Early AFCON chaos for Liverpool star Mohamed Salah reminds us why it's best of continental tournaments

The African Cup of Nations 2024 kicked off in the Ivory Coast on Saturday.
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The Defence Readiness Condition is an alert system used by the United States Armed Forces to signify how close the US military is to a sudden combatant response. Since its inception in 1959, the scale has, thankfully, never risen above DEFCON 2, a tenseness reached only during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Gulf War.

Over the weekend, however, an entirely separate spectrum of hysteria went into meltdown. Somewhere in the bowels of an imposing, windowless building, curtained by barbed wire and men in flak jackets, sirens are wailing with a banshee intent and control panels are flashing spasmodically like battalions of plutonium fireflies against the blackened drape of night. There is no opportunity for deescalation, there is no turning away from the brink. The DEFCON remains the same, but dear reader, we have officially entered the jubilant hysteria of AFCON 1.

The most vibrant, capricious, downright unhinged continental tournament in international football exploded into kaleidoscopic life on Saturday evening, and already this Ivorian iteration is promising to be just as colourful, just as soap operatic, just as enthralling as any of its predecessors. Four of the expected heavyweights have swung their opening haymakers, but just one has landed anything more than a glancing blow. There is a prickling suspicion that upsets could become a modish phenomenon.

The hosts, Ivory Coast, might be lacking in an elephantine talisman to match their tusked moniker, but of the realistic hopefuls who have played thus far, they remain the only nation to have scuttled through their first group stage fixture unscathed. The boys in orange, kitted out like ambitious traffic cones, were ahead inside four minutes against Guinea-Bissau, and must have fancied their chances of a pestling when the visitors took to hoofing uncontested balls out for corner kicks even sooner than that. In the end, there would be just the one goal more, a comfort blanket in a 2-0 stroll that felt decidedly ordinary compared to AFCON's usual shenanigans.

The chaos would soon come, though. Nigeria stumbled first, slipping behind to Equatorial Guinea for a grand total of 120 seconds, but never able to pull themselves clear having drawn level. The masked man, Victor Osimhen, got himself on the score sheet - because of course he did - but he was also at fault for the kind of uncharacteristic, point-squandering miss that was far more sorrow than Zorro.

Not such a super start for the Super Eagles, then, but compared to Egypt, Nigeria seemed positively resplendent. The Pharoahs left everybody tutting, pun intended, and came within a hair's breadth of absorbing one of the most shocking blows in AFCON history. Mozambique had never won a match at the tournament proper prior to lining up against the seven-time champions, and yet, were it not for a last gasp VAR intervention and a Mo Salah penalty, they would have stole away with all three points like a band of pyramid tomb robbers.

As the improbable shifted from pipe dream to reality and back again, you could almost feel the flux of emotion from Merseyside to Maputo. Liverpool supporters would never openly advocate for one of their own taking an enforced tumble so early, but those of a pragmatic persuasion will be fully aware that the sooner Salah gets knocked out, the sooner he will back at Anfield. You have to imagine there were a couple of Scouse groans here and there when he netted his Mozambique-aliser.

And yet Sunday's truest melodrama was still to come. Ghana, the Black Stars themselves, imploded like a supernova against dark horses Cape Verde, succumbing to a stoppage time decider that unravelled the very fabric of decorum and had disbelieving players running into the stands to embrace elated supporters. It was, in every sense, vintage AFCON.

Now, just hours into a month-long slog, two of the most dominant nations in Africa, Egypt and Ghana, know that they are facing a clash on Thursday night that might not be a must-win, but is certainly a must-not-lose.

But then again, would you expect anything less from AFCON; this breathless celebration of football, this rainbow-tinted, groove-driven carnival, this incomparable spectacle? At the time of writing, the fifth game of the tournament, Senegal vs Gambia, has just kicked off, and yet already, we can say with a dizzying degree of certainty that for these next four weeks, there will not be a dull moment. You simply cannot look away.

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