Afcon offers a chance to shine bright

Fifa, world football’s overlord, has voted to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 as of the 2026 showpiece in an effort to create a truly global event. As president Gianni Infantino said: “We have to shape the World Cup of the 21st century. Football isn’t just Europe and South America. It’s global.”

There has been scathing criticism of this expansion, primarily from Western media. They see this as just another scheme by Fifa bigwigs whose main ambition is to grow their bank accounts. Critics have also argued that more teams from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean in particular will dilute the competition and result in dull matches contested by mediocre sides.

As the 31st African Cup of Nations dawns on Gabon on Saturday, many of the nations deemed unworthy of a place on the world’s largest stage have a chance to prove the sceptics wrong.

By the time 2026 rolls around, African participation at the World Cup will grow from five teams to nine — more than half of the 16 that will duke it out in the biannual continental extravaganza.

In this tumultuous and polarising climate, this tournament provides the perfect opportunity for Africa’s best to shine and maybe even grab a piece of silverware in the process.

The title contenders

With a glut of attacking stars, including the BBC’s African Player of the Year for 2016, Riyad Mahrez, Algeria will fancy their chances of adding to their solitary triumph back in 1990. Despite being drawn in the Group of Death alongside Tunisia, Senegal and Zimbabwe, the Desert Foxes appear, on paper at least, the team best equipped to emerge victorious.

They haven’t made life easy for themselves, however, appointing three coaches in the past year. But if they can put aside their off-field problems and keep their cool during tense moments (not a guarantee for the North Africans) they should progress to at least the last four.

Defending champions Côte d’Ivoire are without many of the golden generation that finally came good two years ago to lift the trophy in Equatorial Guinea but are still a formidable force. Without the likes of Yaya Touré and Gervinho, the Elephants will lean heavily on the physical strengths of Wilfred Bony and Eric Baily at either end of the pitch as well as the speed and guile of Wilfried Zaha out wide.

The Crystal Palace winger will be eager to impress after declaring his allegiance to the country of his birth over England, his home for the past 20 years and the nation he has twice represented.

Dark horses

Home advantage always provides an extra spring in the step and the hosts will need all the help they can get if they wish to give their countrymen something to cheer. Gabon is the lowest-ranked team heading into the tournament but has already shown that they are very different prospect on home soil. When they played co-host in 2012, their boisterous fans drove them to the knockout stage of the competition for only the second time in their history.

They also possess one of the most electric strikers in world football. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may have caused controversy when lost luggage forced him to wear casual clothes at the African Player of the Year Awards last week, but the Borussia Dortmund speedster will be all business come kick-off. If the service is good and the defence behind him can hold firm, there may just be a home fairy tale in the making.

After failing to qualify for three successive editions of the Cup, the Pharaohs of Egypt make a welcome return to a competition they used to own by right. As the most successful African nation with seven titles, Egypt will be desperate to relegate that hat-trick of failures to the scrapheap of history.

They come into this tournament with confidence after beating their North African rivals, Tunisia, for the first time since 2002. A last-gasp strike from Al-Ahly striker Marwan Mohsen was enough in a 1-0 victory.

Egypt topped their qualifying group without losing a game and recently beat their main rivals in Group D, Ghana, 2-0 in a World Cup qualifying match. Led by Roma’s Mohamed Salah and anchored by Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, a return to the glory days may not be far off.

Players to watch

This competition is blessed with players who have the ability to receive the ball from deep, turn on the afterburners and run at terrified defences in order to create space for themselves or teammates. Mahrez, Aubameyang and Zaha will no doubt light up Gabon but could all be consigned to the shade cast by Senegal’s Sadio Mané.

Since becoming Africa’s most expensive player in history when he joined Liverpool for $41.3-million (R569.6-million) in June, the 24-year-old has shown he’s worth every cent. Six goals and four assists from just 11 matches for the Reds has been but a taste of Mané’s potential to turn games singlehandedly. The Lions of Teranga, Africa’s top side in Fifa’s rankings, will expect much from their young talisman.

Alongside Mané in the aforementioned Group of Death is a striker that might be limited to only three matches as a result of a cruel draw, but one who has the potential to captivate with every touch of the ball. Zimbabwe’s Khama Billiat is the leading African-based player at the tournament and, if he lives up to his promise, he will find himself on Europe’s radar shortly.

Blessed with speed and an eye for goal, the Sundowns striker was voted the PSL Player of the Year in 2015. His 12 league goals last season helped the Brazilians to secure the domestic title in an unforgettable campaign. It is hard to see Zimbabwe progress past the group stage but if they are to upset the bookies they will need their ace to produce something special.

With most defenders facing Algeria expected to keep close tabs on Marhez, vital space in the final third could open up for his Leicester City teammate, Islam Slimani. At 1.88m tall, the hulking target man is lethal in the air and is not afraid to put his head in dangerous situations. Long-ball football is not pretty, but if Algeria find themselves up against a resolute defence they can rest easy knowing there’s another route to goal.

It is hard to remember an Afcon that possessed such an intriguing geopolitical narrative. Of course silverware is the ambition for any pro footballer but with the ink still drying on the World Cup Expansion documents, all those in favour of the proposal will be hoping for a tournament filled with quality performances. A dour exhibition will provide the naysayers with the ammunition they need to dismiss African teams as nothing more than Polyfilla. This is not just a tournament for continental supremacy; this year’s edition is a chance to prove that Africans deserve more space at the big table of the world’s game. — AFP

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