Afcon 2013: Drama. goals, saves, misses and rotten refereeing
TOURNAMENTS are ultimately judged on their knockout stages. In 10 or 20 years, nobody will remember a neat, proficient 1-1 draw in the group stage. They won't even remember genuine thrillers (Guinea 3- Morocco 2 in 2008, for instance).
What will live on in the memory is the drama of knockout games: the goals, the saves, the misses and, sadly, the refereeing decisions. That is where the human narrative of heroes and villains is written and, on that score, South Africa 2013 will probably fare pretty well.
It started slowly - most tournaments do - but sparked into life at the end of the group stage.
South Africa found two late equalisers against Morocco and Cape Verde, and turned their game against Angola around with two goals in the final 10 minutes.
Burkina Faso held out for a valiant, goalless draw against a luckless Zambia and Togo overcame incomprehensibly bad refereeing from South African Daniel Bennett to earn the draw against Tunisia that took them through.
As it turned out, worse was to come from the officials.
Togo's progress ensured that no North African teams made the last eight for the first time since 1992.
Given that Morocco, self-destructive as ever, went home unbeaten, that Algeria were unfortunate - outplaying Tunisia and Togo but losing to both - and that football in Egypt, the most successful team in Afcon history, has fallen victim to the political upheaval there, there are mitigating factors.
Things will surely change in Morocco in two years' time and this is a trend worth noting.
South Africa's quarterfinal exit to Mali after playing with great rigour and determination, snatching an equaliser after being outplayed for long periods and then losing on penalties, was thrilling enough, but it is the meeting of the heavyweights in Rustenburg that will be recalled by historians.
As a gathering storm provided an appropriately apocalyptic backdrop, Ivory Coast met their end, deservedly beaten by a Nigeria side bristling with purpose and self-belief.
The Super Eagles, having seemingly found an identity under their splendidly belligerent coach Stephen Keshi, maintained the momentum to thrash Mali 4-1 in their semifinal.
The other semifinal, meanwhile, was a genuine classic, a game so full of incident, fine play and controversy that the awful state of the Mbombela pitch was almost forgotten.
Slim Jdidi's refereeing was scandalously bad - two penalties not given to Burkina, an extremely soft one awarded to Ghana, a Burkina goal wrongly ruled out, a kick from Keba Paul Koulibaly on Asamoah Gyan given a yellow card rather than a red and, worst of all, Jonathan Pitroipa sent off after collecting a second yellow card for a dive when he was clearly whacked on the knee.
Last year the Afcon officiating was excellent, but this year, while the likes of Bakary Gassama and Alioum Neant have impressed, there has been a dip in standards.
But what of the football? It could be - if this is the start of a successful new era for Nigerian football - that we look back kindly on the tournament, remembering the few games of quality and drama.
Or if Burkina win, the romance of their success - like Zambia's last year - might overshadow everything. But the truth is that the football has been largely dour and the quality underwhelming.
Drama might save the tournament, and the increasing strength of the former minnows is heartening, but as to the question of whether African football has improved enough to mount a challenge for the World Cup, the answer is no.
Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and the author of six books, including Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics. Named football writer of the year by the Football Supporters Federation last year, he writes for The Guardian, World Soccer, The National, Sports lllustrated, Fox Soccer and ESPN.