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Africa Cup of Nations

Afcon 2021: Algeria latest to feel reigning champions’ curse

23:21 EAT 20/01/2022
Mahrez Algeria Afcon 2022
The Fennecs have fallen at the first hurdle in a miserable title defence at the Nations Cup

Algeria’s Africa Cup of Nations title defence is over after three matches, one point and one goal following their 3-1 defeat by the Ivory Coast in Thursday’s Group E decider in Douala.

The Fennecs were hotly tipped to retain the Nations Cup they won in Egypt in 2019, particularly coming into the tournament on the back of their success at the Arab Cup at the end of 2021 and while enjoying a 35-match undefeated streak that was comfortably an African record.

Their performances in Cameroon, while far from the standards they’ve shown in recent years, haven’t been dreadful, and they headed into the final game against Ivory Coast having averaged greater possession, more chances created and more shots on target than any other team in the tournament.

Yet finishing has been a major concern, as has a lack of confidence, while pre tournament concerns that this squad’s ageing legs may let them down in the conditions of Cameroon have certainly been realised.

Their opening draw with Sierra Leone wasn’t—in itself—massively damaging to their title prospects, but it instilled within this Algeria a sense of doubt, while head coach Djamel Belmadi’s excuses—the pitch, the weather, the heat—hardly helped.

Then came the defeat against Equatorial Guinea, another match which Algeria dominated, without being able to add the finishing touch, only to be undone on the counterattack.

Perhaps they underestimated the Nzalang Nacional—who had been unfortunate in defeat against the Ivory Coast—perhaps there was an element of complacency in their game.

Either way, the defeat further damaged morale, and belief, leaving Algeria already playing on the backfoot—in their heads and their hearts—heading into the final fixture against the Ivory Coast, themselves growing in strength, in Douala on Thursday.

Algeria’s failure continues the curse of reigning Afcon champions, who have consistently bombed at the tournament in the aftermath of their finest hour.

Egypt’s three successes in a row was the final instance in which reigning champions—in the Pharaohs’ case, twice—managed to maintain the previous standards they’d shown at the next edition of the Afcon.

It unravelled for Egypt in the build-up to the 2013 event when, no doubt affected by the passing over of the final vestiges of the Golden Generation, they failed to even qualify for the tournament.

In truth, despite the emergence of Mohamed Salah, the North African giants have never truly been the same after finishing bottom of a qualifying group containing Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone.

Zambia won in 2012, but were eliminated in the group stage in 2013, failing to win a single match against Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

In fairness to the Chipolopolo, it was a tough group—the Super Eagles and the Stallions ultimately reached the final—but an inability to beat Ethiopia in their opener set the tone for a damaging campaign in which the momentum of Herve Renard’s early tenure was extinguished.

The Super Eagles’ triumph in 2013 promised the start of a golden era under Stephen Keshi, with a young team battling to the title in some style before going on to reach the World Cup in 2014.

Again, however, the rug was pulled from under their feet, with the Eagles during a chaotic qualifying campaign in which controversy around Stephen Keshi and the departure of Vincent Enyeama undermined the national side’s previous momentum.

The 2015 tournament was won by the Ivory Coast—another accolade for Herve Renard—but his exit later that same year precipitated a decline in the country’s fortunes, not helped by the uninspired appointment of Michel Dussuyer.

He oversaw a tepid, impotent campaign in 2017, in which the Elephants failed to beat any of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo or Renard’s new charges Morocco, and finished third in the group with two points.

Any mention of Oyem, where the Elephants played all three of their fixtures, still brings back bad memories for Ivorian fans.

Cameroon’s unconvincing group-stage campaign in neighbouring Gabon gave way to a successful knockout series, and they ultimately went on to defeat Ghana—remember them?—in Libreville in the ’17 final.

In fairness to the Indomitable Lions, despite the hubristic arrogance of Clarence Seedorf, they did muddle their way through to knockout stages in their title defence before their tactical naivety was exposed by the Nigeria of Gernot Rohr…remember him?

Algeria ultimately clinched the title in 2019—downing Senegal in the final—to launch an era of excellence that, many believed, would extend to Cameroon and beyond.

Once again, the curse of the Africa Cup of Nations reigning champions strikes again, as Algeria become the latest to stumble as they seek to reclaim their throne.