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Africa Cup of Nations

Afcon 2021: Did Aboubakar, not Mane, deserve the best player award?

19:51 GMT+3 10/02/2022
CAN 2022 Cameroun Vincent Aboubakar
The competition’s top scorer lost out to the Liverpool superstar whose penalty sealed Senegal’s first-ever continental crown

The constant factor with individual awards are the debates that ensue in the aftermath, especially when there is no stand-out winner.

Owing to the often subjective nature of these honours, supporters are bound to back more than one player before it is handed out.

Particularly when more than one star can lay strong claims to the prize, the eventual decision is largely met with outcries from sections of observers.

It was the case for the recent Ballon d’Or award, claimed by Lionel Messi for the seventh time in November.

Some believe Robert Lewandowski was the deserving winner, a smaller group suggested Italy and Chelsea midfielder Jorginho — instrumental to the Azzurri claiming the European Championship and pivotal in the West London side’s surprising Champions League triumph — was the best man for one of the biggest individual prizes in the game.

The argument that these awards are nothing but a popularity contest persists, and it was somewhat resurrected after Sadio Mane was named TotalEnergies Man of the Tournament, the award for the competition’s best player.

A few eyebrows were raised and two names were mentioned as possible alternatives to the prize—Mohamed Abou Gabal and Vincent Aboubakar.

The former, despite only featuring from the Round of 16 onwards, was pivotal to Egypt’s continued progress in the knockout rounds.

Perhaps even more so than Mohamed Salah, hamstrung by Carlos Queiroz’s modus operandi, Gabaski made a staggering 15 saves after replacing Mohamed El Shenawy in the Round of 16 clash with the Ivory Coast, arguably becoming the Pharaohs’ main man at Afcon 2021.

Conceding only once en route to the final — a Sofiane Boufal penalty in the quarter-finals — the Zamalek shot-stopper’s stock rose even more due to his penalty-saving heroics against the Elephants and Cameroon, seeing the North Africans reach another final despite hardly pulling up trees.

Having said that, Gabaski probably does not feel as aggrieved as Aboubakar, whose goalscoring on home soil was truly remarkable.

It was not just the fact he matched a 51-year record of eight strikes, set by Ivory Coast’s Laurent Pokou in 1970 and only one behind the record, but he also became the first player since the 1998 edition to equal and surpass seven goals—set by Hossam Hassan and Benni McCarthy.

Many of Aboubakar’s goals were important too. He kept his composure to score a pair of pressure penalties in the tournament opener against Burkina Faso, turning the game around just as the Stallions thought a half-time lead was in the offing, to seal a 2-1 success in front of expectant supporters.

He followed that up by scoring winning goals against Ethiopia and Comoros in the Round of 16. The Indomitable Lions captain seemed to relish playing at the tournament, seemingly undaunted by the pressure of spearheading the side’s attack.

Aboubakar was the only Cameroon player to dispatch his penalty in the ill-fated shootout defeat by Egypt in the semis, but he recovered from the team’s disappointment to be decisive in a dramatic comeback against Burkina Faso in the third-place playoff.

The former Porto striker netted not one but two in the final five minutes of normal time to peg the West Africans back having trailed 3-0 after 49 minutes.

Admittedly, Aboubakar was profligate against The Gambia and was shackled in the defeat by Egypt in the semis, yet he could feel hard done by with the Caf Technical Study Group’s decision.

Having said that, this is not to diminish Mane’s Lions of Teranga influence, particularly in the knockout rounds in Cameroon. The Liverpool attacker recovered from an average group stage and his improved showings coincided with the team’s enhanced performances when it mattered.

Mane won his nation’s first Afcon title, ending decades of hurt for the West African nation with that rocket of a penalty that typified his monstrous mentality. Still, the Aboubakar question is worth asking.