The African Nations Cup in Gabon will be remembered for delivering an inspiring success story culminating with Cameroon’s brilliant come-from-behind victory over Egypt to claim a fifth title in Libreville.
The dramatic return of the Indomitable Lions to the summit of the African game came against expectation, achieved with a squad of little experience after several key players put club above country in the preceding months.
Overcoming difficult odds to come through a taxing tournament — played in stifling humility, on poor pitches and with complex travel arrangements — and claim the trophy gave the tournament a much-needed lease of new life.
Too many previous tournament have suffered from the burden of poor football, disappointing crowds and a distinct lack of on-field drama. Usually it is controversy that marks the event.
Cameroon’s exploits, however, ensured the 2017 edition concluded as one of the better recent Nations Cup.
Cameroon, last champions 15 years ago, were given little chance at the start, a side in transition after coach Hugo Broos made a comprehensive, almost cavalier, overhaul of the side in the preceding months.
Just a month before kick off, his plans looked in tatters as eight players declared their unavailability, rejecting call-ups to stay with their clubs.
It was the first significant show of dissent from African footballers, who are placed in an awkward position every two years by the tug of loyalty between club and country that the timing Nations Cup, in the middle of the European club season, forces on them.
It was an issue quickly forgotten as the tournament kicked off with some favourites quickly falling by the wayside.
Algeria were in trouble from their first game, hosts Gabon and holders Ivory Coast went out in the first round and Cameroon’s post-match penalty shootout win over impressive Senegal in the last eight proved the biggest upset.
“Our ambition was to finish in the top two in our group, get to the knockout round and see what happened from there. Over the weeks we went from being a squad to becoming a family,” said winning coach Hugo Broos after Sunday’s 2-1 victory.
The progress to the semi-final of Burkina Faso, also little regarded at the start, added another exciting element in the same way the progress of unheralded nations spiced up the European Championship last year.
Refereeing showed a dramatic improvement in another boost for the African Football.
New-look Cameroon now have an immediate burden of expectation as African champions. They host the next finals in 2019 where vociferous home support will be demanding repeat success.