Having previewed the first two groups of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) as well as the next two, this writer previews the final two groups of E and F, which has a peculiar make-up of teams that have been champions on just one occasion.
Group E: Tunisia, South Africa, Mali and Namibia
Despite being a competitive force in African football and having participated in 20 previous editions, the Eagles of Carthage have only ever won AFCON once when they hosted it in 2004. A decade earlier, they were also hosts but crashed out at the group stages.
The Eagles’ opening game against Namibia will be their 81st at the finals but the South Africans and Malians will give them a serious run for their money. Anis Ben Slimane (Sheffield United) and captain Youssef Msakni (Al Arabi) will be their frontliners at this event.
Like Tunisia, Bafana Bafana were also winning AFCON hosts in 1996, then they went from second to third in consecutive fashion in 1998 and 2000. Since then, they have experienced a steady decline and have been disappointing even when they hosted again in 2013. Nevertheless, a crop of promising, largely home-based players led by Percy Tau (Al Ahly) and Teboho Mokoena (Mamelodi Sundowns) will represent the country at this event.
The Malian Eagles will be making a 13th AFCON appearance. Their best result to date was on their 1972 debut in Cameroon when they lost the final match to Zaire (now DR Congo). They finished third (2012 and 2013) and reached the last four (2002 and 2004) in consecutive editions. The Eagles are blessed with exciting young players such as El Bilal Toure (Atalanta), Lassine Sinayoko (RB Salzburg) and Ismaila Coulibaly (Sheffield United). It is expected that the Malians will prove naysayers wrong in this group.
The Brave Warriors will be looking to garner more AFCON experience after three first-round ousters in the 1998, 2008, and 2019 editions. They will need all the help they can get from record goal scorer Peter Shalulile (Mamelodi Sundowns) and record appearance maker Denzil Haoseb (Orlando Pirates) if they want to make it out of this group. The Namibians pulled a surprise by beating Cameroon during the qualifiers and will be keen to do the same in the tournament proper.
Prediction: Mali, Tunisia, and South Africa
Group F: Morocco, DR Congo, Zambia, and Tanzania
The Atlas Lions are the envy of all African teams right now, and justifiably so as they are the highest-ranked African nation by FIFA (13th). It’s been almost a year since their unanticipated exploits at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar where they gained the respect and admiration of most football fans by reaching the semi-finals, a first for the African continent.
Despite being winning AFCON hosts in 1976, Morocco were dumped out at the group stage as defending champions in 1978, also failing to replicate their win as hosts in 1988 with a fourth-place finish.
Morocco’s opening game against Tanzania will be their 71st at the finals. They will be the hosts of the next AFCON edition in 2025 and co-hosts of the centennial FIFA World Cup in 2030. Sofyan Amrabat (Manchester United), Azzedine Ounahi (Marseille), captain Romain Saiss and the mercurial Ez Abde (Real Betis) should help the Lions go all the way to the final.
Like Nigeria, DR Congo will also be making an AFCON finals appearance for the 20th time. Their two successes came in 1968 and 1972, but since then, it has been a poor run of form for the Leopards.
A similar story is true of Zambia, who have only been AFCON champions once in 2012. However, they were losing finalists in 1974 (incidentally to DR Congo under their old name, Zaire). The Chipolopolo have been unfortunate in North African territory, losing the 1994 AFCON final in Tunisia (to Nigeria), and finishing third twice (Libya in 1982 and Algeria eight years later). Ex-Chelsea and Israeli manager Avram Grant will be hoping to improve their fortunes in the Ivory Coast.
The Tanzanians will be appearing in their third AFCON and will have their work cut out for them against their more experienced opponents. By defeating Uganda home and away during qualification and getting the better of Niger, the Taifa Stars will be facing a Herculean task of reaching the knockout stages for the first time ever.
Prediction: Morocco, Zambia, and DR Congo.