ceremony complete with bright colours, traditional music, and an augmented reality lion that Niantic would be proud of, Cape Verde stunned the Olembe Stadium in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde by scoring the tournament’s opening goal against the hosts. But could they do what Burkina Faso couldn’t in the real-life opening match and hold on for the win? Yes, they could. Cape Verde won the opener 2-0, stunning Cameroon and the home crowd into silence. This wasn’t in the script.
Elsewhere in Group A, Aston Villa’s Bertrand Traore inspired Burkina Faso to a 3-0 win, and the only surprise in Group B was that no Liverpool players were on the scoresheet, with Sadio Mané and Naby Keita remaining largely anonymous in 4-0 wins for Senegal and Guinea respectively. An even bigger surprise, however, was that Mo Salah was completely omitted from the Egypt squad, despite being fully fit and in red hot form (more like No Salah, am I right?). Football Manager thankfully hasn’t implemented Covid restrictions into its complicated algorithm, but maybe Mo isn’t in the squad because of an unspoken interaction with the virus?
The first stage of the groups passed without many more surprises; Comoros beat Gabon, while the three tournament favourites Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Morocco all won comfortably. As the second round began, Cameroon got back on track and Bertrand Traore took his goal tally to four for Burkina Faso. Naby Keita was sent off for Guinea, and Nigeria emerged victorious from a clash of the titans with Egypt – would things have been different with Mo Salah on the pitch? In-game, he came second in the African Midfielder of the Year tournament to Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi, so perhaps he’s just being criminally overlooked this season? Nine goals in 20 appearances isn’t a lot by his own standards, but Villa’s Trezeguet has played twice for Egypt in this tournament, despite being left on the bench for the entirety of the 21/22 season so far for his club.
The most exciting battle of the group stages came between Zimbabwe and Senegal in the third round, as the former needed a win to have any chance of qualifying for the knockout rounds. Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly was sent off for reasons we can only guess at after just 15 minutes when Senegal were already behind. The score was 2-2 at half time, until Bertrand Traore’s club teammate Marvelous Nakamba was sent off to level the playing field. Senegal clinched the winning goal to secure their place at the top of the group table and condemned Zimbabwe to leaving the competition early. This was the most AFCON match of Football Manager’s AFCON simulation, and while it was surprising it took ten days to get there, it truly feels like AFCON has arrived, FM knows what it’s doing, and the knockouts are primed and ready to explode.
With the group stages closed, there were few surprises. Hosts Cameroon scraped through their group as one of the best third-place finishers in a surprisingly competitive group. Burkina Faso and Cape Verde both hit top form at the right time, but could they continue that momentum into the knockout stages? Unfortunately, Sudan left the competition with the worst record: losing every match and receiving a goal difference of -8, with Yassin Ibrahim scoring the country’s only goal as a consolation against Guinea-Bissau.
The Round of 16 kicked off with a bang, as overperforming underdogs Cape Verde were immediately put in their place by Ghana, whose two goals by way of Jordan Ayew proved too much. Comoros snuck through the group stages with only one win, and faced one of the favourites Senegal in the knockouts, the result of which seemed like a foregone conclusion. Comorian super sub Djamalidine Atoiyi had other thoughts, however, and bagged the winner in the 85th minute! FC Martigues fans will be wondering why he can’t replicate that form in the French second division, but with one goal he established himself as a national hero, and Comoros was through to the Quarter Finals.
Burkina Faso continued their impressive run, comfortably beating the most successful team in AFCON, Egypt, 3-0. If Salah was dropped because of a Roy Keane-Mick McCarthy-style bust up, he was probably grinning to himself somewhere. Elsewhere, the favourites to progress in the tournament all did just that. Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Algeria, and Guinea all won their matches. The hosts still hadn’t found their form, but did beat Morocco 1-0 which is no mean feat, despite the fact that the North African team nearly always underperforms on the biggest stage.
Comoros’ fairytale story came to an end when they faced Ivory Coast in the Quarter Finals; a red card for centre back El Omar Fardi and subsequent goal from Wilfried Zaha sealed their fate. For a team that has never qualified for the tournament before, though, they should be proud of what they’ve achieved. In the real-life tournament Comoros has already lost its opening match against Gabon, so this fairytale will be even more difficult to achieve. We believe, though, we still believe.
Cameroon came from behind to beat Algeria thanks to two goals from Karl Toko Ekambi and another from former Stoke City and current Bayern Munich man Eric Choupo-Moting. Were the hosts hitting their form at the right time? Napoli’s young striker Victor Osimhen inspired Nigeria to a win over Ghana, setting up for an exciting semi-final against neighbours and rivals Ivory Coast. Burkina Faso’s star centre back Edmond Tapsoba scored a penalty to take them past Guinea and to face the hosts in the Semi Final.
That match would not go in the underdog’s favour. Cameroon was really hitting its stride at this point in the competition, with Choupo-Moting and striker Vincent Aboubakar each scoring twice in a 5-0 drubbing. Burkina Faso came so far only to face the hosts at their most deadly, and deserved to bow out with more grace than the tournament’s record win – but that’s not what international football is about.
Ivory Coast made a bold decision to rest star man Wilfried Zaha against their fiercest rivals, but it worked out okay with his 34-year old replacement Gervinho (yes, that Gervinho) getting on the scoresheet. FM’s African Midfielder of the Year (no, I won’t let that go) Wilfrid Ndidi could only pick up a booking and Victor Osimhen, the tournament’s joint-leading goalscorer, was absent when it mattered most for Nigeria. Ivory Coast continued its dominance of this fixture with a 3-1 win – and crucially didn’t have to resort to a long 11-10 penalty shootout like the 1992 final or a 9-8 shootout like the 2015 final. The favourites were out, and Ivory Coast were set to take on an in-form host in Cameroon in the final.
There must have been a falling out between Crystal Palace forward Zaha and the Ivory Coast manager, because when the team sheets for the AFCON Final were revealed, he was on the bench for the second match in a row. He wouldn’t appear even as a substitute in the match, undoubtedly leading to rumours aplenty. It’s France ‘98 all over again.
Ivory Coast scored an early goal courtesy of an Eric Bailly shot from outside the six-yard box – a difficult chance for the Manchester United centre back, who slotted the ball calmly into the net despite an xG of just 0.05 for the opportunity. Cameroon were on top for the rest of the match, but created few clear-cut chances. The best opportunity fell to Karl Toko Ekambi, whose shot from the centre of the box was saved by Player of the Match Sayouba Mandé. As Cameroon pressed forward to get back into the game, Ivory Coast punished them on the counter. Substitute Gervinho doubled the lead in the 87th minute and Nicolas Pépé sealed the deal two minutes later.
Cameroon head coach António Conceição told the press that, “we didn’t do ourselves justice when it mattered most,” but truth be told Cameroon were inconsistent from the opening day. Ivory Coast, on the other hand, conceded just one goal in the knockout stages of the competition, and scored 19. Wilfried Zaha shared the Golden Boot with Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, as despite both players only appearing in four matches, they scored five goals each. Ivory Coast’s Sayouba Mandé shared the Golden Glove with Cameroon’s André Onana and Nigeria’s Maduka Okoye, who all kept four clean sheets in the tournament.
If you care about the third-place playoff – which Nigeria certainly didn’t – Nigeria beat Burkina Faso 2-1 while playing a second team. Kelechi Iheanacho was in for Victor Osimhen, and nabbed both goals for his country. Perhaps if the manager had thought to bring on the Leicester striker earlier than the 72nd minute of the semi-final the result would have been different? We’ll never know.
Cameroon were unlucky in the final and didn’t deserve to lose full-stop, let alone by three goals. Ivory Coast were the deserved victors based on the month-long tournament as a whole, however, even though that’s not always how international tournaments work out. The hosts will understandably feel a little hard done by in the end, but getting to the Final after such a lackadaisical start to the competition is impressive in itself.
The real stories of this simulated AFCON, however, were the likes of Burkina Faso and Comoros, who I found myself supporting as the results of each simulated round were revealed. From the ankle-breaking challenges of Zimbabwe versus Senegal, to the fairytale story of debutants Comoros, to Ivory Coast lifting the trophy for the third time – this was a tournament to remember. How accurate is it? Only time will tell, but the real thing has a lot to live up to.
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