South Africa claimed their first ever Women’s Africa Cup of Nations trophy as they beat hosts Morocco in their back yard. The enthralling final capped off what has been the greatest competition in Africa’s history, breaking records left, right and centre.
New teams in town
When the eventually cancelled 2020 edition of the competition was announced to be expanding from eight to 12 teams, there were many raised eyebrows. When that was followed with some of the biggest sides on the continent like Ghana, Mali, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast didn’t qualify, there were even more concerns for the format.
The tournament has been home to regular thrashings.
With four debutants and another four teams making their first appearance in over a decade, cricket scores aplenty were expected. But instead, every team stepped up to compete.
Burkina Faso nearly drew with finalists Morocco. Togo did get a draw against Cameroon, one of the biggest upsets in African football history.
Burundi came into the tournament, as a team almost entirely amateur. They had an average squad age of 21.5. They had ten players under the age of 20, a couple of 15-year-olds, and one 14-year-old.
The Swallows were thrown into a group with Africa’s two biggest giants, Nigeria and South Africa. But the East Africans played with bravery and talent.
They scored some excellent goals against Botswana and South Africa. They lost 4-0 to Nigeria, the biggest margin of the tournament, but if not for a five minute collapse, could have kept the loss to a single goal.
Botswana, making their debut did one better when they qualified out of the WAFCON 2022 group. They pushed South Africa all the way in the group, came from behind against hosts Morocco to only narrowly lose thanks to a couple free-kicks. Against Cameroon, in the World Cup playoff, they only lost to an Ajara Njoya screamer, and came very close to finding an equaliser late in the second half.
Gone are the days of the big teams rocking up to the WAFCON without any preparation and steamrolling everyone. Countries across the continent are taking the competition seriously.
Uganda and Burundi played in the CECAFA tournament to warm up and Botswana were in camp for almost six weeks in preparation, and that investment paid off.
Top table no longer exclusive
Over the last two decades the WAFCON has followed a similar routine. Nigeria come into the tournament as heavy favourites, annihilate the weaker opposition, struggle against the bigger sides, but ultimately stroll to another title.
But 2018 was a warning that that their domination was coming to an end.
This tournament announced the end of the Super Falcon era.
Even though they lost in the final, Morocco have forever changed the women’s football landscape in Africa. In just 18 months, they have come from obscurity to the final of WAFCON 2022.Embed from Getty Images
They have created two fully professional leagues, the only country in the world to do so. The team is put up in the best hotels with the best training facilities. They have brought in one of the best coaches in women’s football and have given him everything he needs to succeed.
The Atlas Lionesses have shown that if you invest heavily in women’s football, you will see the returns nearly immediately. Almost every coach, when signing off in this tournament, has called on their own countries to invest in the women’s game in the same way that Morocco have.
They certainly rode their luck against Nigeria to get to the final, but the success is no accident. And with the investment in footballing infrastructure, the Atlas Lionesses will become a force to reckon with.Embed from Getty Images
But Morocco are not the only side to have drastically improved. Zambia showed that they can now mix it with the best teams on the continent. Having seen increasing investment in the team (though nothing on the scale of Morocco), and a crop of supremely talented players, Zambia are similarly on the verge of something great.
The U17s qualified for their first World Cup in 2014 and that crop of players is now dominating the senior side. Prior to this year’s competition they had only been in the WAFCON twice before, but they look like one of the best sides on the continent.
With players like Grace Chanda, Xiomara Mapepa thrilling, youngsters like Everaine Katongo and Avell Chitundu coming to the fore, this team will be electric in future years. Add on top of this exciting team, Barbra Banda, one of the continents greatest forwards (assuming she will be able to play next time), and they have arguably the best front line in Africa.
For 24 years, the Women’s AFCON has been one of the least competitive competitions in international football, but now it is one of the most competitive.
Moroccan fans bring the fire
Among all of the individual records broken by nations who progressed further in this tournament than they ever had before, is the most important number of all, 45,562.
In the WAFCON 2022 semi-final between Morocco and Nigeria, 45,562 fans packed out the Stade Moulay Abdellah, a full house and a record attendance for women’s football in Africa.
After the match, Reynald Pedros claimed that if the stadium had a 70,000 capacity, it would have been filled. That is no overstatement.
Before the final against South Africa, the stadium was completely full two hours before kick-off. Not only that, but there were still thousands of fans trying to get into the stadium. There was easily 70,000 fans who were desperate to get into the match.Embed from Getty Images
The atmosphere witnessed in the stadium was arguably the best atmosphere ever seen in the history of women’s football.
The huge numbers, coupled with a lack of preparedness, meant that there were real concerns for the safety of fans. CAF and the FRMF need to do better to police the crowd and put into place things like fan zones for the overflow of passionate viewers.
But the record and the attention given to the tournament must be celebrated. Finally, after years of living in the shadows, women’s football in Africa and across the globe is getting the attention it deserves.
The media attention of the tournament was also at its highest in history. Speaking with journalists throughout the tournament, there were dozens of outlets covering the tournament for the first time and that will only increase as more players play in the best leagues and the quality of the tournament increases.
For the first time in the history of women’s football in Africa, the hype and coverage of the tournament is comparable to the quality shown on the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
South Africa ends 22 years of pain
For all of the great storylines and nations who have improved and come to the fore of this tournament, there was only ever one story — could South Africa finally unseat Nigeria? The answer was a resounding yes.
Banyana Banyana have become a force over the last six years in African football since Desiree Ellis. They are the best coached side in the competition, they play the best football, and were deserved winners on Saturday night.
They have not had an easy path to their first crown. Having lost their best defender to injury in Gabriella Salgado just before the tournament, they then lost start striker Thembi Kgatlana in the group stage. But Ellis has an answer for everything.
Players like Jermaine Seoposenwe and Noko Matlou stepped up superbly in the absence of Kgatlana and Salgado, but ultimately it was the tactical flexibility that allowed for Banyana Banyana to cope with the loss of such key players.
Just two nights before the final, Ellis picked up a record third coach of the year award and she proved why she deserved the crown more than anyone else. She has come through more adversity than any other person coming into the competition.Embed from Getty Images
Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, she only made her national team debut as a 30-year-old, when segregation ended. She once was sacked as a factory worker when her bus back from a tournament in Johannesburg to Cape Town broke down and she missed a shift.
Ellis had the opportunity to get a UEFA B license in 2010 but couldn’t pursue it because she had no financial support and would lose her house and car if she took the four months out to get the badge.
She has lost the WAFCON as a captain in 2000, and again as a coach in 2018, but has never given up. She was a giddy school girl when her team finally won the tournament she has craved for more than two decades.
The woman from Cape Town has built a team in her image. They are talented, intelligent, but above all, resilient.
WAFCON 2022 has brought about some incredible stories and broken records. It was Africa’s greatest tournament, but ultimately it will be remembered as a tournament of one team and one team only — South Africa.