In the end it finished as it began, with the Pharaohs of Egypt on top of the African world. But what a journey it was. As the dust settles on proceedings in Ghana, the 26th Cup of Nations is quite rightly being hailed as one of the best editions of a tournament that, in its own way, is more watchable than any World Cup or European Championship.
Sure, there were problems. Didier Drogba claimed the Confederation of African Football showed players a 'lack of respect' and it is true that, at times, playing surfaces and training facilities were not up to the standard of the modern-day millionaire footballer.
Meanwhile, hotel and travel issues also affected a number of teams including the eventual champions, whose plane was commandeered by Cameroon - a small victory for the Indomitable Lions against their tournament conquerors.
The organisers will have a sleepless night or two over the subject of match-fixing, which reared its ugly head, as well as the failure to find a way to fill stadia and the shabby way that media accreditation was handled - a chaotic process that led to fist fights among the press corps.
However, in spite of all that may have been negative, this was a tournament to be celebrated. A goal tally of 99 from 32 games is indicative of a general commitment to attack while just three sendings off meant that games were invariably decided by two evenly-numbered sides that were given licence to play by coaches and referees alike.
The bulk of the praise has to go to the players, though. As African football continues to develop, fans are more and more aware of the names they are watching; but the fact remains that, for many of the participants, the Cup of Nations is a chance to shape a lucrative career. Thus, there is little time-wasting or play-acting or complaining. Put simply, every moment a player spends in possession is an opportunity to dazzle the hordes of scouts that attend this tournament.
To retain their crown, Egypt swept through the field with a total team display that combined outstanding defensive discipline with thrilling counter-attacking play, which made them fully deserving of their place alongside Ghana and Cameroon in the elite group of nations that have successfully defended their Cup of Nations title.
Hassan Shehata's side wrote the first major story of the tournament when Mohamed Zidan inspired a 4-2 victory over Cameroon. When the two sides met again less than three weeks later, the Hamburg striker was again a key player in victory, although this was far from a one-man Egyptian side.
Indeed, a nagging injury meant that, until he robbed Rigobert Song in the final's 77th minute, Zidan had been a limited participant since his opening game heroics. However, led by Essam Al-Hadary in goal, player of the tournament, Hosny Abd Rabou and the final match-winner, Mohamed Aboutriaka, in midfield, and Amr Zaki up front, the Pharaohs' squad displayed cohesion and team spirit in abundance.
To beat Cameroon, Egypt adopted the same simple plan that had served them so well throughout the tournament - score the first goal and then close the game out. The Indomitable Lions ultimately had no answer but that Otto Pfister's side were even in the final was a tribute to the most impressive resurrection seen by a single team at this year's Cup of Nations.
In recent years, there has been a changing of the guard at the top in African football and the trend continued in Ghana. Poor showings by Senegal and Nigeria led to early eliminations for both countries and Cameroon looked set to become the third powerhouse to exit prematurely. However, inspired by a combination of proven veterans and impressive youngsters, Pfister's side once again proved to be worthy of its nickname.
Samuel Eto'o was the main inspiration in the group stages, scoring five times to not only secure the tournament's top scorer award, but also to eclipse Laurent Pokou's all-time Cup of Nations goals mark. The Barcelona striker would fail to find the net again but Cameroon did not suffer (until the final) as the likes of Geremi and Stephane Mbia picked up the attacking mantle.
A Cameroon-Egypt final was not a complete surprise to many, but there is no doubt that the popular prediction for the combatants in game 32 was Ghana versus Ivory Coast. The host nation were expected to be carried by a wave of patriotic home support as well as a dominating midfield, while the Elephants were seen to have the deepest and most talented squad on the continent. Pre-tournament forecasts, however, failed to transpire.
Individual brilliance from Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien, allied with the honest endeavour of Junior Agogo and Anthony Annan, carried Ghana to the last four, but when something different was needed the Black Stars came up short. Injuries and suspension necessitated team and formation alterations that the top-heavy Ghanaian squad could not handle and Cameroon, behind a masterful tactical plan, took full advantage.
For the Ivory Coast, perhaps things started too well. Averaging over three goals a game, the Elephants entered their semi-final with Egypt as hot favourites. However, when the chips were down, Gerard Gili's side had no response. The Pharaohs were the first side in the tournament to lead Ivory Coast and, in truth, ultimately eased to victory. Eight goals conceded in their final two games highlighted a deficiency in defence that the Elephants' potent attack had previously covered up.
Beyond the main headline makers, Ghana 2008 gave rise to a number of new stories that will attract much attention in the next two years prior to the next Cup of Nations which, of course, will take place in the same year as the World Cup in South Africa.
Talking of the rainbow nation, the disappointing display of Bafana Bafana over the past month gives some cause for concern. A feature of recent World Cups has been a strong showing from host countries but a return of two points from three games in one of the weaker groups at the Cup of Nations shows how much work Carlos Alberto Parreira has ahead of him.
Finishing above South Africa in Group D were Angola, who showed the progress they have made since appearing at their first World Cup in Germany. Advancing out of the group stages for the first time at a major tournament, the Black Antelopes played with refreshing freedom and in Manucho have a striker who has the skills needed to make an impact on the world game.
Guinea also served notice of their development, though their 5-0 mauling at the hands of Ivory Coast in the last eight indicated that there is still work to be done. Further down the pecking order, Zambia showed promise while Namibia were the best of the rank outsiders. Only Sudan were consistently shown to be out of their depth.
Inevitable in the coming months is more movement of the best young African players to European clubs, meaning that the next Cup of Nations, which will be held in Angola, is certain to be preceded by more club versus country rows. The months preceding the 2010 tournament will be very interesting in general, with Africa's nations meeting in qualifying as the continent as a whole prepares to meet its next big challenge.
The next Cup of Nations takes place less than six months before the World Cup and history suggests the omens are good for a strong showing by the host continent in South Africa. With the exception of Brazil, no country has ever won a World Cup outside their own continent. On their day, any of this year's Cup of Nations semi-finalists could beat the best from Africa and beyond.
However, don't get carried away just yet. As this tournament showed, predictions rarely play out exactly as they are intended. Progress has been made, but there is still work to be done on and off the fields of Africa. For now, let's accentuate the positives and leave the negative for another day. If this is what African football springs up every other January, long live the Cup of Nations.