IN CAIRO, EGYPT
Tunisia restored Africa’s football pecking order but Madagascar could have cared less.
Lumped amongst Africa’s six worst teams and needing to go through a pre-qualifier in 2017 against the tiny island of Sao Tome and Principe, Madagascar not only qualified for the Afcon for the first time in their history, they went on to reach the quarter-finals before their heady adventure was ended 3-0 by the efficient claws of the Carthage Eagles on Thursday.
Even in defeat, the players were elated with their performance, acknowledging their travelling fans and enthusiastically doing a half lap of honour at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo.
The Barea run will be a talking point of the 2019 Afcon for a long time to come.
Less flattering to the history-making Malagasy, their quarter-final result had the biggest winning margin.
Tunisia, who had not won a single match inside regulation time, without being extravagant, showed efficiency in front of goal with Zamalek midfielder Ferjani Sassi their outstanding player.
The semi-final pairing is thus set; Tunisia versus Senegal, Algeria up against Algeria.
Incidentally, three of the four semi-finalists are perched top in Africa according to Fifa’s latest rankings, Senegal, Tunisia and Nigeria in that order with Algeria, easily one of the most impressive team of the tournament thus far, in position 12 in the continental.
All but Senegal have won the African title. Nigeria have three to their name, the latest in 2013, Tunisia (2004) and Algeria (1990) one each.
Hungry Desert Foxes had gone four matches with a clean sheet and looked on track to extend that record when Galarasaray’s Sofiane Feghouli scored in the first half and they won a penalty early in the second half only for Baghdad Bounedjah to send his effort crashing against the crossbar and off target. Emboldened, Aston Villa forward Jonathan Kodhjia found his way into space to fire home the Elephants’ equaliser and force extra time before a penalty shoot-out decided the winner. The Desert Foxes only just deserved the win.
Nigeria have grown in strength since their shock 2-0 group stage loss to Madagascar and have unearthed a new star in Villarreal’s 20-year-old skilful forward Samuel Chukwueze who tormented South Africa in their 2-1 quarter-finals win. If their German coach Gernot Rohr, who has grappled to find a settled starting 11, can get the balance he desires, the Super Eagles will be worthy adversaries to Algeria.
Senegal have one of the tournament top scorer Liverpool’s Sadio Mane with three goals. Losing to Algeria in the group stages to finish second has put them on a decidedly easier path to the final. They edged out Benin 1-0 in the quarter-finals, and now face Tunisia in the semis. With Everton’s Idrissa Gueye becoming more influential in midfield and Mane, Stade Rennais’s Ismaila Sarr and Mbaye Niang getting good service, the Teranga Lions could be on course to snap their title jinx.
Will the stadiums be full to watch Africa’s top four teams square it out? Without the hosts in the competition, history shows the stands will be more empty than filled.