Football Features

Stop Mohamed Salah? Just watch basketball – Afcon stories you might have missed | round 1

By Harry Edwards

Published: 18:54, 14 January 2022


After a long wait the highly-anticipated 2021 Africa Cup of Nations is here and we’re already into the second round of fixtures.

Twenty-four nations travelled to Cameroon this month with the hopes of being named kings of Africa including holders Algeria. Some games may have been overshadowed by domestic club matches across Europe, but the tournament has received plenty of attention.

Still, just in case you missed any of the big stories from the first round of group-stage games, we’re here to help.

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1. A blistering start in Cameroon vs Burkina Faso

The opening game of a major international tournament can go one of two ways. It can either be a cagey affair, with neither team willing to give ground. Or, a feisty affair involving players eager to make their mark, overwhelmed by the passion of representing their nation. At Afcon 2021, it was more like the latter.

Just 40 seconds into the game between Cameroon vs Burkina Faso, Les Étalons defender Steeve Yago went in hard and high on Collins Fai and was shown a yellow card for his challenge. It was the fastest Afcon yellow card in 12 years since Andre Ayew was booked inside 31 seconds for Ghana against Angola in 2010.

Many felt Yago was lucky not to have been sent off, however, given how high the challenge was. The defender’s studs were closer to Fai’s stomach than the ball, and the Cameroon full-back was fortunate not to be seriously hurt.

There was obviously no malice in the tackle, just the adrenaline at the start of a tournament, and Yago apologised to Fai on Twitter after the match, which was accepted.

Burkina Faso didn’t learn much from the challenge, though, conceding two penalties and the lead to eventually lose 2-1.

2. Unwanted attention in Tunisia v Mali

In an ideal world, referees would go through a game unnoticed. Invisible even, perhaps, unless making big decisions. The game isn’t about them, after all.

But unfortunately referees do sometimes take centre-stage.

Mike Dean, Graham Poll and even Andre Marriner (after his performance in Tottenham vs Chelsea) have all been talking points during at after matches they have officiated. And unfortunately for the Zambian, they have be joined by Janny Sikawze.

On any normal day, a refereeing performance that sees 28 fouls awarded, two penalties, four yellow cards and one red card would raise eyebrows. But on top of that, Sikazwe twice called for full-time earlier than the statutory 90 minutes.

The first occasion came at the 85th-minute mark, leaving both sets of players, subs and coaching staff bemused and pointing to their watches. Fans on social media speculated that this first premature full-time whistle had been down to Sikazwe forgetting to pause his timer for a drinks break.

After the initial confusion, the game resumed but was stopped, permanently this time, with 17 seconds left of the 90 minutes, as well as leaving no extra time for the drinks break or VAR delays. There were attempts to restart the game, but Tunisia had already began their recovery ice baths and did not reemerge.

After the game, the CAF confirmed they will investigate the incident.

On Thursday, Afcon’s head of referees Essam Abdel-Fatah stated that Sikazwe was suffering from heat stroke and dehydration, even having to be taken to the hospital after the game.

“The referee suffered from heat stroke and very severe dehydration, which led to him losing focus and was taken to the hospital,” he told MBC Egypt.

“It caused him to lose time in the 80th minute, and he ended the match in the 85th minute. He returned after directions from the assistant staff and then returned to finish the match in the 89th minute.”

Had the match resumed, the fourth official would have replaced Sikazwe as referee, with Abdel-Fatah adding: “When the crisis occurred and the objections and control were lost in the match, the fourth referee was the one who was going to complete the match [instead of Sikazwe], but one of the two teams refused.”

3. Sierra Leone’s wall

Sierra Leone goalkeeper Mohamed Kamara put in a performance he will never forget in his side’s opener against Algeria.

Going into the tournament, Algeria had scored in 34 consecutive matches (excluding the Arab Cup) since losing 1-0 to Benin in October 2018 during qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations. There seemed little chance the defending champions would fail to extend that run with many tipping them to go all the way to retain their crown.

Well, Kamara had other ideas. It was a truly brilliant performance from the 22-year-old and even the most rose-tinted of Algeria fans will have had to admit Kamara deserved the clean sheet he kept, and Man of the Match award that came with it.

In total, Kamara made seven saves to frustrate the Algerian attack which included Islam Slimani, Sofiane Feghouli, Said Benrahma and Riyad Mahrez. He’s now kept clean sheets in five of his 10 Sierra Leone appearances so far, having only made his debut in November 2019.


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4. No bigger stage for a debut

Sticking with Sierra Leone, there was a 30-year-old centre-back making his debut for Leone Stars against Algeria in Douala, one who had previously played for two international teams.

In 2012, Steven Caulker was part of the Team GB squad taking part at the Olympics in London, playing all five games en route to the quarter-finals. Later in the year, he made his senior debut for England, starting in their game against Sweden in November (and he even scored). The game would later be remembered for Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s bicycle kick in Sweden’s 4-2 victory, though Caulker had already been substituted with England 2-1 up.

Caulker didn’t play for England again and after reports of a switch to Scotland, the former Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool centre-back received clearance to represent Sierra Leone – eligible through his paternal grandfather.

As with Kamara, it will be a game that Caulker never forgets as he helped his new nation keep a clean sheet against Algeria on debut, putting them in good stead for the tournament.

5. Gambian history made vs Comoros

The current edition of the Africa Cup of Nations sees two countries making their debut at the tournament. Comoros and Gambia had never qualified for the African showcase in their history, with the latter securing their spot by winning their group ahead of Gabon.

But Gambia were not content with that historic moment. No, they wanted to announce their arrival at the big stage with another bit of history for the country. Up against second-time Afcon participants Mauritania, Gambia took the lead in the 10th minute of the match through Ablie Jallow and didn’t look back.

A first ever win in their first ever Afcon game, over 40 years after they first tried to qualify for the tournament.

6. Close encounters

Even without all the external circumstances, you can understand why teams wouldn’t want to be too open in the first round of fixtures at a major tournament. While losing your opening match is not the end of the world, even a draw can go a lot further in boosting your chances of reaching the knockout stages, especially if fixture order goes your way.

The result at Afcon this month was, along with everything else going on, just 12 goals in the opening round of group stage fixtures (12 matches). Nine games finished 1-0, two were goalless draws and only the opening match between Cameroon and Burkina Faso brought more than one goal among the first 12 games.

Then, in the first game of the second round of fixtures, Cameroon went goal crazy in a 4-1 win over Ethiopia.

7. How to stop Mohamed Salah

Premier League teams have struggled to stop Mohamed Salah this season but it turns out Nigeria have the blueprint.

Both Egypt and Nigeria are excellent nations with strong footballing history, but many expected the Pharaohs to come out on top in their group clash, mainly due to Salah.

The Liverpool forward failed to meet those expectations and Nigeria ran out 1-0 winners thanks to Kelechi Iheanacho’s thunderous strike.

Speaking after the game, Nigeria interim coach Augustine Eguavoen revealed he took inspiration from basketball in his plans to stop Salah.

“In terms of preparation and strategy, we had a special plan for Mohamed Salah because we know his quality,” he told BBC Sport Africa.

“Basketball is one game that I love so much. When you are playing against the likes of Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan and others if you don’t double-team you’ll have a problem.

“That is the same strategy that I bring into football. So when Mo Salah is with the ball, the closest person goes to him and the next person has to double-team to make him play back.

“It worked for us like 80%, but Salah broke loose one or two occasions which is normal, but again congratulations to the boys because they are so intelligent.”

Make sure you’re taking note Pep, Ralf and Mikel.