By Eval Edu
The 33rd edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) offers an exciting prospect of one of the greatest footballing spectaculars.
There are reports of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 hitting camps of national teams, threats and counter-threats of cancellation or postponement, Guinean players been told to return state funds by junta leader Mamady Dombouya if they fail to triumph in Cameroon, and Cameroon facing a race against time to seal preparations ahead of Africa’s biggest sporting events makes it more so interesting.
Surprisingly, 15 out of 24 coaches at the AFCON are natives to the countries they are leading.
Defending champions Algeria lead a 24-team cast that includes former title-holders Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan and Tunisia. While record champions Egypt will be filing out for a record 25th time in the history of the tournament, the Gambia and Comoros Island both participate as debutants.
Algeria holds the favourite tag and are currently on a 33 match unbeaten run since late 2018, however, several other nations will show their might in a bid to land the title. No team looks to be very far ahead of the rest, and, judging from the most recent reshuffling at the top, this year’s African Cup of Nations is as open a tournament as you’ll find in international football.
Amidst the big ego and reputation in the competition, we will take a look at some of the outside favourites – more like the dark horses of the 33rd edition of the AFCON.
Photo credit: Pulseng
The Atlas Lions will be roaring to go in Cameroon with a core target of making up for lost time and Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has a point to prove after dropping Chelsea man Hakim Ziyech.
The Moroccans are currently ranked 2nd best in the continent and topped Group E in qualifiers, winning four games, losing none, scoring ten goals, conceding just once; making them the meanest defense during the period.
In Cameroon, Halilhodzic’s side has been pitted in Group C alongside Ghana, debutants Comoros Island, and Gabon. In what seems to be an easy group on paper, while Ghana topped their group in qualifiers, Comoros Island and Gabon finished closely as runners up.
Morocco will bank on the tactical prowess of Vahid Halilhodzic who has vast experience in African and club football to propel them to glory.
The Bosnian paraded a very decent squad to Cameroon, with the likes of Achraf Hakimi, Romain Saiss, Ayoub El Kaabi, Sofiane Boufal, and Sevilla goalie Yassine Bonou leading a very experienced side.
Morocco had a disappointing outing in their last two campaigns and will be hoping for a more decent run in Cameroon when Romain Saiss leads the Pride in their first group game against the Black Stars of Ghana.
Photo credit: Cafonline
Anyone who underestimates the Eagles in Cameroon does so at his/her own peril. The Malians currently ranked 9th in Africa topped Group A of the qualifiers, and have been pitted in Group F alongside Gambia, Mauritania, and Tunisia.
The 33rd edition will be Mali’s 12th appearance in the competition, with the 1972 runners up medal proving that the Malians have experience in abundance.
Mali can count on the maturity and the form of the squad’s young players, nearly all of whom are African champions at Under-17 level, silver medalists at the U17 World Cup or Under-20 World Cup bronze medalists between 2015 and 2017.
Coach Mohammed Magassouba will draw strength from the stability in his squad since 2017, and the presence of star players like; Sekou Koita, Moussa Djenepo, Ibrahima Kone, and Ahmadou Haidara.
Yes, I’ve got a gut feeling that Cameroon are not outright favourites for the title in spite of being the host nation; but on second thought the Lions have got to be considered as one of the outside favourites to lift the trophy. 2017 is a kind reminder that any Cameroonian team is good enough.
The Indomitable Lions will bank on the experience of Andre Onana, Clinton Njie, Vincent Aboubakar, Choupo-Moting, Karl Toko-Ekambi, and Zambo Anguissa.
Cameroon will contend with Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Cape Verde in the group phase, and Coach Toni Conceicao knows that the local fans “don’t forgive failure.”
The Central African country will be hosting for the first time in 50 years, and it will interest you to know that Cameroon remains unbeaten in Yaounde since 1988, a venue which will host the final; that is, a whopping 34 years.
Photo credit: BBC
Fresh from a second-place finish at the Arab Cup, Tunisia under Mondher Kebaier is a well-drilled side. The Carthage Eagles scored the second-most goals in qualifiers (14) after Algeria (19), and recorded no loss.
The North African side have been grouped alongside Mali, Gambia, and Mauritania, and will be looking to go beyond a fourth-place finish like the last edition.
Currently ranked third in Africa, Tunisia can count on the experience of the evergreen Wahbi Khazri and the trickery of exciting Manchester United youngster Hannibal Mejbri.
Tunisia are a traditional AFCON side and will have a major say on how the competition pans out in Cameroon.
Many will be tipping the likes of Senegal, Egypt, Nigeria, Cameroon, and even Ghana to lift the trophy on February 6, but, more than I have experienced in recent times, the 33rd edition of the AFCON is too close to call and very wide open.