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Friday, June 21, 2024

Why you should be watching the Africa Cup of Nations

There’s just something about international football and if you haven’t been watching this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, then, frankly, where have you been?

This year’s tournament, called AFCON 2023 because it was originally planned to be held last summer, has had it all so far, with spectacular goals and performances heaped among a healthy dose of drama on and off the pitch.

From heavyweights Ghana and Algeria crashing out to underdogs Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde upsetting the odds, there has been something for everyone — and that’s before we even get to hosts Ivory Coast sacking their head coach mid-tournament.

Here, a selection of writers from The Athletic reflect on their favourite moments of AFCON 2023 and what they’re looking forward to in the knockout stages.

Moments of the tournament

Ghana’s group-stage game against Egypt was billed as a clash between two of the biggest stars at this tournament: Mohammed Kudus and Mohamed Salah.

When Salah limped off injured in the first half, the stage was set for Kudus to take over and, within minutes, he scored from outside the box. Ghana imploded after the break, though, and gave away two ridiculous goals with silly individual errors.

It proved costly as they were eliminated at the group stages while Egypt progressed to the round of 16. Chris Hughton was sacked, Kudus was left speechless, and Ghana only had themselves to blame.

Jay Harris

Everyone should watch the Africa Cup of Nations because the tournament is always prime time.

You get The Gambia against Cameroon. You get club-arse-twitching scenarios like Salah’s niggly hamstring. And don’t ever be told that it doesn’t matter when coaches are being abused in the street. There’s no trivialising the alleged tirade by a Ghana fan towards Hughton but that incident said something about how invested people are in this competition, and how much emotion it provokes.

Hughton is a good coach and a good man. He had a decent squad and a fair group to go at. It all kicked off after a nasty defeat to Cape Verde, from which there was no rowing back. After their elimination, Ghana wasted little time sacking Hughton and “dissolving” his backroom team. Ouch.

Phil Hay

Chris Hughton was sacked by Ghana (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

The thing about strikes like Bebe’s is that they just don’t look real, the ball moving in such otherworldly ways that you can’t help but suspect that the footage you’re witnessing is being manipulated by CGI in real time somehow.

In The Radar, The Athletic warned you that the 33-year-old ex-Manchester United man likes to try his luck from distance — a lot — and in Cape Verde’s 3-0 win over Mozambique, Bebe provided the ultimate ‘remember him?’ and ‘bloody hell, did he mean that?’ moment in one swipe of his right foot. Mozambique keeper Ernani was completely caught out by Bebe’s audacious, devilish effort from long range and maybe you can let him off.

Cape Verde’s “special” talent, who has made more than 150 appearances in La Liga, scored one of the most iconic goals of the tournament and has every right to be remembered for more than just his failure to make the grade at Old Trafford a decade ago.

Dan Barnes

Not many will have circled a group-stage clash between Mauritania and Angola before the tournament, especially considering both passed 10 hours without scoring an Africa Cup of Nations goal during this match.

But Mauritania and midfielder Sidi Bouna ended their drought with an incredible mazy dribble and finish for their first-ever open-play AFCON goal. Fifteen minutes later, Aboubakary Koita rifled in a literally breathtaking howitzer into the top corner. I gasped.

This five-goal thriller had everything: 40-yard shots, brilliant saves, ridiculous misses, a Mesut Ozil-esque finish from Angola’s Gelson Dala, defensive mistakes, excitable commentators, and gloriously passionate fans. Liquid AFCON.

Max Mathews

As the 90 minutes came to an end in the final group game between Egypt and Cape Verde, it was 1-1, a score that, as far as most of the Egyptians were aware, was no good to them. The presumption was that Ghana would make short work of Mozambique in the other fixture, thus confining the Salah-less Pharaohs to third place and a nervous wait to see if that was enough to qualify. 

Then, a saviour: Mostafa Mohamed lobbed Cape Verde keeper Vozinha in the 92nd minute and belted off in celebration, ripping off his shirt and clutching his head in his hands, safe in the knowledge that he had saved his team, his nation.

But wait: here come Cape Verde, the most extraordinary team of the tournament, equalising in the 99th minute through Bryan Teixeira. Despair.

Surely Egypt were done for? And yet they were saved by the incompetence of others as word eventually filtered through that Ghana had conceded twice in stoppage time to throw away a 2-0 lead. Relief. Chaos. Glorious. 

Nick Miller

Explaining what makes the Africa Cup of Nations so special is an almost impossible task. But my favourite storyline, one that perfectly illustrates the beauty of AFCON, is the tale of host nation Ivory Coast’s three group-stage games.

You begin with an emphatic victory over Guinea-Bissau, with what looks like a creative and impenetrable midfield trio. Then you concede a penalty and lose to a steely Nigeria side in your second game. Finally comes the embarrassment of the 4-0 defeat to Group A’s surprise package Equatorial Guinea.

You concede three goals in the last 17 minutes of the game, walk off in disgrace in front of your heartbroken home support, and sack head coach Jean-Louis Gasset as it looks like all hope is lost and you are exiting the competition.

However, this is AFCON, the competition like no other. Thanks to the tournament’s rule allowing the best third-placed teams to progress into the knockout round, with it looking like your race had been run, you now you have a couple of days to prepare for a round-of-16 match against a rampant Senegal. Beautiful.

Nnamdi Onyeagwara

It was one of those decisions that looked questionable the moment it became public — not necessarily because of Algeria’s action itself but what it signified.

Algeria boss Djamel Belmadi dropped captain Riyad Mahrez to the bench for their crunch Group D finale against Mauritania. By half-time, the 32-year-old was being rushed on as a substitute in the hope of rescuing the 2019 champions from a second successive group-stage exit.

It didn’t work, Mauritania had the first AFCON win in their history, Belmadi lost his job and the unravelling of Algeria as a football force in their five years since claiming the title was complete — at least they will hope there is no further unravelling to endure.

Michael Bailey


Mauritania’s Bodda Mouhsine celebrates his team’s win over Algeria (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

To deceive the officials with one of the more obvious handballs in recent memory is some achievement. To then celebrate the goal that came from the handball knowing that the VAR system is in operation is perfection.

The culprit was Ebrima Colley, who pretended he had legally made it 3-3 against Cameroon in The Gambia’s final Group C game, having already scored off the bench.

Unfortunately for him (and those hoping for unbridled controversy), the VAR did not take long to determine he had scored with his hand.

The good news: Colley somehow avoided further punishment. The bad news: The Gambia were eliminated from AFCON 2023 without a point.

Ed Mackey

What to look forward to

When other results went in the Ivory Coast’s favour and they qualified for the round of 16, people were cheering in the streets of Abidjan.

The sense of relief was palpable but they face a huge test to reach the quarter-finals. Senegal are the holders and the only team with a 100 per cent winning record. Ivory Coast are limping after successive defeats to Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, and it could get a lot worse for the host nation.

It promises to be an exciting fixture between two sides packed with talent. You can just tell there will be plenty of drama.

Jay Harris

The potential return of Salah, which would be fairly miraculous not just because the recovery time set for his injured hamstring is likely to run very close to the final.

First, Egypt need to make the final and they laboured in the group stages. DR Congo in the last 16 is no gimme. Second, Salah needs to actually get fit — and whatever Liverpool are putting out publicly, they will be loath to say that he is good to go if there is any doubt. They have a Premier League title to win.

But Salah has never won AFCON with Egypt and you can tell he’s dying to put that on his record. This could be Lionel Messi with Argentina in Qatar — if only Salah and Egypt get there.

Phil Hay

Perhaps one of the biggest problems that surface once you’ve developed into a world-class talent is that people always expect more.

Nigeria expects. Their environment is a pressure cooker and Victor Osimhen, who can realistically count himself as one of the best strikers in the world, is Nigeria’s main man bar none.

The 25-year-old, who was named Serie A’s player of the year after helping fire Napoli to the scudetto last season, found the net in his country’s 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea on January 14 and when Nigeria tackle the knockout stages, there’s only one man fans will look to for inspiration.

The pressure on Osimhen’s shoulders will be huge. According to Opta, he’s registered more shots (13) than anybody else during the tournament but it will also be fascinating to see how he rises to the occasion, starting with Saturday night’s last-16 clash against Cameroon.

Dan Barnes

The off-field politics surrounding Cameroon’s goalkeeper Andre Onana and their FA president Samuel Eto’o is a fascinating plotline in the Indomitable Lions’ ongoing telenovela.

Onana, 27, retired from international football in 2022 after a disagreement with Eto’o, whom he considers his “footballing father”.

Watching former Barcelona and Inter Milan striker Eto’o bark tactical orders from the stands while manager Rigobert Song stood on the touchline during their team’s 3-2 win over Gambia, with Manchester United’s No 1 goalkeeper benched for his cousin Fabrice Ondoa, who plays in France’s second division, was an eye-opening snapshot.

There may be more twists and turns to come.

Max Mathews

Andre Onana

Andre Onana was dropped for Cameroon’s win over The Gambia (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Nigeria vs Cameroon: the battle of the dysfunctional big boys

Your average AFCON viewer would put Nigeria and Cameroon right up there as tournament favourites. Both are steeped in AFCON heritage with seven titles between them and high-profile players in their squads.

But both have, in their own ways, been dysfunctional in this tournament: Cameroon have the ongoing psychodrama involving Onana — goalkeeper when he fancies it, target of Eto’o’s ire and inexplicable advisor to attacking free-kick takers.

Nigeria’s tale has been more of an on-pitch classic, with the pressure heaped on them from all quarters perhaps contributing to some very stodgy performances and their star man, Osimhen, spraying chances all over the place.

Their match-up in the second round could be an absolute all-timer in terms of chaos, head-loss and drama.

Nick Miller

In the group stage, we saw the unearthing of several stars including Equatorial Guinea’s Emilio Nsue and Fabrice Ondoa, Andre Onana’s replacement in between the sticks for Cameroon, as well as Angola’s Gelson Dala and Senegal’s Lamine Camara.

Now it’s time for the big stars to spark into life — at least, those that are still in the tournament. Sadio Mane has scored just one goal for Senegal, Naby Keita has started a single game for Guinea, Salah is injured, we are yet to see a dominant midfield performance from Yves Bissouma for Mali, and fingers are still crossed to see if we get to see Cameroon’s prolific striker Vincent Aboubakar compete in Ivory Coast.

As a Nigerian, I wouldn’t mind if Osimhen started putting his chances away and reminded everyone why he is one of the most sought-after players in football.

Nnamdi Onyeagwara

Do you remember Emilio Nsue’s 100 games in England at Middlesbrough and Birmingham from 2014 to 2018? You won’t be alone if you don’t. I was at his Birmingham debut and I don’t.

This AFCON, however, will be much more memorable as the full-back-turned-striker, now 34, hits the form of his life. He is the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals in three games for Equatorial Guinea, including the first AFCON hat-trick since 2008.

Facing and beating Guinea in the last 16 could bring a significant chance to add to his tally in a competent side.

Michael Bailey

Senegal are fascinating.

The reigning champions are playing the best football at the tournament, reflected in their nine-point Group C haul.

It has extended their AFCON winning run to six games and they are well-placed to become the fourth nation to successfully defend the title. Their team is dripping with quality and, along with wingers Mane and Ismaila Sarr, Marseille’s Pape Gueye has been immense in midfield.

Ed Mackey

When are the last-16 matches?

Saturday, January 27

Angola vs Namibia
Venue: Stade de la Paix, Bouake
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT

Nigeria vs Cameroon
Venue: Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium, Abidjan
Kick-off: 20:00 GMT

Sunday, January 28

Equatorial Guinea vs Guinea
Venue: Alassane Ouattara Stadium, Abidjan
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT

Egypt vs DR Congo
Venue: Laurent Pokou Stadium, San Pedro
Kick-off: 20:00 GMT

Monday, January 29

Cape Verde vs Mauritania
Venue: Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium, Abidjan
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT

Senegal vs Ivory Coast
Venue: Charles Konan Banny Stadium, Yamoussoukro
Kick-off: 20:00 GMT

Tuesday, January 30

Mali vs Burkina Faso
Venue: Amadou Gon Coulibaly Stadium, Korhogo
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT

Morocco vs South Africa
Venue: Laurent Pokou Stadium, San Pedro
Kick-off: 20:00 GMT

Who could play who in the quarter-finals?

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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