In the 81st minute at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan, more than 50,000 fans roared in celebration as Borussia Dortmund striker Sebastian Haller got his foot on the end of a cross to give Côte d’Ivoire the lead in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations final.
The TV cameras panned round to Côte d’Ivoire legend Didier Drogba, with the former Chelsea striker celebrating as if he’d scored the winner himself.
Haller’s goal gave Côte d’Ivoire a 2-1 victory over Nigeria and saw them lift the AFCON trophy for the third time. But unlike previous wins, this one was in front of their own fans.
A day earlier in Qatar, more than 85,000 fans watched Akram Afif score a hat-trick to give Qatar a 3-1 win over underdogs Jordan and secure their second Asian Cup title in a row. Far from the “perfect hat-trick”, all three of Afif’s goals were penalties.
It is the first time since 1980, when Nigeria and Kuwait were successful, that the host countries of both the Africa Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup have been victorious.
Neither Qatar, nor Côte d’Ivoire were seen as the favorites before the start of the tournaments, but both made their home advantage count.
Côte d’Ivoire’s win was the 12th time out of 34 AFCON tournaments that the hosts have come out victorious. Recently though, the hosts have generally struggled, with no host nation even reaching the final since Egypt’s win in 2006.
Côte d’Ivoire also won the tournament the hard way, narrowly avoiding elimination in the group stage after a 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea. That defeat saw the Elephants sack their head coach Jean-Louis Gasset and promote his assistant Emerse Fae to the hot seat.
Their poor group stage performance meant Côte d’Ivoire faced favorites Senegal in the first knockout round, and after a penalty shootout win in that match, they needed a last minute goal against Mali to avoid elimination in the quarterfinals.
The star of their comeback story is Haller, who this time last year had only just returned to playing soccer after being treated for cancer, and who nearly missed this tournament with an ankle injury. Haller scored the only goal of the game in the semi-final before getting the winning goal in the final.
In Asia, the hosts have historically been a lot more successful, winning eight of the 18 Asian Cup tournaments so far. Either Saudi Arabia, Japan or the host nation have won all but four Asian Cup tournaments.
With climatic conditions, seasons and time differences having a bigger impact in Asia and Africa than in Europe, the hosts could benefit from these factors as well as having stadiums packed with their supporters. In Africa, this can be seen by the general lack of success by North African teams in AFCON tournaments played south of the Sahara.
In the case of Qatar though, this is mitigated somewhat by the large number of tournaments recently played in Qatar or neighboring countries, such as the Asian Champions League, the 2022 World Cup, and recent Asian Cup tournaments, as well as many teams using the region for training camps, or as a home venue when conflict means they can’t play in their own home stadiums.
Qatar did have things stacked in their favor though by the tournament’s layout.
In almost all tournaments, the hosts are seeded, meaning they avoid the strongest teams in the group stage. But the 24-team tournament format takes this to the next level.
As well as having a rather easy group, Qatar then faced Palestine, who finished third in their group, followed by a quarter final against either Uzbekistan or Thailand, who both finished second in their respective groups. The only other group winner Qatar faced in the entire tournament was Iran in the semi-finals.
With 24 teams, it is impossible to have an evenly-balanced knock-out stage, as two group winners are guaranteed to play a third-place team in the first knockout round and also avoid any other group winners until the quarter-finals. Two other group winners meanwhile face a second-place team, then potentially a group winner in the first two knockout rounds. Much has been made of South Korea’s shock defeat to Jordan, but before that match, South Korea had to twice play 120 minutes against a group winner.
That’s not to take anything away from Qatar’s triumph, nor Jordan’s incredible performance against South Korea, but it is something that is worth considering by organizers of future tournaments.
Côte d’Ivoire had a similar advantage given to them by the draw, although their poor group stage performance instead put them on the tougher side of the draw for the knockout stages.
This year, neither host was particular expected to win before the tournament. That’ll change in the next tournaments with AFCON 2025 being held in Morocco and the 2027 Asian Cup being played in Saudi Arabia, both of which are seen as among the strongest teams on their respective continents. So in those two tournaments, the hosts might not be a bad bet.
First appeared on www.forbes.com