The Africa Cup of Nations Reveals Glimpses of a Better Continent

The current host fits the trend. Cameroon’s dictator of 39 years is 88-year-old Paul Biya, who spends long stretches of time every year in Europe, either in luxury hotels or in luxury hospitals, receiving the kind of medical treatment most Cameroonians can hardly dream of. That’s despite the fact that a civil war has been simmering since 2017. At the tournament’s opening ceremony, local organizers staged what was essentially a huge election rally for Mr. Biya, who rolled around in an armored four-wheel-drive vehicle as the stadium sang: “Paul Biya, our father, president of the nation. Paul Biya always ahead.”

But as is so often the case in contemporary Africa, the more hopeful action is on the ground.

That 1996 tournament from which Nigeria was banned, for example, was a triumph for my native South Africa, which got to celebrate its freedom with a stunning tournament win. In 2012, a ragtag Zambian national squad, rebuilt after a 1993 plane crash killed 18 players along with members of its coaching staff, came up against clear favorite Ivory Coast in the final and snatched a stunning victory after 120 minutes without a goal and nine rounds of penalty kicks.

This year’s tournament has seen its share of drama. It has been fun to watch powerful performances from teams representing small countries, including Gambia, Cape Verde and Malawi. On Tuesday, Comoros, the fourth-smallest country in Africa, defeated four-time Afcon winner Ghana in a 3-2 upset.

Sierra Leone, in particular, has caught my imagination. It has been grouped with mighty Algeria and Ivory Coast. In its first game in the first round, on Jan. 11, Sierra Leone was facing defending champion Algeria, which last December also won the Arab Cup and was chasing a record for most games without a loss by a national team. (Italy holds the record at 37 games; coming into the Sierra Leone match, Algeria stood at 35.) Algeria has Riyad Mahrez, a star at Manchester City, the richest club in the English Premier League, and most of his teammates play in Europe’s top leagues.

Sierra Leone, meanwhile, is ranked 108th by FIFA, the body that governs world soccer, right between Estonia and North Korea. The team’s most recognizable player is Kei Kamara, a 37-year-old journeyman who made a name in Major League Soccer in North America and now plays in Finland.

This was supposed to be easy for Algeria. Instead, plucky Sierra Leone held Algeria to a goalless draw. A 22-year-old Sierra Leonean goalkeeper, Mohamed Nbalie Kamara, who plays for East End Lions in Freetown, the country’s capital, kept out everything the Algerians threw at him. When he was awarded Man of the Match after the game ended, he broke down in tears.