The 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) begins on Sunday, January 9. Hosts Cameroon kick off the tournament by facing Burkina Faso in Yaoundé.
The tournament was initially to be held in January and February last year. However, due to the effects of Covid-19, it was pushed back 12 months.
Some of the world’s greatest players will be on show in Cameroon. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Riyad Mahrez to name just three. There will also be young stars taking centre stage including Mali’s Amadou Haidara, Ivory Coast’s Franck Kessie, and Burkina Faso’s Edmond Tapsoba.
It is always one of the most wide-open tournaments in international football. There have been five different winners in the last five editions. Here is a look ahead to Africa’s biggest tournament.
Africa Cup of Nations 2021: What to Expect
Hosts Look to Return to Glory Days
In the 1980s, Cameroon were the most dominant force in African football. They won the African Cup of Nations twice during that decade in 1984 and 1988. Also, they were the first African nation to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1990, losing to England in extra time.
In 2017, they surprisingly won the AFCON for the fifth time defeating Egypt in the final.
They may not have the star names they once used to have but expectations will be high as the host nation. They have impressed in World Cup qualifying winning their last four games.
Their hopes will depend on Bayern Munich striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and goalkeeper Andre Onana who is one of the best in the tournament.
They are in a tough group but will expect to get to the quarter-final at least.
Algeria Look to Retain Their Title
Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez will lead Algeria’s defence of their African Cup of Nations crown. In 2019, they defeated Senegal to win their second title. It was particularly sweet given they won it on fierce rivals Egypt’s soil.
Algeria are in good form heading into the competition having been unbeaten in World Cup qualifying and will be amongst the favourites to go all the way once again.
They are in a fairly straightforward group with opening games against Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea which should help them ease their way into the tournament. Also, they have one of the best squads in Africa. The likes of AC Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer, West Ham United’s Saïd Benrahma, and Lyon striker Islam Slimani.
It would be no surprise if they retain their title and make it two in a row.
Gambia and Comoros Make AFCON Debut
There will be two countries making their AFCON debuts with Gambia and Comoros making their first appearance in the competition.
Gambia qualified impressively by finishing top of their group, which featured teams such as Gabon and DR Congo, the latter of whom have qualified for the final stages of World Cup qualifying.
Notable names in their squad include Forest Green Rovers midfielder Ebou Adams, Sampdoria defender Omar Colley, and Salford City defender Ibou Touray.
They are in an incredibly tough group with Mali and Tunisia and will probably be looking towards their clash with Mauritania as the most likely to register their first win in the finals.
Meanwhile, Comoros qualified by finishing second in their qualifying group behind Egypt. Much of their squad play their club football in France. They face an uphill struggle to make an impact at AFCON with Gabon, Ghana and Morocco in an extremely tough-looking group.
However, just qualifying for the finals represents a huge achievement for one of the smallest countries in Africa.
Disrupted Build-Up for Super Eagles
It has been a disrupted build-up for one of the tournament favourites, Nigeria. First, they were dealt a huge blow as star striker Victor Osmihen was ruled out due to Covid and that he is also recovering from a facial injury.
Then Watford striker Emmanuel Dennis was left out of their squad after an administrative dispute and row with his club. Add in that Rangers defenders Calvin Bassey and Leon Balogun will be missing due to injury, it certainly hasn’t been a smooth build-up for the Super Eagles.
They will be led by interim manager Austin Eguavoen before former Porto and Sporting Clube de Portugal boss José Peseiro takes over after the tournament.
Nigeria haven’t won AFCON since 2013 but despite the turbulent build-up, expectations will be high and they will be expected to go far.
Ian Wright Correct to Call Out Disrespect of AFCON
Former England striker Ian Wright recently spoke out about the disrespectable media coverage of AFCON.
He said on Instagram: “Is there ever a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nations?
“There is no greater honour than representing your country. The coverage is completely tinged with racism.
“We played our Euros across ten countries in the middle of a pandemic and there’s no issue at all. But Cameroon, a single country hosting a tournament, is a problem.
“There are players getting asked if they will be honouring the call-ups to their national teams. Imagine if that was an England player representing the Three Lions. Can you imagine the furore?”
Wright’s comments are completely correct. This is the biggest tournament in Africa and means a huge amount to the players and fans.
Clubs may not be happy that they are losing some of their best players during a busy period of the season, but quite frankly, tough. Clubs should have squads big enough to cope.
From 2023, the tournament will be played in June and July. Hopefully, that change will help the tournament get the respect it deserves.