African Cup talking points? Madagascar magic, Mane and VAR

The two biggest surprises are that Madagascar is still in the tournament and superstar Mohamed Salah and host Egypt are out.

Benin fans cheers before the African Cup of Nations round-of-16 match between Morocco and Benin in Al Salam stadium in Cairo, Egypt.   -  AP

It’s the quarterfinals at the African Cup of Nations on Wednesday and Thursday and the two biggest surprises are that Madagascar is still in the tournament and superstar Mohamed Salah and host Egypt is out.

Madagascar is ranked 108th in the world by FIFA below Haiti, Libya and even the Caribbean island of Curacao and yet has beaten two former African champions and is into the last eight in a fairytale first appearance at a major tournament.

Salah’s early exit after Egypt was shocked by South Africa means Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane of Senegal takes over as the highest profile player at the cup. Senegal is now favorite to win although Nigeria, Algeria and Ivory Coast will have other ideas.

Watch out also for another debut- The always-contentious VAR system is being used at the African Cup for the first time from the quarters onwards.

MAGICAL MADAGASCAR

Madagascar has done the hard yards. The journey began more than two years ago when, because of its lowly ranking, it had to play in the very first game in qualifying, a 1-0 win on the island of Sao Tome and Principe in March 2017. Who knew that would be the first step to being two games away from the African Cup final in Cairo?

The Madagascans mostly play in the lower leagues in France. When they faced three-time African champion Nigeria in Egypt, the television commentator estimated the transfer value of Nigeria midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, who plays in the Premier League, was double that of the entire Madagascar squad. Madagascar beat Nigeria 2-0 anyway, topped its group, and went on to beat Congo, another former champion, to reach the quarterfinals.

Read: Rohr claims Bafana Bafana are AFCON favourites

Tunisia is next and Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina chartered a plane for himself and about 400 fans to come to Egypt to support the team.

SADIO, NOT SALAH

Mane is upstaging club teammate Salah. While the pre-tournament talk focused on the Egypt forward playing at home in front of adoring fans, Mane has shown his worth to his country. He has three goals in three games to be joint top scorer and has been in the thick of it for Senegal. He’s also missed two penalties. Senegal has never won the African Cup in 15 attempts and must beware another underdog when it plays Benin in the quarterfinals.

VAR DEBUT

The African Cup will be the latest tournament to introduce VAR and, if the Women’s World Cup and Copa America are anything to go by, there will be controversy almost every time a referee consults or doesn’t consult the TV screen. Technical failures led to a debacle at the African Champions League final in May, a VAR dress rehearsal for the African Cup, when players had to wait on the field for nearly two hours mid-game for issues to be fixed. They weren’t and one team walked off in protest.

THE HEAT IS ON

Literally. Daytime temperatures will peak at 42 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) for the next two weeks in Cairo, where seven of the final eight games of the tournament will be played. That’ll simmer down to a still-sweltering 36 C (97 F) at night, when the games kick off.

It’s the price the Confederation of African Football had to pay to switch the African Cup to midyear, when there are no European leagues in action and competing for attention. That landed the tournament smack bang in the middle of the Egyptian summer. Nigeria midfielder Samuel Kalu collapsed at a training session with dehydration and Uganda goalkeeper Denis Onyango was stretchered off with heat-related problems in one match. More knockout games going to extra time and penalties (three of the eight games in the round of 16 did) will push players to the limit.

KEEP WATCHING, CAIRO

With Egypt out of the tournament, there’s a chance Cairo and its 19 million plus people will return to their bustling everyday lives in one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world. That’ll be bad news for African soccer and its organizing body, which will be run by FIFA for six months because of serious administrative and financial problems, and desperately needs a good advert.

African Cups often have poor crowds but the 75,000 people that packed into the Cairo International Stadium to watch Egypt’s games were a refreshing change. Wednesday’s second quarterfinal, which Egypt would have been playing in had all gone to plan but is now South Africa vs. Nigeria, will be telling. Will Egyptians keep watching or give up their tickets and their interest?