AFCON 2021: Preview of the forgotten tournament that should be loved
The African Cup of Nations may have been delayed twice, the first time due to the pandemic, then due to the weather in the summer, but it certainly has not lost of its prestige. One year late on its original date, the continental competition is here to prove to the world this isn’t a ‘small tournament’. While the Euros is held in its highest esteem, and the Copa America is capable of gifting Messi yet another Ballon D’Or, AFCON has unfortunately suffered from the general football community’s lack of knowledge. Belittled, reduced to not much more than an annoyance to European clubs, this competition has a reputation far from the standards actually showcased on the pitch.
Now yes, the club level in Africa might not be of the standards of European football. However, as most players in this competition play in your favourite clubs on the Old Continent, this argument isn’t as valid for international level. Drogba’s Ivory Coast, Gyan’s Ghana and Eto’o’s Cameroun have not only made a big impact on their continental competition, they also played major roles in World Cups. With star players such as Salah, Mané and Mahrez all making their way to this year’s edition of AFCON, it would be a shame to miss out on the fun. Now here’s a guide to what to expect from the competition, the best players and some of the best teams to look out for this month.
Unlike most maps we see, Africa is in reality far bigger than we actually commonly believe in Europe. With 11.7 million square miles of land mass, Africa is not only three times larger than Europe, it also combines 20% of the world’s land mass. It can take in the USA, India and China all together, while still having space for me. There is nothing of a ‘little tournament’ here. With some of the highest grossing economies in the world, notably Nigeria, the future resides in Africa. Colonialism, mass exploitation of lands, people and their raw materials has led to this ginormous continent to being overlooked in most debates. Including in football.
However, if you look close to home, the Premier League’s best players have not always been local English players, or even Spanish. No, some of the best players, especially these days, are African. Jay-Jay Okocha and Kanu led the way, Drogba and Essien followed. These days, the three wingers cited earlier are accompanied by the likes of Edouard Mendy, Bissouma, Zaha or Ndidi. Crucial players of the English top flight. So, before we dive into the key players and teams, let’s say a word about the competition itself.
Organised this year in Cameroun, AFCON was founded in 1957, therefore celebrating its 65th anniversary. It is usually played in January due to the weather, as a lot of countries go through rain season during our European Summer. With the lack of infrastructures in most countries, the pitches would be completely flooded and impossible to play on if that were the case. Egypt is the best team in this competition, with 7 titles, while Algeria won the last edition in 2019. Unlike the Euros, AFCON is not only played on odd number years, but is played every two years. Now, in a time when FIFA want to make the World Cup every two years, and the main argument against it would be the loss of prestige, this is certainly an argument for AFCON. However, this never takes away from the spectacle and quite often the surprises. With Zambia wining the 2012 edition and very small Gambia qualifying for the first time to the competition this year, there are no easy routes to the victory. Didier Drogba for example never won it, although the generation of players who played with him for Ivory Coast won it in 2015, after his international retirement. This makes the competition even more exciting.
What to expect from the tournament?
Like the Euros, the African equivalent has also opted for 24 nations involved in the tournament. With 54 countries in the continent, and most involved in qualifiers, this gives small nations a 1 in 2 chance of qualifying, making this a huge celebration for every population in Africa. And just like the Dutch fans during Euro 2016, in which the national team did not compete in, most African fans will watch the competition even if their nation is not involved. This will most likely be the case in South Africa, a very big rugby nation but where the likes of Tshabalala made an international name for himself with his superb opener in his country’s home World Cup in 2010. A continental party which should unite fans all around Africa in front of their screens. Something harder to achieve in a time when civil war is still extremely present throughout the continent.
With 24 nations, comes the same set of (slightly weird) rules as the Euros. 6 groups of 4, the top two seeds qualify, while the four best third placed teams join them in the last 16. This gives outsiders a chance to go far in the competition, like Ukraine this summer, or a team like Burkina Faso, finalists of the 2013 edition, which they lost to Nigeria. When it comes to the players, you can truly expect everything and anything. Many argue that this is not necessarily a tournament for the youngsters, so you might not see many stories like Pedri with Spain this summer. Here, experience seems to be the best way to go, over youth and more often than not, slick passing football.
It is not always the team that plays the best football that wins, certainly not in this competition. While pitches are improving throughout the continent, it seems route one football can still be as effective, using experienced strikers to bag the goals up front. Someone like Ighalo can vouch for that, with his six goals in the 2019 edition. Experience however means that for the common football European fan, he/she will recognise a good part of the squad. While you might not see the next big star to come out of African football in this tournament, you will witness the likes of Yaya Touré, Adebayor or Iwobi fighting it out on the pitch. This is often how European fans will choose which team to support, with their favourite club player involved in one of the national squads. It will be no surprise to you to see that the love given by the Egyptian population to Liverpool, is given back by supporters of the Reds.
This does come with the caveat that many supporters (and clubs) do not want their players to go far into the tournament, enabling them to come back sooner to play club football. Not only are clubs not particularly willing to let go of their players midway through the season, they are often hoping they come back as soon as possible. Clubs even strongly suggest, or stop entirely, players going on international duty, in order to keep them for the season. Something which particularly annoys the likes of Eto’o, Cameroun’s federation president, and Ian Wright, who believe the tournament should be respected a lot more. Ultimately, the players that are at the tournament, will certainly be looking at doing their absolute best to become the new King of Africa.
The key players
Every nation has a few names that are famous back home, but not all have made their way to top European sides just yet. For the average football fan, only a few names will stand out. We want to go further than that. While the youth players might have a limited time on the pitch, there are certainly some young players with a little more experience who should get a lot of playing time this time around. This should be the case of Guinea’s midfielder Aguibou Camara (Olympiakos), Nigeria’s goalkeeper Maduka Okoye (Sparta Rotterdam) or Malian midfielder Amadou Haidarz (RB Leipzig). These, amongst many others, will want to continue their club form on the international stage to carry their nations far into the competition. All three players are involved with sides that might be considered as outsiders, who will definitely cause problems to bigger nations and could create a surprise with a run deep into the competition.
On the other hand, you will see that two leagues are represented very widely from Europe in this competition. First of all, like at every AFCON, the French Ligue 1 has sent many players, 54 this time, with Metz single handily sending 7 players to compete. Some names should be familiar to the British audience such as ex-Southampton winger Sofyan Boufal (Angers, Marocco), new Spurs signing Pape Matar Sarr (Metz, Senegal), ex-Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye (PSG, Senegal) or ex-Dortmund wing back, Achraf Hakimi (PSG, Morocco). Many of these players follow the long history of African players involved in the French first division, including some with dual French nationality, a constant debate on the other side of the English Channel.
Talking of which, the Premier League will be sending 40 players to the African Cup of Nations. Arsenal (5 players), Leicester (4 players) and Watford (4 players) are the teams sending most players, but the loss of Naby Keita, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah seems to make Liverpool the team most affected by this competition. Just like with COVID affected players, sides will have to adapt to their new squads in this new year. It will challenge managers to change their plans. Graham Potter (Brighton), Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea) and Sean Dyche (Burnley) are themselves losing three key players, with Bissouma, Mendy and Cornet playing key parts in their national team’s hopes for this year’s AFCON. Nonetheless, they will be accompanied by the likes of Zaha, Iheanacho and Benrahma in this competition, showing just how important these players are to Premier League sides, but also how strong the squads are going into this elite continental competition.
There are, as usual some outsiders, some of which we have discussed. The likes of Morocco, Ghana or Ivory Coast have a long history with this competition, and have very strong squads, although somewhat ageing. They are however far behind the elite three teams in this competition, but they will certainly not be any pushovers, particularly with the likes of Haller on top form for Ajax and Ivory Coast. Meanwhile, Mali, Guinea and Burkina are the real underdog stories of this story, with some special sets of players involved in each squad.
As Gambia make their debut in the competition, we can look at long standing giants that are Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria. All three teams seem to be far too dependent on certain individualities, with the likes of Salah, Khazri and Ndidi stealing the show. While Nigeria has a large selection of talented players, the instability of the squad due to injuries and the change of managers could unsettled them. Tunisia have not been on top of their game for many years, but Egypt could go far if opposition teams truly struggle to contain Salah, arguably the best player in the world at the moment. They could unfortunately suffer of the Messi/Argentina syndrome, as they are far too dependent on him being efficient in order to carry the team.
These next three teams however are clear of anyone else in this competition and should be expected to win the tournament. The hosts Cameroun will rely on Toko-Ekambi and Aboubakar up front, with Zambo Anguissa controlling midfield and Onana keeping his goal protected. The home advantage should make up for the less experienced squad around these four players. Second favourites are Senegal, who arguably have the best squad, constituted of many Premier League names. Mané leading the attack with Ismaila Sarr, while Kouyaté and Gueye will control the centre of the pitch. At the back, Abdou Diallo, Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy make up a very solid defence. They failed at the last hurdle last time around, losing to this year’s favourites Algeria.
The latter have been unbeaten in 33 games, with their last defeat three years ago. In that time, they won the African Cup of Nations 2019, the Arab Cup 2021 and have generally impressed not only the continent, but the world. Africa truly hopes they can not only qualify for the World Cup this year, but go further than any other African nations has ever been. With Algerian born Djamel Belmadi, the team is cruising through every challenge. A solid defence, made up of ex or current Ligue 1 players (Mandi, Bensebaini, Atal, Benlamri), the defensive cover of the brilliant Bennacer (AC Milan) and the attacking threat posed by Feghouli, Benrahma, Belaïli and Mahrez. Star and captain of this team, the Manchester City winger will guide his team to the heights of his continent. They are the team to watch out for undoubtedly. Funnily enough, unlike 2019, Senegal and Algeria cannot face each other in the final. They could meet however in the quarter finals, leaving space for other teams to get to the final.
Expect some chaos, some skill, some hard defending but ultimately some passion. With all the controversies around this tournament, but also an increased access to games online, you can be sure a lot of eyes will be on this tournament. Players and managers are aware of this; it is their time to shine. For young players looking for a step up, there is no better place to showcase your skill. For elite players, this is the place to tell the world how great you are and guide your country to victory. And for players maybe playing their last AFCON such as Kouyaté or Gueye, this would be an ideal way to bow out of international duty, with a first title for their country. Expected the unexpected, keep an eye out for some underdog stories and talented unknown players, some might be joining your clubs very soon. As African start making their mark again on top European divisions, their stories start with these kinds of tournaments. Time for Africa to shine.