COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations made history, finishing as the lowest-scoring tournament since the soporific 2002 edition. That, however, was not it's only remarkable occurrence.
For the first time in five Afcon editions, dapper coach Herve Renard lost a game inside regulation time. By the time the tournament was over, his Morocco had lost again, exiting the competition to eventual finalists Egypt, but not before leaving an impression that has stuck tenaciously in the mind.
They now sit second in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, a point off Ivory Coast, and it is likely both countries will contest a decider in November. Win that, and the Atlas Lions will be in their first Mundial since 1998.
The return to World Cup reckoning echoes through the region as well: Tunisia lead their qualifying group by three points, ahead of DR Congo, and could qualify as early as this matchday. Egypt are eager to put in an appearance, and nine points from four games means they are in the driver's seat to advance ahead of favourites Ghana.
Algeria are, at this time, having an existential crisis, and as such are the only one of the North African big four not in play. The fifth group, with Burkina Faso in pole, contains no North African nation.
It is increasingly likely that three of Africa's five representatives at the World Cup will be from that part of the continent, which is remarkable and unusual. The expansion of the World Cup, and the concomitant increase in allocation for Africa has not favored the region; see, the North African quota: one of three in 1994 (the first tournament with 24 teams), two of five in 1998, one of five in 2002, one of five in 2006, one of six in 2010 and one of five in 2014.
Considering the stranglehold the region has on continental football, both at club and international level, as well as the fact that, pre-94, it routinely enjoyed the majority of spots, it has been quite the fall from grace.
Take Egypt, for instance. That a potential qualification would secure only a third appearance –and first since 1990 – for the Pharoahs is difficult to countenance within the context of their continental dominance. Seven Afcon titles is a record, and they won three on the bounce in the noughties with arguably their finest ever crop.
Their inability to leverage that period of dominance is somewhat explained by the timing of the World Cup: the 2006 edition coincided with the start of that cycle, and by the time the world came to South Africa in 2010, the sun had set.
Tunisia were the first African side to win a game at the World Cup, that in 1978, but missed the last two editions. They have now shaken off their defensive toga, and are playing more expressively.
Fortune favours the brave, and as such their task has been made immeasurably easier by a long-term injury to Yannick Bolasie, depriving DR Congo of their best player.
Still, fortune alone does not suffice to explain the resurgence of the North.
Instead, it is lost on no one that now, more than at any other time in history, the region is exporting players to Europe in increased number. The thriving nature and self-sufficiency of the local leagues previously encouraged insularity, unwittingly ceding the upper hand to Sub-Saharan Africa in qualifiers.
That trend has changed significantly. Whereas greats like Mohamed Barakat and Mohamed Aboutrika never made the jump to Europe, Egypt now calls on Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Elneny from the Premier League, among others. Algeria, out of contention now but the region's sole World Cup rep in the last two editions, relied heavily on its diaspora. Morocco are doing the same now.
The rewards have proved bountiful, and as they have pulled the veil back and stepped into the spotlight, the world would do well to brace for a North African spring; it may be a one-off, or the beginning of a new paradigm—either way, it'll be interesting and novel.