Africa Cup of Nations favourites Senegal face Benin in the quarter-finals of the tournament as they bid to reach the final four for the first time since 2002.
Senegal finished runners-up that year after losing out to Cameroon on penalties following a goalless draw.
Aliou Cisse who missed the deciding penalty in the shootout, now manages the national team and in captain Sadio Mane he has the tournament’s joint top scorer.
Benin will be the overwhelming underdogs having failed to qualify for the previous four editions of the tournament.
‘The Squirrels’ have made history in Egypt after reaching the knockout stage for the first time.
First, he played a prominent role as his club side mounted a highly impressive campaign to secure their league title by a country mile.
Then, when summer arrived, he headed off with his national team and enjoyed similar levels of success, starting every game to help his country claim a prestigious continental crown.
No doubt about it, when it comes to this year’s Ballon d’Or award, there can only be one serious candidate…
Yes, that was a rather facetious, tongue-in-cheek comment.
Of course, Coutinho should not and will not be anywhere near the Ballon d’Or podium after an entirely underwhelming season which has left his future at Barcelona in doubt and saw several others play far more meaningful parts in Brazil’s Copa America triumph.
But the case of Coutinho serves to underline how nonsensical it is to award individual trophies such as the Ballon d’Or on the basis of collective titles gained. Because if that really was the criteria, he would have to be a major contender.
Yet it seems to be happening more and more. Every time a team wins a trophy, especially if it’s their second (or more) of the season, headlines eagerly pronounce that players x, y or z should start preparing their wardrobes for a night of glitz and glamour at sport’s biggest and most self-congratulatory annual ego-fest.
We saw it a few weeks ago when Portugal won the inaugural UEFA Nations League and Cristiano Ronaldo subsequently received a big boost to his hopes of regaining the Ballon d’Or, even though he didn’t do an enormous amount in the final victory over the Netherlands (whose central defensive lynchpin Virgil van Dijk apparently suffered a blow in his quest for the shiny gong by having the temerity to lose one game).
THERE’S NO ‘I’ IN TEAM
And we’re seeing it again now following Brazil’s triumph at Copa America, which has led some supposedly serious observers to suggest that Alisson Becker should be considered for individual recognition after also winning the Champions League with Liverpool. His club teammate Mo Salah, however, is thought to have irrevocably ruined his hopes by failing to lead Egypt to glory in the African Cup of Nations. Yes, a whole season of toil has been scuppered by one defeat to South Africa.
This is all the wrong way around, surely. Team awards are for teams, who win them by the startlingly logical route of winning games and therefore winning trophies. Individual awards are, well, for individuals, who could be the best player on the pitch in every single game they appear but still fail to seize any silverware due to the deficiencies of their teammates or other circumstances beyond their control.
That doesn’t really help, though, because judging the contribution of individuals to a dynamic game involving 22 moving parts is bound to be highly subjective, with some players having their individual contributions overstated while others are downgraded due to myriad factors including media profile, playing position and nationality.
Take the case of Jan Oblak, for example. For several years the Atletico Madrid goalkeeper has been a model of consistent brilliance, routinely making jaw-dropping saves to help make his defence the best in the world (he kept 20 clean sheets in 37 league games this season, for instance).
As an individual, Oblak could not have done any more. But because he is a pretty uncharismatic goalkeeper lacking a superstar agent and playing for Atletico and Slovenia, who have not been good enough to win a major trophy, you will never see him even mentioned as a possible Ballon d’Or winner, never mind a leading contender.
Is Oblak the best player in the world? Depending on how you choose to answer such a wide open question, it can easily be argued that he has as good a claim as anyone else. He’s certainly as good as Alisson. But we all know it just doesn’t work like that.
These days, to win the Ballon d’Or it’s necessary to win a trophy, ideally two, play for a fashionable club and/or nation, and have a strong media profile. Scoring a big goal in a big game also helps, even though that doesn’t necessarily do anything to reflect a whole year’s worth of work. And try not to be a defender, although that’s not necessarily an immovable obstacle if the other plucked-out-of-the-air criteria are all fulfilled.
So where does that leave us…confused? If so, that’s just as well. The Ballon d’Or – an individual award in a team sport where personal performances can never truly be removed from the collective context – is an inherently confusing award, so it doesn’t really deserve any clarity or logical thinking.
Judge it however you want, it really doesn’t matter. Just don’t give it to Coutinho.
The United States retained the Women’s World Cup following Sunday’s 2-0 victory over the Netherlands.
England finished fourth in France under the guidance of Phil Neville, while Scotland’s campaign ended at the group stage.
Here, PA highlights some of the tournament’s main talking points.
Champions make headlines on and off the field
The world’s top ranked team justified their pre-tournament tag as favourites by lifting the trophy for the fourth time. Inspired to glory by the goals of Alex Morgan and Golden Ball winner Megan Rapinoe, the USA also made headlines for other reasons. Rapinoe received widespread support for her criticism of US President Donald Trump, a visit to England’s hotel ahead of the semi-final clash sparked debate, while Morgan’s tea-drinking celebration against the Lionesses caused minor controversy. Jill Ellis’ champions, who earlier this year began legal action against the US soccer Federation over equal pay and working conditions, also attracted accusations of arrogance after Ali Krieger’s comments about the team’s superior strength in depth.
Controversy never too VAR away
Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology was used in the competition for the first time. The system played a prominent role, including the award of the penalty which broke the deadlock in Sunday’s final. While VAR succeeded in helping to eradicate officiating mistakes, the time taken to review incidents proved unpopular, while some decisions were deemed extremely harsh and not considered to be rectifying clear and obvious refereeing errors. Pre-tournament changes to the handball and penalty rules also contributed to regular interventions from VAR. Three spot-kicks were retaken in the group stage due to the movement of goalkeepers, one of which eliminated Scotland after Lee Alexander edged off her line to deny Florencia Bonsegundo’s first attempt, with Bonsegundo then slotting home the retaken penalty to earn Argentina a 3-3 draw.
Home nation heartbreak
England were knocked out at the semi-final stage for the second successive tournament. While the Lionesses’ campaign had plenty of positives, including six goals for striker Ellen White and the Silver Ball award for right-back Lucy Bronze, head coach Neville admitted that the eventual fourth-place finish felt like failure. England could have few complaints about coming out second best against the USA, although captain Steph Houghton’s tame missed penalty was a major opportunity to force extra-time. Scotland also fell short of expectations. Manager Shelley Kerr was targeting the round of 16, but her side’s hopes were ended after they threw away a 3-0 lead against Argentina, cruelly conceding the equaliser from Bonsegundo’s twice-taken spot-kick deep in stoppage time.
Millions tuning in on TV
Interest in the women’s game has grown massively based on the extraordinary television viewing figures. The Lionesses attracted armchair fans in their millions and UK viewing records for women’s football were broken several times during the tournament. The agonising semi-final defeat to the USA on July 2 was the biggest TV audience of the year so far. A peak audience of 11.7million tuned in to watch the last-four clash in Lyon, which was screened live on BBC One, according to information released by the corporation. The figures also revealed that the peak share of the TV audience during the match was 50.8 per cent.
Social media support
In addition to large TV audiences, significant social media engagement, including among high-profile names, proved the popularity of the tournament. President Trump, former president Barack Obama, and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton were among those to congratulate the US team on their success. Basketball star LeBron James, meanwhile, mimicked Morgan’s tea-drinking celebration in a video shared on Instagram, having previously posted pictures of Golden Boot winner Rapinoe. The Lionesses also received significant social media support. Prime Minister Theresa May, former England strikers Michael Owen and Gary Lineker, tennis player Johanna Konta, and musician Billy Bragg were just a handful of the famous faces to praise Neville’s team following elimination.
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