When it comes to football, Europe, South America, and Africa produce an abundance of talent. Last summer, the best countries in Europe and South America competed in the UEFA Euros and the COPA America, respectively. Countries were able to assemble their best players and fight for the achievement of being the best on their continent. These tournaments are showcases of talent, packed with exciting, tense football. Players are not only fighting for their reputation, but for the honor of their country, and the fans are just as patriotic. Now, it’s time to tackle the same competition, this time in Africa.
The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) usually happens every other year, and the current installment was supposed to happen last summer. However, a covid outbreak across the continent delayed the tournament about half a year. This leaves the competition happening at a very awkward time for many clubs in Europe’s major leagues, with games coming thick and fast. Not only are they missing players for games happening during AFCON, but if a player picks up an injury or test positive for covid, they could be out for longer, missing important Champions League knockouts, Europe’s continental club tournament. It is imperative that clubs field their best players possible for these matches.
The AFCON competition starts with 24 teams. They are randomly drawn to determine six groups of four (labeled A through F). Each team in the group plays each other, meaning each team plays three games. The top two from each group advance to the round of 16, as well as the four highest scoring third place teams. From there, brackets are made (think March Madness), and teams face off until only two remain, who dice it out in a heated final.
With the round of 16 at an end, it’s time to take a look at the tournament so far. The upsets, the drama, and most importantly, the results. We’ll also address the timing controversy around the tournament.
For African countries, The prestige of the AFCON trophy is second to only the FIFA World Cup. African players from all over the world come back to their home country to put on their national colors. It’s a very good opportunity for young and upcoming talents to show what they’ve got to the world. Many scouts from big clubs come, so a standout performance could mean a move to Europe.
On January 9th, the tournament kicked off with an extravagant opening ceremony. It featured singing and dancing that celebrated Cameroonian culture. “The atmosphere was electric and lively, which made it an unforgettable opening ceremony,” said Tosin Abayomi of Pulse Sports. Special guests such as Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, CAF president Dr Patrice Motsepe, and FIFA president Gianni Infantino were in attendance.
Motsepe gave a speech, stating that he hopes to develop football in Africa by working with Europe. He also wants this tournament to also prove to Africa that “CAF can host a successful tournament.”
The opening match was as entertaining as the Ceremony, with the host nation starting their campaign strongly, beating Burkina Faso 2-1. Although Burkina Faso scored the first goal of the tournament thanks to Gustavo Sangare, their defense was sloppy and conceded not one, but two penalties toward the end of the first half; both of which Vincent Aboubakar converted.
Reigning champions Algeria got off to a stagnant start with a goalless draw against Sierra Leone.
Egypt and Nigeria, two other African heavyweights, started their campaigns going head to head. Nigeria was victorious, beating Egypt thanks to a superb strike from Kelechi Iheanacho.
That was the only goal scored, but Shaka Hislop of ESPN claimed, “It could have been so much more. Nigeria showed a lot more than I was expecting.” Many see Egypt as a team dominated by one player, Liverpool forward Mohammed Salah. He’s arguably the best player in the tournament, but can also be an achilles heel for Egypt when the team isn’t playing cohesively.
Despite this, Salah’s strike partner, Sadio Mane, enjoyed a more promising start with Senegal, scoring a 97th minute penalty to clinch a win over Zimbabwe. Colin Udoh claimed that they’re “always dangerous,” even without the full strength of their squad. The team was hit hard by COVID, but should have all of its players back by the end of the group stage.
The group stage ended on January 20th, here’s a look at the results:
Hosts Cameroon topped group A, with two wins and a tie. Burkina Faso finished second, Cape Verde third, and Ethiopia last.
Group B was much closer. Senegal emerged victorious with one win and two ties. Guinea and Malawi finished only a point behind, Guinea took second due to goal difference, and Zimbabwe finished last
Morocco comfortably topped group C. Gabon finished second, Comoros third, Ghana last.
Nigeria dominated group D, winning all three of their games. Egypt bounced back from their loss against Nigeria, and won their remaining two games to finish second. Sudan and Guinea Bissau finished with only a point each and the same goal difference. Sudan took third as they scored a goal more than Guinea Bissau.
Group E was full of surprises. Ivory Coast, who were predicted to struggle, topped the table. Equatorial Guinea were runners up, Sierra Leone finished third. Algeria failed to defend their title and are going home earlier than expected with a draw and two losses.
Group F was close, with Mali winning the group on goal difference, Gambia at their heels in second, Tunisia third, and Mauritania fourth.
For full stats, click this link: https://www.cafonline.com/total-africa-cup-of-nations/standings/
The round of 16 consisted of both nail bitingly close matches, and comfortable wins. Burkina Faso beat Gabon 7-6 on penalties.
Other matches that went to penalties were Equatorial Guinea, emerging victorious over Mali (6-5), and Egypt, who beat Ivory Coast (5-4). The other nations going through are Tunisia, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, and Morocco. Nigeria, Cape Verde, Guinea, Comoros, and Malawi are going home.
This tournament has had an impact on clubs, although it has been far less dramatic than anticipated. Many debate about whether AFCON should have been held, and whether clubs should have let players go to compete. The conversation about which Premier league clubs will be affected is almost a bigger conversation than the Cup of Nations itself. When asked about whether he’d compete for the Ivory Coast, Sebastian Haller responded, “This question shows disrespect for Africa…Would this question ever be asked to a European player ahead of the Euros?” Haller, like many, is frustrated that the footballing world doesn’t see AFCON on the same level as the Euros. They think that African players should put their club before their country, a mindset they might not apply to European players.
With the Quarter finals right around the corner, It’ll be exciting to see what happens. You can catch all the action on beIN sports. On January 29th, Gambia and Cameroon will face off, as well as Burkina Faso and Tunisia. On the 30th, Egypt take on Morocco and Senegal face Equatorial Guinea. If the tournament so far is anything to go by, expect loads of surprises. Who will come out on top is something only time will tell. One thing’s for sure, though: this year’s AFCON has no doubt been worth the extended wait.