The 34th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), the continent’s greatest football fiesta is around the corner. Potentially, 672 players from 24 teams will be jostling for one trophy across six venues.
It promises to be exciting as the continental showpiece comes with its thrills, frills, and high drama. This writer looks at the history of the teams vying for glory in the latest edition of the event and their chance of making it to the knockout phase, starting with Groups A and B.
Group A: Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau
Cote d’Ivoire are hosting the AFCON tournament for the second time after hosting their first event almost 40 years ago. For all their continental prowess and having produced some of the best footballers Africa has ever seen, they have only been winners twice, winning at Senegal for the first time almost three decades after their debut at the 1965 edition.
The Elephants became champions again some nine years ago in Equatorial Guinea, winning the same way they won their first title (on penalties after extra time) and against the same opponents (Ghana). Their late legendary striker, Laurent Pokou, has had the tournament match ball named after him.
The Ivorians will need the likes of captain Serge Aurier (Nottingham Forest), Simon Adingra (Brighton & Hove Albion), and Seko Fofana (Al Nassr) among other stars to lead the charge for a third continental title. Their opener against Guinea Bissau will be their 100th game at the finals.
The Super Eagles should provide keen competition for the AFCON hosts in Group A as they will appear for their 20th edition. They have lost the final match four times, three of which they lost to neighbours Cameroon. They are also the only continental champions to withdraw from the finals and to not qualify for a subsequent edition (along with Egypt).
Their record third-place finish on eight different occasions means that only Egypt have won more medals than them. Like the Ivorians, Nigeria also boasts of some of the continent’s finest footballers. Calvin Bassey (Fulham), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), and the talismanic Victor Osimhen (Napoli) will be ensuring that Jose Pereiro’s men become African conquerors again. On paper, the hosts and the Super Eagles should make it to the next round.
Equatorial Guinea co-hosted and hosted AFCON in a four-year period and were fourth overall at the second time of hosting. Thus, the National Thunder have had considerable experience at the finals since debuting in 2017. They notably claimed a big scalp when they beat Tunisia and they also took a point off Burkina Faso during qualification.
The group is completed by Guinea Bissau, the least experienced team of all four. Surprisingly, the Wild Dogs lived up to their nickname, beating Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe (away) and Sierra Leone (home) during the AFCON qualifying stages. One of the Guineas may surprisingly make it to the knockout stages if they gather sufficient points in the group rounds.
Prediction: Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria.
Group B: Egypt, Ghana, Cape Verde and Mozambique
The Egyptians boast of the best AFCON record, having been record hosts (five times), record champions (seven times), and having finished runners-up, in third place, and in fourth place three times apiece. However, their last victory was some 14 years ago in Angola (record third win in a row) and they will be gunning for an eighth victory at the latest edition. The Mohamed Salah’s (Liverpool)-led Pharaohs will be buoyed by their performance in the last outing in which they lost the final to Senegal.
The Egyptians will however be intensely challenged by the Black Stars of Ghana, who themselves are competition veterans. The latter will want AFCON glory the more as they won their last title over four decades ago (1982) in Libya. Their squad has the likes of Joseph Aidoo (Celta Vigo), Mohammed Kudus (West Ham United) and Jordan Ayew (Crystal Palace). These two teams look the strongest to make it to the knockout stages.
The Blue Sharks of Cape Verde have four AFCON finals experience to show for their name, starting with their first a decade ago. They would have been stronger had several players not chosen to play for the best European nations (notably Patrick Vieira, whose mother hails from the nation). They were quarter-finalists in 2013 and remains their best competition record to date.
Mozambique, the other Lusophone nation in the group, have also had four finals showings, albeit starting in 1986 in Egypt. However, the Black Mambas have ended each of their AFCON showings at the group stages. It is safe to say that the Pharaohs and the Stars will make it out of this group, but the other two are potential banana skins for the old-timers.
Prediction: Egypt and Ghana.
Watch out for the preview of groups C and D next week.