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Brilliant Banyana, flightless Falcons, and other WAFCON talking points

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Kirby hoping to end England's final drought (1:20)

Fran Kirby hopes England can snap their three-game losing streak in major semifinals when they face Sweden. (1:20)

The Women's Africa Cup of Nations [WAFCON] concluded this weekend as South Africa dispatched hosts Morocco in a gripping final to clinch their first ever continental crown, a result that may well hint at the future direction of women's football in Africa.

Additionally, with Nigeria failing to medal after losing to Zambia in the third-place playoff, the decline of the Super Falcons will worry fans of the content's most successful team.

Here are the key talking points from a fascinating tournament, celebrating the key performers and highlighting some of the major takeaways from the last three weeks.

Nigeria's worst tournament ever?

While many of the sides competing at the WAFCON boosted their reputations at the tournament, the same cannot be said for Nigeria's Super Falcons -- the undisputed dominant side in the competition's history to date.

The West Africans had won nine of the previous 11 tournaments -- stretching back to 1998 -- and had lost just four of their 62 previous WAFCON matches.

In 2022, they lost two matches outright -- against South Africa and Zambia -- and were defeated on penalties in a third (against Morocco in the semifinal), with their fourth-placed finish representing their joint-worst ever performance in a Nations Cup.

Of course, the loss of Asisat Oshoala -- now record five-time CAF Women's Footballer of the Year -- hurt them, but they weren't the only top contender to have lost their star player during the early stages of the tournament.

While South Africa and Morocco were breaking new ground, winning admirers with their unified and tactically refined approach, Nigeria were again staging a boycott over the non-payment of bonuses and allowances ahead of their third-placed playoff.

Unfortunately, Nigeria are making unwanted headlines while the other teams take strides, and only time will tell whether this tournament is a barometer for a permanent changing of the guard at the pinnacle of the African game.

NFF boss Amaju Pinnick may also have to decide whether American coach Randy Waldrum -- whose limited elite-level coaching experience was arguably evident at the tournament -- is the right man to help the Falcons pick themselves up off the ground.

Taking aim at the Nigerian media during the competition was ill-advised - and will not be forgotten in a hurry - while the side's implosion against Morocco, where two players were dismissed, doesn't reflect well on the team's management either.

The onus is now on the Super Falcons to rebuild after this miserable display, and to reassert themselves once again as Africa's top dogs.

Banyana are longer second best

No team in either the women or the men's game in Africa had reached more senior continental finals without ever winning the Nations Cup than South Africa's women, who had reached five previous finals without clinching gold.

They were defeated by Nigeria in three of those previous finals -- including at the last edition in 2018 -- so it was particularly valuable for Desiree Ellis's side to have dispatched the Falcons in their opening group stage game to get the hoodoo off their back before progressing.

Their Buhari Cup thumping of Waldrum's side in September was also an indication that South Africa were no longer willing to play the role of WAFCON bridesmaids, and they realised that promise in Morocco.

This was a victory of long-term planning; of domestic development right from the South Africa University Women's League, to the domestic top flight broadcast on SABC, from Mamelodi Sundowns' dominance in the CAF Champions League, to the steadfast commitment in Ellis.

The three-time -- and only -- African Women's Coach of the Year, the respected tactician has experienced more than her fair share of WAFCON heartbreak in recent decades, having been a defeated finalist as a player and coach.

However, Ellis deserves all the plaudits coming her way for overseeing significant development for this squad, for cultivating various effective styles of play, and for fostering an excellent team spirit.

South Africa's defensive organisation was the best in the tournament -- they hadn't conceded for five and a half hours before Rosella Ayane's consolation goal in the final -- and they effectively found other methods of beating teams after Thembi Kgatlana had been ruled out.

Obviously, having talent like Jermaine Seoposenwe and Linda Motlhalo helped, but Ellis's effective use of her options, and her game management -- look how Banyana neutralised Morocco during the late onslaught in the final -- made her a worthy African champion.

If the Super Falcons are on the wane, then Banyana appear best placed to replace them -- on a longer-term basis -- as the continent's dominant force.

New faces replace the big names

As well as the aforementioned injury-enforced departures of Oshoala and Kgatlana, another potential Player of the Tournament, Barbra Banda, was ruled out after her testosterone levels were found to be above CAF's 'limit'.

Without three of the would-be star performers -- this trio were the most hotly anticipated performers in the competition -- new stars emerged, demonstrating the wealth of talent that exists within African women's soccer.

Without Oshoala, Uchenna Kanu and Rasheedat Ajibade ensured the Falcons packed a punch going forward -- at least until it mattered most -- while the aforementioned Motlhalo and Seoposenwe were supported by a magnificent cast with Banyana, from the key contributions of Goalkeeper of the Tournament Andile Dlamini to Hildah Magaia's goals in the victory over Nigeria and the final.

Magaia might have rivalled Morocco's Ghizlane Chebbak for Player of the Tournament considering she overcame COVID-19 mid-competition to net both goals in the final.

For the hosts, Ayane, Sanaa Mssoudy and the outstanding Fatima Tagnaout -- aged 26, 22 and 23 respectively -- have their best years ahead of them and should make the Atlas Lionesses a force for the coming WAFCON cycles.

Considering their performance on home soil, the passion from local fans, the investment in the women's game -- Morocco boasts two professional levels of women's football as well as developed regional leagues -- the North Africans will fancy their chances of making an impact at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

The likes of Refilwe Tholakele and Nguenar Ndiaye also caught the eye before Botswana and Senegal's eliminations, while Zambia's collective performances after Banda's departure were critical in securing them a berth at the World Cup.

Zambia: The success story of the WAFCON?

For Zambia, a case could surely be made that even though they fell short in the semifinal, they were the outstanding success story of the Nations Cup.

Even though Banda's back-to-back hat-tricks at the Olympics in Japan last year made global headlines and ensured for her a place in the history books, Zambia were criticised, even ridiculed, for their defensive failings.

Of course, no one wants to concede 10 goals in a match at a major tournament - but that's exactly what Zambia did as they were bludgeoned 10-3 by the Netherlands in Rifu on July 21, 2021.

One year and one day on from that defeat, they were dispatching Nigeria 1-0 in Casablanca to win the bronze medal -- comfortably their best ever performance at the Nations Cup -- and completing a remarkable turnaround.

For context, Zambia hadn't previously reached the knockouts since 1995, yet after negotiating a tough group stage as winners ahead of Cameroon (conceding just one goal) they saw off Senegal on penalties in the quarters before succumbing to a 94th-minute penalty against Banyana in the semi.

And even that was controversial, with the Zambian Federation demanding a replay after being incensed by referee Lidya Tafesse Abede's decision to award a penalty following a VAR consultation. Replays raised questions about whether a foul had been committed at all and whether the action was even inside the box.

Nonetheless, theirs was a magnificent tournament, from Grace Chanda stepping into Banda's shoes to the defensive resiliency 12 months on from the Olympic thumping -- and imagine what might have been had their star striker been permitted to play.

Zambia had never before won a WAFCON knockout game before much-maligned goalkeeper Hazel Nali netted the decisive penalty in their quarterfinal victory against Senegal... Now they are World Cup-bound.

CAF's commitment to the women's game assessed

When Dr Patrice Motsepe was elected to the CAF Presidency in March 2021, one of his key pledges was to oversee the development of the women's game in Africa. Now, 16 months on, there's clear evidence of the increased prominence of the women's game.

Comoros' Kanizat Ibrahim has become the first female Vice President of CAF in the organisation's history, while WAFCON final referee Salima Mukansanga became the first woman to officiate a match at the men's AFCON and is now heading to the World Cup in Qatar.

Just over six months after Motsepe's election, the inaugural Women's Champions League was held -- won by the president's own club Mamelodi Sundowns -- and CAF also announced a 150-percent increase in WAFCON prize money ahead of this year's tournament.

The capacity crowds for Morocco's matches demonstrated an increased interest in the hosts' march to the final, even if fixtures involving other teams still led to empty stadiums, while CAF issued a press release ahead of the final in which they announced 30 African free-to-air broadcasters would be carrying the match.

There's still work to be done; it's disappointing that refereeing controversies still overshadowed some of the latter stages, while the decision to cancel the 2020 edition still sticks in the craw.

CAF's handling of the women's awards at Thursday's gala was also muddled, with the organising body announcing on Wednesday they wouldn't award the Women's Player of the Year prize until Saturday, only to hand Oshoala her prize at the event.

Nonetheless, the first 18 months of Motsepe's presidency demonstrates clear and tangible investment in, focus on and reward from women's football in Africa.

But this is just the beginning, and we can certainly expect there to be an increase to 16 teams for the next WAFCON in 2024.