After two postponements, the not-really-2021 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) is finally set to take place in early January.
Originally postponed due to concerns about the rainy summer season in Cameroon, the tournament was then pushed back for another year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite further worries about the coronavirus pandemic, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has insisted that the tournament will go on as usual, keeping the original name with 2021 in the title (similar to the branding of the 2020 European Championship).
However, the timing of the tournament could be inconvenient for some of its stars. Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, for instance, will have played seven matches in December with Liverpool prior to the tournament, which could cause fatigue and fitness issues when the tournament starts on January 9th.
This could lead to some surprises in a tournament already famous for its lack of predictability: The last edition in 2019 saw Madagascar advance all the way to the Quarterfinals in their inaugural tournament. But who could be this year’s Madagascar, or this year’s Algeria (the winners in 2019)? Let’s take a look.
Group A: Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ethiopia
Hosts Cameroon will obviously be considered among the frontrunners to win the entire tournament. The seventh-highest ranked African team in the world according to FIFA, they boast some of the continent’s finest players (André Onana & André Zambo Anguissa), and home-field advantage can’t hurt. Cameroon also have only lost two matches in 2021.
Not long ago I called Burkina Faso Africa’s sleeping giants prior to their World Cup qualifying campaign. They narrowly missed out on advancing to the next round of qualifiers, but failed to lose a single of their six matches, twice drawing with defending African champions Algeria. A lack of a proven goal-scorer ultimately failed them, though: They averaged two goals a game, whereas group winners Algeria averaged over four. With star striker Lassina Traoré missing due to injury, others will have to step up.
Cape Verde return to the AFCON for the first time since 2015, and will have reason for optimism. The team is significantly improved, with Jamiro Monteiro starring for one of the MLS’s top sides, Garry Rodrigues returning to Europe, and striker Djaniny hitting top form. Cape Verde also only missed out on advancing to the next stage in World Cup qualifiers by two points, with only one loss to African powerhouse Nigeria. This should be a team to watch.
Ethiopia are one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament at 137th in the world according to FIFA and have been given a rough group. This is also just their second appearance at a major international tournament since 1982, only qualifying after Madagascar failed to win their final four games in AFCON qualifying after winning the first two. They do have some young talents who might get a chance to shine, at the very least.
Group B: Senegal, Guinea, Zimbabwe, Malawi
Senegal are ranked by FIFA as the highest ranked team in Africa, and it’s not hard to understand why. They were finalists in the 2019 AFCON tournament, finished undefeated in World Cup qualifying, and almost advanced to the World Cup knockout stages in 2018 but were eliminated because of the tournament’s first-ever use of the fair play rule. They also have arguably the continent’s top goalkeeper in Edouard Mendy and its top defender in Kalidou Koulibaly. Good luck stopping them.
While a coup d’etat overshadowed Guinea‘s World Cup qualifying campaign, they’ve been making solid progress and have seen some top prospects head to Europe. Almost half of their AFCON squad is under the age of 25. Arguably the best of these prospects, former Barcelona man Ilaix Moriba, chose the African nation over Spain in a move that could see Guinea become contenders for years to come.
Zimbabwe will be hoping that experience proves key, with an average team age of 29 according to Transfermarkt. The Warriors are also missing Aston Villa midfielder Marvelous Nakamba due to injury, while star forward Tino Kadewere struggled with injuries and has fallen out of favor with Lyon. This is shaping up to be a forgettable tournament for Zimbabwe, who managed just two points in six games in World Cup Qualifying.
Malawi have potential to cause teams some trouble. They have players scattered across the globe, with some playing in South Africa, Tanzania, Sudan, and Georgia. They also have a Champions League player in Charles Petro of Sheriff Tiraspol – who have become somewhat of a hotspot of finding talent in strange places. Don’t expect them to get anywhere, but they could stump some teams.
Group C: Morocco, Ghana, Gabon, Comoros
This is probably the closest thing to a group of death that you’ll see. Granted, it has Comoros making their AFCON debut (more on them later), but it also has two of Africa’s top teams in Morocco and Ghana and a Gabon team with some quality players.
Morocco are ranked as the second best team in Africa according to FIFA, and are my personal pick to win the entire tournament. Why? No team is more well-rounded, other than perhaps Senegal. Morocco has Bono in goal (and no, I’m not making that joke again), quality defenders in Hakimi, Saïss, and Aguerd, several experienced midfielders, and the ever-threatening Youssef En-Nesyri at striker. They are, however, missing a key player – as out-of-favor Chelsea midfielder Hakim Ziyech was stunningly dropped for disciplinary issues. Morocco have enough depth to still pull it off, however.
Ghana are rebuilding after the demise of the golden generation that almost took them to the World Cup semifinals in 2010, and have some incredible players. Kamaldeen Sulemana, Mohammed Kudus, and Abdul Mumin are among the stars, all of whom came through Ghana’s Right to Dream Academy.
Gabon are beginning to look at life after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with this realistically the Arsenal star’s last major international tournament (currently 32, Aubameyang would be 34 by the next AFCON tournament). This is probably their best chance in a while to make a deep run: the nation’s top ever scorer is approaching his twilight alongside many other players on the side.
As previously mentioned, this is the first ever appearance at AFCON or any major tournament for the island nation of Comoros. A huge part of this is the acquisition of several dual-nationality French born players such as Faïz Selemani, currently plying his trade in Belgium. The results likely won’t be pretty for Comoros in arguably the toughest group they could’ve got, but it’s great for the future.
Group D: Nigeria, Egypt, Guinea-Bissau, Sudan
Nigeria are overwhelmingly loaded with attacking options: Victor Osimhen, Paul Onuachu, and Kelechi Iheanacho to name a few. Never lacking star talent, the Super Eagles are usually considered among the favorites to win the tournament. However, recent results have inspired little confidence: A draw with Cape Verde and a loss to Central African Republic, especially. They’ll need to show more consistency to be a serious threat.
Egypt is a team that always seems to show enough quality to impress, yet underperform when it matters most. The Pharaohs were seen by many as candidates to advance relatively far in the 2018 World Cup, but finished with zero points. They were the host nation in 2019 and won all matches in the group stage, but lost in the Round of 16 to South Africa. Even in 2017, Egypt reached the AFCON final and led for 59 minutes before conceding twice and losing to Cameroon. Mohamed Salah could stake an early lead in the Balon d’Or standings if he can carry Egypt to their first trophy since 2010.
Many nations claim to have the next Pele, but Guinea-Bissau really do: 30-year old AS Monaco midfielder Pelé. Whilst not as prolific as the Brazilian striker, with one international goal to the Brazilian’s 77, he could be just as important to the people of Guinea-Bissau if he led them to a first ever international trophy.
Sudan are in an interesting position: journeyman manager Hubert Velud was sacked this month after averaging less than a point per match. His replacement is Burhan Tia, a Sudanese manager with very little information available online. He then proceeded to cut eight of the ten most valuable Sudanese players (per Transfermarkt) from his squad. Alright, then.
Group E: Algeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea
Defending African champions Algeria will head into this tournament with tons of confidence. Undefeated since October of 2018, the Desert Foxes have won the last two tournaments they’ve played in (AFCON and Arab Cup) and have a very strong side. The only major concern is goalkeeper: all three of the Algerian goalkeepers are above the age of 30 and have had less than convincing club careers. As a Philadelphia Union fan, I’m looking at you, Raïs M’Bolhi.
Ivory Coast are another team that might fancy their chances of winning the tournament, mainly thanks to in-form striker Sébastien Haller. The record signing for West Ham disappointed in England, but a move to the Netherlands has seen him become one of Europe’s elite. With ten goals in six Champions League games and twelve further goals in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie, the Ivory Coast’s hopes will rest on Haller.
For the first time since 1996, Sierra Leone return to the African Cup of Nations. A team with a mix of veterans (English-born Steven Caulker) and young prospects ensure that Sierra Leone have a decent chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.
Whilst Equatorial Guinea might not be a team that most people have heard of, history is on their side: in the two AFCON tournaments the Nzalang Nacional have qualified for, they’ve reached the quarterfinals and semifinals. Not a team to bet against, but they have been given a very tricky group.
Group F: Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, The Gambia
Tunisia made headlines recently when top Manchester United prospect Hannibal Mejbri chose his parent’s country of birth over France, despite the fact that Mejbri had been playing for France at youth level. This move was a big deal: the Eagles of Carthage had been snubbed by French players in the past, including Hatem Ben Arfa and Wissam Ben Yedder. He’s not the only Premier League prospect Tunisia have swayed: Dutch-born Arsenal defender Omar Rekik also chose Tunisia.
An up-and-coming national team to look out for is Mali. Having never qualified for the World Cup before, Mali topped their group at the World Cup Qualifiers and are now just two games away from qualifying for their first ever World Cup. This would be a huge boost for a team that has already seen some top prospects in recent years head overseas, including Yves Bissouma and Mohamed Camara.
Fulham fans may remember Mauritania‘s striker, Aboubakar Kamara, who insisted on being given the number 47 so that he would be known as AK47. At the time, Kamara was hyped as an exciting French striker, but four years and just seventeen Fulham goals later, he was sold to Aris Thessaloniki and switched his nationality to Mauritanian. They’ll hope that the wildly inaccurate striker can find the net, but don’t count on it.
Alongside Comoros, The Gambia will be making their AFCON debut this year. With a population smaller than that of Puerto Rico, some people might be surprised to know that the Scorpions actually have four players playing in Italy’s top tier, the Serie A. Bologna’s Musa Barrow is considered to be Gambia’s one to watch: the winger already has nine goal contributions this year in Italy, including a goal and two assists against Lazio.
Similarly to the European Championship that took place this past summer, majority of these teams will advance to the knockout stages. The top two teams in every group advance to the next round automatically, alongside the four best third-placed teams (in terms of points and goal differential). This means that every result is make-or-break, leading to exciting, attacking football as well as drama that saw four games go to penalties in the previous edition of the tournament.
It also gives some of Africa’s best players a chance to shine. Ismaël Bennacer, for instance, earned a move to AC Milan from Empoli after being named Player of the Tournament. Youssef En-Nesyri scored half of Morocco’s goals at the tournament in 2019 (granted, a poor tournament for Morocco) and a year later moved to Sevilla.
If all goes ahead as planned, the 2021 African Cup of Nations will be a can’t-miss spectacle with some of the most famous players in the world. Will Cameroon win it on home soil? Can Mohamed Salah win his first international trophy? Will an underdog come out on top? Let me know in the comments!
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