And so, after a tournament of shocks, the final of the Africa Cup of Nations will be a meeting of the 2015 and 2013 winners, Ivory Coast against Nigeria. But if the finalists feel familiar, the tournament has not. Tournaments often pursue their own logic but, developing certain themes from the last edition in Cameroon, this Cup of Nations has felt like significant progress.

For Ivory Coast, the mood has changed radically over the past two weeks. After the anger of the group stage, which led to cars being burned out after the 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea seemed to have eliminated them, Ivory Coast have ridden a wave of disbelieving euphoria. They made it past Senegal, despite being 1-0 down after 86 minutes; Mali, again trailing 1-0 and down to 10 men after 90 minutes; and then, more comfortably, DR Congo, 1-0 in the semi-final. With Sébastien Haller and Simon Adingra returning to fitness, the sense of miracles has waned and the hosts now look the very good team they were expected to be before the start of the tournament.

Nigeria have followed a similar journey. If there is something slightly unsatisfactory about two sides who played each other in the group stage (Nigeria won 1-0) meeting again in the final, there is something disorienting, an implication of randomness, when those sides finished second and third in the group behind Equatorial Guinea. What that does indicate, though, is how the finalists have grown into the tournament.

A dismal build-up had led to widespread criticism in Nigeria of the coach, José Peseiro, whose protracted appointment and continued employment despite delays in paying and then a reduction of his salary remain mystifying. But he has created a solid, effective team that has conceded only two goals in the six games so far. He has been at pains to insist the disappointing friendlies were all part of the process. In terms of the pragmatism of their approach, it’s not unlike 2013 when Stephen Keshi ignored a barrage of stylistic criticism to lead Nigeria to their last Cup of Nations; then too, they faced in the final a side they had played in the group stage, Burkina Faso.

But the Cup of Nations is never only about what happens on the pitch. All international football tournaments are, at some level, about soft power. Even the first World Cup in 1930 was in part about Uruguay celebrating the centenary of their independence and their then president, Juan Campisteguy, promoting the batllista legacy that had created an economy and culture capable of staging (and winning) a global event.

Sébastien Haller has been key to the hosts Ivory Coast’s progress despite a faltering start. Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP

Around half of Ivory Coast’s 25 million population lives on less than $1.20 a day. In that context perhaps it’s never possible to justify splurging $1bn (or possibly more, depending whether you believe the official figure) on a month-long football tournament. Exactly how much has been spent on stadiums and on broader infrastructure such as the road to San Pedro or the bridges over the Ebrie Lagoon in Abidjan is impossible to ascertain. But as hundreds of thousands of Ivorians have taken to the streets in celebration, in Yamoussoukro, in Bouaké and in Abidjan, across the whole of what was until recently a country racked by conflict, the Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, may think he has got his money’s worth.

Since Didier Drogba presented his African footballer of the year trophy in the rebel capital of Bouaké in 2007, and then persuaded the national team to play an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier there, football has been intrinsically linked to reconciliation after Ivory Coast’s two civil wars.

As so often in countries divided on social, ethnic and religious grounds, it is the national team that offers the most obvious symbol of togetherness.

So either Nigeria win a fourth Cup of Nations to join Ghana as the joint-third most successful side in the tournament’s history, or Ivory Coast win a third to move level with Nigeria. It’s a proper heavyweight final and yet the story of the tournament has been – once again – of the pyramid growing broader but not necessarily higher; in fact it’s probably less of a pyramid now than a cuboid with a slightly thickened middle.

Nigeria’s Samuel Chukwueze reacts after reaching the Africa Cup of Nations final. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

This is not an Ivory Coast side to match the golden generation – Drogba, the Tourés, Salomon Kalou et al – that narrowly missed out so frequently before its rump finally won the tournament in 2015. And neither is this Nigeria close to the Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh side of the late 90s and early 2000s. That teams as gifted as Senegal, Morocco and Algeria are being eliminated before the quarter-finals, that the last eight was completely different from the last eight in Cameroon, that in their varying ways sides such as Cape Verde, Angola, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea can make such an impression, is a clear positive.

It is heartening too that two former giants could make the semi-finals, even if there are significant and very different reasons to doubt how sustainable their success may be – the financial domination of Mamelodi Sundowns, the team owned by the CAF president Patrice Motsepe in the case of South Africa, and the ongoing domestic conflict in the case of DR Congo.

Judging quality of football is inevitably subjective, but this has probably been the highest level at a Cup of Nations this century, even if the goals have dried up since the end of the group stage.

The pitches have played their part, far better than in Cameroon, allowing for modern passing football, although the surface at Ebimpé, where the final will be played, has been the poorest in the tournament. But, certainly in the group stage, there was a clear sense that coaches were attempting a more progressive, less conservative form of football than is often the case at the Cup of Nations which itself may be a result of the decline in the French journeyman, a necessary step in African football’s post-colonial journey.

Even with two of the familiar powers in the final, there has been a distinct sense in Ivory Coast of progress, in terms of coaching outlook, of infrastructure and of the breadth of teams capable of competing.

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