A vendor sells vuvuzelas at the Adjame main market in Abidjan on January 9, 2024 ahead of the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations. (Photo by Issouf SANOGO / AFP)
The Africa Cup of Nations, better known as Afcon, is set to kick off this weekend. Always hugely entertaining, the showpiece promises to be exhilarating.
The recipe for many entertaining showpieces is three core ingredients: the good, the bad and the funny. Afcon provides all three.
The talent on show leaves clubs around the world lamenting, hoping their star players will face an early exit so they can return to club football action. It’s been a regular complaint of many top European clubs.
The Confederation of African Football (Caf) has mulled moving the tournament to June or July, when the European leagues have their break, but the weather in several African countries at that time is not ideal for holding a football spectacle.
There has also been talk of changing the tournament to once every four years, instead of holding it biennially, as it is now.
But Caf has said the tournament is a major moneymaker and it cannot afford them to be held so far apart.
Afcon, which is generally a month long, is officially recognised by Fifa, the world football governing body. That means Europe must suck it up and release players, unless the player decides not to play for the country.
Italian club Napoli’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, recently said he would not sign up any more African players unless they agreed to not take part in the Afcon.
The issue is stirring up controversy this year, as usual.
André Onana, goalkeeper for Britain’s Manchester United and Cameroon, was reported to have struck a deal with the national squad to play a league game for the club and fly back to play for his country the following day. Reports are now saying he is likely to miss the first game of his country’s campaign.
François-Régis Mughe, winger for French club Marseille, also from Cameroon, has reportedly refused the call-up to represent his country.
One of the continent’s biggest broadcasters, DSTV, recently announced that it failed to secure the broadcasting rights for this year’s tournament. African football fans across the continent took to the streets of social media to complain and air their ire. That was successful, because in a complete turnaround, the broadcaster has announced that it has now secured the rights to the showpiece.
This year, Côte d’Ivoire is hosting the tournament and there will be massive stars on show, gunning for Africa’s biggest footballing prize.
Some of the talent includes Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi, Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, Senegal’s Sadio Mané, Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez and Cameroon’s André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, all of whom have glistening league careers.
Mahrez and Mané under no illusion about how tough the tournament will be.
Mahrez told reporters earlier this week that an early victory is crucial.
“Whichever country is the best prepared, and enjoys a little bit of luck, will go all the way.
“Experience is also a major factor. I and many teammates in the Algerian squad know all about the Cup of Nations. Making a good start is often crucial. We beat Kenya in our opening match in 2019 and won the tournament. We drew with Sierra Leone three years later and flopped.”
Mané and his Senegalese teammates are the reigning champions, having defeated Egypt in 2022.
He told reporters they can’t trivialise the strength of the group they have drawn.
“The match against Cameroon is going to be very tough and we dare not underestimate our other opponents. While accepting that none of these matches will be easy, we have the ability and determination to reach the knockout stage.”
But who are the favourites? There are a few but Morocco leads the way.
Having reached the semi-finals of the Fifa World Cup last year, the Atlas Lions will be expected to do well and hopefully add to their tally, having won the tournament once before in 1976.
They’ll crave success after their performance at the last World Cup, where they became the first African team to reach the semi-finals.
With Walid Regragui at the helm, and players such as Hakimi, Sofyan Amrabat, Yassine Bounou, Romain Saïss and Hakim Ziyech, it will be hard to look past them.
But don’t write off the others yet.Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt have teams full of star players who can turn games on their heads in an instant.
Nigeria has talismanic striker Victor Osimhen, who will have defenders quaking. The Napoli-based player is Africa’s player of the year and on the watchlist of every big club. His goals, dribbling, movement and creativity will be on show.
Nigeria has won the Afcon title three times.
Egypt is a team worth keeping an eye on as well, led by Salah, their star player. They’ll be eager to get their hands on the trophy after the penalty loss at the last tournament. Don’t be surprised to see The Pharaohs in the latter stages of the tournament.
No country has more Afcon wins than Egypt at seven. Cameroon has five wins to its name, making it the second-most successful team.
There are a few teams who haven’t been on great form in recent years but have the ability to stun.
Home-ground advantage could give Côte d’Ivoire the edge they need to take them over the line. They no longer have the star power of Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré but they still have star quality.
On their day, Ghana can be one of Africa’s strongest teams. Players such as Mohammed Kudus are lethal upfront and with an experienced manager in Chris Hughton, The Black Stars might just turn up.
Ghana has won the Afcon trophy four times but most recently in 1982.
As for South Africa, there is a case for mild optimism. It is unlikely they’ll go all the way but maybe, just maybe, Bafana Bafana can pull a few shock results.
Recently, they beat Morocco and drew to Côte d’Ivoire. They also lost to Rwanda, so consistency will be key. But with a player like Percy Tau and coach Hugo Broos, who has won the tournament before with Cameroon, South Africa might be a dark horse.
Like many global showpieces, there is always something funny happening such as in Qatar, when a Moroccan player kissed the head of an opponent who missed a chance in the final minutes of the game.
The previous Afcon had its fair share of humorous moments. Remember when referee Janny Sikazwe ended a game early twice?
He first blew the game in the 85th minute, much to everyone’s confusion. He restarted it, only to blow the whistle at around the 90-minute mark without playing any extra time.
He also made a number of dodgy calls in the game and afterwards told Zambian media it was the weather that caused his odd performance.
There was also a moment to forget for Côte d’Ivoire goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangaré when he tried to smother a ball but instead his knee struck the ground and the ball spilled to an opponent, who rolled it to a colleague, who tapped it into the empty net .
Let’s not forget Mauritania, which changed its national anthem in 2017. At the last tournament, the audio team played the wrong anthem before a match. It got worse. They did this three times.
Then there is Namibia’s Peter Shalulile’s reckless challenge on South Africa’s Darren Keet in 2019. Shalulile clattered Keet only to apologise by planting a kiss on an unimpressed Keet’s neck making for a very meme-worthy event. There is no doubt this tournament will have all the thrills and spills. There will be quality football on show — Africa’s stars will have the continent’s gaze.
At the end, there will be tears, there will be underdogs, rising stars and underachievers.
I’m sure Afcon 2023 will deliver a cracker of a tournament.