In the 21st century – which began on January 1, 2001, by the way – only two finals at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) have witnessed more than a goal.
It is the nature of the beast; finals are frequently nervy affairs, with both sides overcome by the stakes and therefore less keen to make errors that would gift the opponent an unassailable advantage. However, the neutral viewer suffers, the spectacle failing to match the occasion.
The first of those two outliers will come under consideration in this analysis.
The 2004 final between hosts Tunisia and Morocco was decided by the odd goal in three, and featured the tournament’s two best sides. By no means was it a great game – it was much too frantic, for one thing, and featured little by way of clear opportunities for either side – but it was certainly full-blooded, played at a breakneck tempo.
In the end, the hosts won to claim a first (and, so far, only) continental crown, and Roger Lemerre entered the history books, becoming the only coach ever to have won both the European Championship and the AFCON.
A legendary goalkeeper in his playing days, Badou Zaki came into the Morocco role on an interim basis following the departure of Humberto Coelho in 2002, under whom he had worked as an assistant. Following encouraging early outcomes against Gabon and Luxembourg, he was given the job permanently.
He set about freshening up the side, retaining only six players from the squad at AFCON 2002, all of whom (bar veteran captain Noureddine Naybet) had been no older than 26. However, he came very close to getting the boot following a home loss to Mali in a friendly just two months before the tournament began, so it was not all smooth sailing for his youth drive.
A tournament draw featuring Nigeria and South Africa promised a challenge – it was Bafana who had effectively knocked them out in the previous edition – but Morocco flew out of the blocks against a disjointed Super Eagles, winning 1-0.
The team went from strength to strength, a set of 4-0 wins (over Benin and, in the semi-finals, Mali) sandwiched a hard-fought 3-1 extra-time win over an impressive Algeria in the quarter-final.
Based around the aerial prowess of a young Marouane Chamakh and decisive contributions from Youssouf Hadji, Zaki’s side also presented a tough rearguard, coming into the final with the best defence in the competition.
Roger Lemerre faced no end of opprobrium following France’s DOA World Cup defence in 2002, and so found a means to rehabilitate his reputation with a Tunisia side struggling for acceptance at home. He signed an initial two-year contract, set to expire after this tournament.
The Frenchman went through quite a bit of experimentation, screening as many as 44 players in friendlies in preparation for this. This was particularly important, especially as Tunisia were hosts, and so had no competitive fixtures to play.
The most high-profile inclusions came in the form of two naturalized Brazilians, and both would be influential once the tournament commenced. Jose Clayton was a rampaging left-back, constantly getting forward but also having the stamina to get back into position and not leave his side exposed, while Francileudo Dos Santos was a small, nimble centre-forward with bustling characteristics, constantly trying to get in behind and perfect for putting pressure on opposing centre-backs.
Tunisia’s path through the tournament was a little less explosive, and featured a scrappy win over debutants Rwanda, a 3-0 thumping of DR Congo and a draw against Guinea. Then followed a fractious 1-0 win over Senegal in a foggy quarter-final that saw the Senegalese completely lose their heads, and an epic penalty shoot-out victory over Nigeria in the semis.
Tunisia: 1 Boumnijel 3 Haggui 5 Jaziri 6 Trabelsi 8 Nafti 11 Santos 13 Bouazizi 14 Chedli 15 Jaidi 18 Ben Achour 20 Clayton
Morocco: 1 Fouhami 2 Regragui 3 Roumani 4 Ouaddou 5 El Karkouri 6 Naybet 8 Kissi 15 Safri 16 Mokhtari 17 Chamakh 20 Youssouf Hadji
Tunisia had captain Khaled Badra missing through suspension, and so full-back Karim Haggui came into the centre of the defence. On the plus side, Lemerre could once more name bullish right-back Hatem Trabelsi in the starting line-up, and Selim Ben Achour was restored to the starting 11, having started on the bench against Nigeria.
The shape was a hybrid 4-4-2, with the silky Benachour slipping into the no. 10 space when possession was established to create a 4-3-1-2.
Zaki, having played with a back four for much of the tournament, went for a 3-4-1-2 system in the final. The reasoning was probably that Naybet needed protection: both Santos and Zied Jaziri possessed considerable pace and relished pulling defences in opposite directions, and by this point the Atlas Lions’ captain was 34.
Semi-final two-goal hero Youssef Mokhtari had been a revelation in the competition, and started just off the front two, while Hadji’s goals off the bench earned him a place from the start.
With both sides relying on full-backs to provide width, it came down to two questions: (a) who had the better wing-backs? (b) who had the numerical advantage in the middle of the park?
The answer to both questions, as it turns out, was Tunisia.
The opening goal came as early as the fifth minute, but was already a showcase of how the hosts would win here: Clayton bombed forward after Adel Chedli popped up between the lines, pulling Walid Regragui in narrow. The full-back went for a rasping long-range drive from a tight angle, drawing a save from Khalid Fouhami. From the resulting corner, Santos stole in to head home from the edge of the six-yard box.
As a consequence of their system, Morocco clearly had no optimal way to occupy the Tunisia wing-backs: both had time to pick up speed and steam past Akram Roumani and Regragui respectively. Occasionally, Mokhtari went out to the left to try to curtail Trabelsi, but he either arrived too late or left Riadh Bouazizi free to receive the ball and play forward.
Well, what about the one area where Morocco did have a numerical advantage? Surely they were fine there?
Although there was a 3v2 at the back, Zaki’s back line was still getting pulled every which way. In the first place, a high defensive line was probably a bad idea, and both Tunisia strikers were always a step quicker, but the major problem was the positioning of Jaziri, who was a master at playing on the blindside of defenders, and often took advantage when Roumani did step out to confront Trabelsi. Ben Achour would also drift outward into that right half-space, creating an overload.
This in turn would draw out El Karkouri, and expose Naybet, who was clearly past his best physically, to Santos’ pace one-on-one.
This chain reaction led to a chance in the first half, which Chedli volleyed over unmarked at the back post as the entire Morocco defence had been drawn to the right.
For their part, Morocco already were a man light in midfield and so were unable to consistently progress the ball through that zone, but their approach in possession completely lacked imagination. They repeatedly went long, relying on Chamakh to battle in the air and knock it down for Hadji and Mokhtari, but he invariably came up second-best against Radhi Jaidi.
They also struggled to get their own wing-backs into the game. Chedli was very disciplined on Tunisia’s left, moving out to protect Clayton, but Bouazizi was preoccupied in the middle, and Ben Achour was never the most conscientious defensively, so in theory Roumani should have been influential going forward.
However, as touched on before, Jaziri’s movement behind him meant he was hesitant to venture too far. In the 14th minute he did advance, received the ball from El Karkouri on the touchline, was fronted up by Trabelsi, and played inside to Hadji.
However, Jaidi came roaring in, nicked the ball off the forward and laid it off to Bouazizi. Upfront, that chain reaction was happening already, and Santos sprinted past Naybet with ease, received the pass over the top from the captain, but botched his finish completely.
That was the danger, and Roumani heeded the warning thereafter.
Morocco did find an equalizer, however, but it followed an unlikely chain of events, and so was unsustainable by nature.
It started with a Tunisia free-kick on the right, which Clayton went over to take. However, his flighted ball was plucked out of the air by Fouhami, who threw out quickly. Now, Tunisia’s left-back was way out of position, and so Mehdi Nafti went out to that flank to cover him. The ball was worked out to Morocco’s right, Regragui passed toward Hadji, who had Haggui breathing down his neck. However, the stand-in centre-back was too tight, and could only deflect the ball into the path of Abdelkarim Kissi.
The midfielder completed the one-two (albeit with an inadvertent “one”) with Hadji, who had spun in behind. Hadji then chipped the ball back toward the penalty spot, where Mokhtari, lurking unmarked, scored with a diving header. He was unmarked because (a) Nafti had gone to cover Clayton on the left, and (b) Bouazizi had seen Haggui struggling against Hadji, and had gone over to help.
It was a sequence of events that never repeated itself in the game.
Tunisia would eventually get the winner early in the second half, and its similarity to the first was quite uncanny. This time though, Clayton picked up the ball from inside his half, drove forward and played a one-two with Santos who had come short.
By this point, the wing-back’s acceleration had taken him past two Morocco players and brought him to the edge of the penalty area. He let fly, low this time instead of high, and Fouhami, excellent all tournament, tamely palmed the ball into the centre of the box for Jaziri, as always arriving on the defender’s blind side, to tap home.
The Atlas Lions never threatened to get back in the game. Zaki’s changes had negligible impact (Jaouad Zairi, for instance, kept miscontrolling the ball on the right), and Morocco wasted a succession of corner kicks. Even reverting to a back four for the final 15’ did little.
Lemerre took off Jaziri for hard-working left-winger Imad Mhadhebi, Ben Achour off for Kaies Ghodhbane to play on the right, moved Chedli infield and went to a 4-5-1 to see the game out.
History for Tunisia, and an important bit of validation for Lemerre. He would lead Tunisia until 2008, when he was sacked after a quarter-final exit at that year’s AFCON. His next job? Morocco.
Although it was a disappointing performance in the showpiece, Morocco had surprised even themselves in progressing as far as they did, and Zaki would stay on till 2005, when he was replaced after failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
Incidentally, it would be Tunisia who pipped them to the post yet again, winning their qualifying group by a single point courtesy of a come-from-behind 2-2 draw on the final day. The scorers? Clayton and Chedli (from a Trabelsi pass after the right-back had dribbled infield unchecked). Lessons, unfortunately, had not been learnt.