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Tournament Of Surprises: Are we witnessing the best AFCON ever?

AFCON 2023 host logo. Photo Source: The PUNCH

Since the start of the 34th edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) on January 14, 2024, the biennial tournament has been replete with surprises.

Who would have thought that the top five African teams would be knocked out by the end of the knockout stage? Will Nigeria – the current highest-ranked team remaining in the tournament – defy the pattern when they battle it out against Angola, the least-ranked team in the tournament?

Let us look at some takeaways from the tournament so far:

African Giants all knocked out, bar the African Giant

The top-five African teams have all been knocked out of the AFCON before the quarter finals: Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. Tunisia and Algeria failed to make it out of their groups. Senegal (the only team that won all three games in the group stage) and Egypt were eliminated through penalty-outs by Côte d’Ivoire and Congo, respectively. Morocco, the only African team to reach a World Cup semifinal, was beaten 2-0 by South Africa in the knockouts, too; they had been the favourites to win the competition judging from their historic World Cup performance in 2022.

Nigeria is the highest-ranking team remaining in the competition. When the Super Eagles face the Black Sable Antelopes on Friday evening, they will be hoping to break the curse of the highest-ranking teams getting eliminated in the AFCON tournament this year.

Mauritania secure first-ever AFCON win

Mauritania made history for themselves, winning their first-ever AFCON match in their fixture against the 2019 AFCON champions. Mauritania is ranked 105th in the world and 21st in Africa. Although they were knocked out by Cape Verde (a goal to nil), they can go home with their chest high, knowing that they finally won an AFCON match, more so against two-time champions Algeria. This breakthrough win will definitely be the beginning of more.

Is Cape Verde writing an underdog success story?

Before this year’s AFCON edition, Cape Verde had never won more than a match in a particular edition (they featured in the 2013, 2015 and 2021 AFCON editions). Currently, they have won three out of four matches in this competition, with their next match coming up against South Africa on Saturday, February 3. They also topped a group that had Egypt and Ghana in it. Their group stage points (7) were equal to the rest of the group’s points in total: Egypt (3), Ghana (2), and Mozambique (2).

Should Cape Verde win the AFCON, it would undoubtedly be the best AFCON underdog story for years.

Senegal: losing when it matters the most

The defending champions in the group, Senegal, had shown why they were the team to beat in the competition. They convincingly won all their games in the group stage. But when it came to the knockout stage, the Teranga Lions were taken unawares. They were leading by a goal until the 85th minute when Ivory Coast equalised through Frank Kessie’s penalty. The host of the competition proved that they were truly hosts.

Hosts are turning things around 

Despite coming third in Group A and being beaten 4-0 on the last day of group stage by Equatorial Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire advanced to the round of 16 as the final best loser in the tournament. Getting three points was enough to get the host nation through to the next Round 16.

Cote d’Ivoire sacked Coach Jean-Loius Gasset after their embarrassing 4-0 defeat, the worst score on their home soil. However, firing their coach seemed to be the host’s turning point as the team eventually won the defending champions, Senegal, in the knockout stage. Cote d’Ivoire will play against Mali in the quarter-finals on Saturday, February 3.

 

AFCON 2024 has been interesting so far. Football followers all over the world would be hoping that as the competition inches to the final stages, it gets more interesting.

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