AFCON 2021: Watch Senegal, Nigeria and Egypt… and others

CONSIDERING the continent of Africa comprises more than 50 countries and is home to 1.3 billion people, the attitude shown by some football folk towards the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) has been less than appropriate. The impression one gains from some of the comments is this competition is very “inconvenient” for some clubs and their managers.

It is simply wrong to dismiss a tournament that ranks alongside the Euros and Copa America in terms of regional importance. Pundits have hit back, claiming the negative media coverage has been “disrespectful” and “tinged with racism”. If confederations keep expanding and loading-up the fixture list, the noise around too many games and bad timing will surely continue well beyond 2022. However, if a club from England signs African players, this is a consequence they have to live with. There is a price to pay for globalisation.

This year’s AFCON, delayed from 2021, could be one of the best yet. There are more than half a dozen contenders and there’s scope for a surprise challenger or two. Some of the world’s best players are from African countries, for example, the Liverpool duo, Mo Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mané (Senegal) are now two of the most coveted strikers in Europe.

Algeria are the holders and a lot of smart money will be placed on them retaining the title, but do they rely too much on Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City? They also have in their ranks one of the most promising players in Saïd Bennacer of AC Milan, a defensive midfielder who is tenacious, energetic and versatile. He was voted player of AFCON 2019.

Senegal are highly fancied, and rightly so given 23 members of their squad play across the top five leagues in Europe, including 10 in Ligue 1 and six in the  Premier League. They have never won the Africa Cup of Nations, but they surely have the resources to do it this time. As well as Mané, they have Chelsea keeper Édouard Mendy, possibly the world’s number one, and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly in their squad.

Morocco have, rather surprisingly, only been champions once, in 1976. Their skipper, 31 year-old Romain Saïss, who plays for Wolverhampton Wanderers, will be one to watch. Morocco, in 2020, won the African Nations Championship, which features players from domestic football. Only two of the AFCON squad currently play for Moroccan clubs.

Any team with Mo Salah as captain and principal striker has to be taken seriously, and Egypt, winners seven times, will have a big advantage with the Liverpool front man in their side. Egypt are the dominant force in African club football, with Cairo-based Al-Ahly winning the CAF Champions League in four times in the last 10 years, including 2020 and 2021.

Nigeria also have a possible star in the making at the tournament in the form of Chidera Ejuke, a very fleet-footed winger who plays for CSKA Moscow. Nigeria also have Leicester City’s  Kelechi Iheanacho and will look to him for goals.

As for Cameroon, they are far off their golden days, but the local fans still have high expectations of Toni Conceicao’s team. “We feel people are more demanding because of our history and what we’ve accomplished in the past. I hope to win because if we don’t reach the objective of at least reaching the final, it’s going to be a difficult journey,” said the coach.

There have long been concerns about Cameroon as hosts, most recently because only 2.4% of the population have been fully vaccinated against covid-19. Cameroon has officially recorded 1,840 deaths from 110,000 infections, though there is some doubt these figures are accurate for a nation with 27 million people. Already some teams have been affected by outbreaks of the virus so precautions have been implemented, with most games limited to 60% of capacity and Cameroon’s games limited to 80%.

There are also security worries as in the south-west region, where unrest is rife and separatist gunmen are a constant threat. Only last week, a bomb exploded in a Limbe takeaway food outlet. The troubled area is some 250 kilometres west of the capital, Yaounde. Over the past year, around 3,000 people have been killed by militants. There have been threats of possible violence at AFCON and even the official mascot had to wear a bullet-proof vest when embarking on a recent publicity tour. The government insists that safety will be guaranteed.

President Paul Biye, who won a seventh term in office in 2018, often uses football to enhance his image. He currently runs a country that has a 40% poverty rate with a third of the population living on two euros a day. There have been protests about the “indecency” of staging the AFCON against this backdrop. Cameroon has built or renovated around 30 stadiums and training pitches in preparation. In his New Year speech, Biya called on Cameroonians to “make AFCON the most beautiful football jamboree ever organised in our continent”.

Cameroon kick-off AFCON 2021 on January 9 against Burkina Faso.

Kick-off in Africa – watch out for Senegal and Algeria

acnIt seems like only yesterday that the last African Cup of Nations last took place, but it’s back and the big challenge will be to get people to take notice, although with so many players missing now from English, Spanish and French football, fans cannot help notice that something else is going on in the world.

The last series, in 2013, was an uninspiring competition, with Nigeria coming out on top. But the old stereotype of African football epitomizing gay abandon is a thing of the past – in South Africa, the average goals per game was down to 2.18, the lowest since 2002. Crowds were healthy, however, with 85,000 watching the final and a tournament average of almost 23,000.

Nigeria will be missing from this year’s party, they finished third in their qualifying group behind South Africa and Congo. Morocco won’t be there, either. The would-be hosts pulled out over fears of Ebola. So Equatorial Guinea, who co-hosted the 2012 finals with Gabon, stepped in and won themselves many friends in Africa. Interestingly, back in July, Equatorial Guinea had been disqualified after fielding an ineligible player against Mauritia. At odds of 28-1, it is unlikely that the host nation will feature in the final on February 8.

Who will then? Favourites this year are Ivory Coast, Senegal and Algeria. The Ivorians are invariably named among the “nations most likely to”, but with Didier Drogba retired, have they got the firepower? Manchester City new boy Wilfried Bony and Roma’s Gervinho can fill the gap left by the Chelsea legend and of course, they do have African Player of the Year, Yaya Toure.

In the era of top players like Drogba and the Toures, Ivory Coast have always fallen short in the African Cup of Nations. They’ve been runners-up twice, quarter-finalists twice and fourth place once in the past five competitions. It would be ironic if, in the first post-Drogba series, they returned home as champions!

A lot of money is being placed on Senegal, who have never won the African Cup of Nations. They’re in a tough group – Algeria (9-2), Ghana (8-1) and South Africa (18-1) and without Southampton’s Sadio Mane, they will not be as formidable as they were a couple of weeks ago. Mane was injured on New Year’s Day when Southampton beat Arsenal 2-0 and it was widely reported that he would be sidelined for up to six weeks. But Senegal coach Alain Giresse (what a player he was…) has taken a gamble by including him in his squad, hoping he may be able to play a part. Papiss Cisse, when he’s in the mood, can be a world-beater, but at the same time, he can frustrate. Much will depend on how he performs.

Senegal and Algeria will probably battle out the group and at the moment, Algerian football is on a high after their displays in the World Cup. They were recently named African Team of the Year for 2014. They followed their impressive Brazil 2014 with a barn-storming qualification programme, winning five of their six games against Mali, Malawi and Ethiopia. All eyes will be on Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, who impressed in Brazil and moved from Granada after being named La Liga’s best African player in 2013-14.

Ghana cannot be discounted and have a good track record to back-up their claim. Avram Grant is their manager and will be under enormous pressure to succeed after Ghana’s disappointing World Cup. The Black Stars are one of the most consistent nations in the competition, having won the trophy on four occasions, the last in 1982. They’ve finished in the first four in all of the last four finals. They may not have the likes of Michael Essien or a Tony Yeboah or Abedi Pele, but they will be expected to feature in the latter stages.

Where else could we see a winner? Tunisia may be a contender, but like North African neighbours Algeria, they may not find the climate of Equatorial Guinea to their liking. Almost half of Tunisia’s squad is drawn from domestic clubs like Espercance, Africain and Etoile du Sahel, a stark contrast to some of the nations participating.

It all kicks off on January 17 with the hosts playing Congo. Equatorial Guinea have a FIFA ranking of 120. Don’t expect too much of them – look towards Ivory Coast, Algeria and Senegal for a likely winner.

FIFA Rankings of the 16 nations:
18 – Algeria; 22 – Tunisia; 28 – Ivory Coast; 35 – Senegal; 37 – Ghana; 39 – Guinea; 40 – Cape Verde; 42 – Cameroon; 49 – Mali; 50 – Zambia; 52 – South Africa; 57 – Congo DR; 61 – Congo; 62 – Gabon; 64 – Burkina Faso; 118 – Equatorial Guinea