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Africa Cup of Nations promises feast of skills

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Africa Cup of Nations promises feast of skills

Algeria's forward Riyad Mahrez (C) receives the trophy from Confederation of African Football (CAF) President Ahmad Ahmad.

The Africa Cup of Nations, postponed for a year, is all set to roll out in January in Cameroon. With a host of top international club players on display, the tournament promises a feast of very high quality soccer and individual skills, says Michael Renouf.

In the summer of 2019, while previewing that year’s biggest African national soccer tournament, the opening line of my article was: 

“It’s finally here – the 2019 Total Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) will kick off on 21 June.” The reason for the delay (the tournament was usually played over January and February) was twofold: a change of host nation from Cameroon to Egypt, and it also had to be moved by a few days due to it clashing with Ramadan.

Who at the time could imagine the 2021 version would be delayed for a whole year? The world is now a very different place thanks to a virus that has affected the entire planet and hand-washing, social distancing, face masks and vaccinations have dominated the news cycle and everyday conversations.

Just as UEFA did with this summer’s Euros –similarly delayed by 12 months – the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has opted to keep the original year in the tournament’s title, so although the 32 finalists will do battle in early 2022, the winners will forever be known as AFCON 2021 champions.

The last event was the first time that 24 sides had contested the finals and the same number will be present this time – the format is “as you were”, with six groups of four. The top two sides in each section will go through to the round of 16 along with the four best third-placed.

At the time of writing, CAF has yet to announce the format of the tournament once the knockout stages roll around, but if it is the same as last time, any tied games will go to extra time and if a winner cannot be found in the additional 30 minutes, then everything will hinge on which team is the best side from 12 yards as the victor and vanquished will be decided by a penalty shoot-out.

Debut for Comoros and Gambia

Among the nations whose fans will be hoping that it is their heroes that will lift the trophy, will be two debutants – two of the continent’s smaller nations by both size and population.

Comoros qualified as runners-up to Egypt in group G, a section they could have won if not for a final-day shellacking by the Pharoahs, who beat them 4-0, with all four strikes coming inside the first 25 minutes ending the game as a contest and giving Egypt the top spot.

If Comoros can get anywhere close to near neighbours Madagascar’s achievement last time out – a run to the quarter-finals – that will be seen as a massive success for the island nation made up of less than a million people.

From the other side of Africa, Gambia have qualified for their first-ever finals by topping group D. The West African nation started their qualifying campaign all the way back in October 2019, when the eight lowest-ranked teams contested the preliminary round to supply four teams to add to the 44 that were automatically placed in the group stages. The Scorpions, as they are known, drew 1-1 home and away with Djibouti before prevailing on spot-kicks.

To put Gambia’s achievements in reaching Cameroon – AFCON’s host this time – into some sort of perspective, the other three teams to come through the preliminary round, Chad, São Tomé and Príncipe and South Sudan, all finished bottom of their qualifying groups, picking up just one victory and one draw from their combined 18 games. So just qualifying is a monumental achievement for the smallest country on the African mainland.

Who will be scoring the goals?

Of the two top goal scorers in qualifying, only one will have the chance to shine in Cameroon. The honours were split between Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen – who has made a wonderful start to the season with Napoli in Italy – and Zambia’s Patson Daka.

While Osimhen’s five goals helped the Super Eagles win Group L at a canter, Patson Daka’s five strikes could only carry Zambia to third in Group H behind reigning champions Algeria and second-placed Zimbabwe.

Daka made a noteworthy start to his career in England, scoring his first Premier League goal against Manchester United before, five days later, netting all four of FA Cup holder Leicester City’s goals in their 4-3 victory against Spartak Moscow in the Europa League.

Although surely disappointed on missing out at representing his country at the AFCON for the first time, this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as it would be a major surprise if fellow Leicester City frontman, Kelechi Iheanacho is not one of seven-time finalists Nigeria’s striking options alongside Osimhen.

This will leave the way clear for Daka to establish himself as one of Leicester’s preferred starters due to Iheanacho’s AFCON commitments – if he has not already done so by that point.

Nigerian striker Kelechi Iheanacho (L) and Zambian striker Patson Daka (R) celebrate after Leicester City beat Spartak Moscow 4-1 in the Europa League. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

Venues and dates

The games will be held over six stadiums in five cities. Garoua is the only city in the north of the country that will host games at the Roumde Adjia Stadium. Further south, Douala, Limbe and Bafoussam will also host games in a single stadium. The city that has the privilege of seeing games played at two stadia is the capital Yaoundé, with Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo and the newly constructed 60,000 capacity Olembe Stadium being utilised.

It is at the latter of these that the hosts will play the tournament’s opening game on 9 January against Burkina Faso, before later that day in the same stadium, Ethiopia face Cape Verde. Proceedings will also come to a close in the same venue with the final due to be contested on 6 February. If those dates are familiar, they are the exact same ones that the competition was due to start and end on originally.

At the time of writing CAF had not announced whether fans would be allowed to attend any, all or some of the games in person.

Better TV coverage

In recent times, the television coverage could have been better but thanks to an agreement between CAF and the African Union of Broadcasters (AUB), this should be the best-ever for armchair fans, especially welcome in the current health climate. The AUB is a collection of free-to-air national broadcasters with an audience in excess of 100m households, spread over 120 major cities across the continent, alongside many rural communities.

Just seven nations have won this competition more than once and six of those sides will be performing in Cameroon – Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, all hoping to add another title.

Egypt, which has won the tournament a record seven times, has surely the continent’s if not the world’s best player on current form, Mo Salah, who has had an outstanding start to the season to date. If he produces anything like this form at the AFCON, Egypt will have an excellent chance of pocketing their first title since 2010. 

Of the countries that have a solitary title in their trophy cabinet, four will be looking to double this number. Ethiopia  which won the competition all the way back in 1962; Sudan, whose only title came in 1970; Morocco, champions in 1976; and the side that has had the most recent success of the quartet, in 2004, Tunisia.

The North African pair join the hosts, defending champions Algeria and 2019 runners-up Senegal and Nigeria as the six seeded sides, all of whom will be expected to make it through to the knockout stages.

To give you an idea of the quality that will be on display, up to 40 players from the English Premier League could be partaking in events in Cameroon.

Who will lift the trophy? There are several contenders but Senegal has a fearsome squad including the likes of Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, who will captain the side, Idrissa Gueye, currently playing for PSG in France and Liverpool’s Sadio Mané.

But really, all bets are off. The competition will be fierce – a lot of national pride is at stake and the only guarantee is that AFCON will provide a feast of quality football.

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