Football turns its eyes to Africa when the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) kicks off this Friday. For almost a month, in six venues across four cities in host country Egypt, every emotion will be laid bare; every sinew stretched taut as football ratchets up the passion, the excitement and, need it be said, the pain.
After the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia, an absorbing Uefa Champions League and the fervour of the women’s World Cup currently under way in France, Africa will relish its time in the spotlight. From Kinshasa to Kigali, from Libreville to Lusaka, from Tripoli to Tunis, football followers will be ensnared and spellbound by every pass, every tackle and every goal. In living rooms, bars and souks, in every corner of this vibrant continent, nothing much will matter over the next few weeks, except football.
It certainly is a tournament to savour. It’s no secret that European clubs always have their beady eyes on the available talent on show. Scouts from all over the globe will be in attendance. Initially, they would all have been en route to Cameroon, the original host country, but delays with preparations and security concerns resulted in the Confederation of African Football selecting Egypt as the new Afcon host.
More importantly, for the 32nd edition of this biennial event, the action has been switched to June-July rather than the January-February time frame that had been the norm for previous tournaments. In the past, European clubs regularly complained that they had to lose top players such as Senegal’s Sadio Mané and Kalidou Koulibaly or Egypt’s Mohamed Salah during critical times in the season. Now, with the tournament played in the European summer, it is no longer an issue.
This year’s Afcon also sees the number of participants increased from 16 to 24. The group stage features a round-robin format, from which the top two teams and the four best third-placed teams advance to the round of 16.
But just who will emerge victorious when the final of the competition is played in Cairo on July 19? It would take a really brave man to make an accurate prediction, such is the competitiveness of African football. The traditional powerhouses, though, will be among the challengers: Egypt, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Morocco, Ghana and Senegal.
But don’t write off Bafana Bafana. The South African national football side has the ignominious reputation of regularly failing to qualify for major tournaments, but they booked a ticket to Egypt with an unbeaten qualifying campaign. More than that, this is a strong Bafana squad, one that is a lot more settled with regard to selection and consistency of performance.
Coach Stuart Baxter has infused the team with the trademark defensive organisation he is known for – but, with strikers the calibre of Percy Tau and Lebo Mothiba, Bafana are just as speedy, powerful and potent in attack.
In midfield, Baxter is spoilt for choice, with the industry and determination of Dean Furman, Hlompho Kekana, Tiyani Mabunda, Bongani Zungu and Kamohelo Mokotjo, and the solidity at the back provided by captain Thulani Hlatshwayo, Sifiso Hlanti, Buhle Mkhwanazi and Thamsanqa Mkhize.
Considering the upturn in Bafana’s form, many are suggesting they are among the favourites to win the tournament. But Baxter and his men, in every interview, have made sure to play down any such expectation. The South Africans are simply content to go about their business quietly, without any hype or unnecessary pressure, and they’ll tackle each challenge when the time comes.
Bafana are in a tough group, drawn alongside Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco and Namibia: certainly a “group of death”, if ever there was one. Do Baxter, Hlatshwayo and their men have enough to challenge at the 2019 Afcon? Most definitely. But whether they can go all the way will depend on the composure and commitment of the squad and the attention to detail by the technical staff. If they play to potential, if they get the tactics right, then anything is possible.
So as the eyes of the globe shift to Africa, the perennial names of Salah, Mané, Koulibaly and Riyad Mahrez will be muttered, mentioned and screamed. Nothing wrong with that — they are, after all, the most high-profile African footballers. Napoli’s Koulibaly is among the top two central defenders in the world (alongside Virgil van Dyk of the Netherlands), and Mané and Salah were highly influential in Liverpool’s Champions League success.
But there have been a few promising African stars who have risen to prominence over the past few months, including Nicolas Pépé (Côte d’Ivoire), Hakim Ziyech (Morocco), André Onana (Cameroon) and Salif Sané (Senegal). They’ll be keen on a good showing at Afcon in order to land a lucrative transfer to one of the big European clubs. Pépé’s blinding pace for French side Lille saw him plunder goals for fun in Ligue 1 and he’s on the radar of quite a few English clubs, while Ziyech and Onana were instrumental in Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam’s charge to the Champions League semifinals.
Afcon groups and schedule
The 24 teams in six groups:
Group A: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); Egypt; Uganda; Zimbabwe
Group B: Burundi; Guinea; Madagascar; Nigeria
Group C: Algeria; Kenya; Senegal;Tanzania
Group D: Côte d’Ivoire; Morocco; Namibia; South Africa
Group E: Angola; Mali; Mauritania; Tunisia
Group F: Benin; Cameroon; Ghana; Guinea-Bissau
Fixtures for the opening week
Friday, 21 June: Egypt vs Zimbabwe
Sat, 22 Jun: DRC vs Uganda; Nigeria vs Burundi; Guinea vs Madagascar
Sun, 23 Jun: Morocco vs Namibia; Senegal vs Tanzania; Algeria vs Kenya
Mon, 24 Jun: Ivory Coast vs South Africa; Tunisia vs Angola; Mali vs Mauritania
Tue, 25 Jun: Cameroon vs Guinea-Bissau; Ghana vs Benin
Wed, 26 Jun: Nigeria vs Guinea; Uganda vs Zimbabwe; Egypt vs DRC
Thu, 27 Jun: Madagascar vs Burundi; Senegal vs Algeria; Kenya vs Tanzania
Fri, 28 Jun: Tunisia vs Mali; Morocco vs Côte d’Ivoire; South Africa vs Namibia