Africa’s biggest football fiesta, African Cup of Nations gets underway in Egypt
London, June 21, 2019 (AltAfrica)-The 34th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations gets under way today, Friday, 21 June, when hosts Egypt face Zimbabwe.
Egypt are hosting the African biggest sports fiesta for a record fifth time. The Pharaohs are the most successful team in the tournament’s history, winning seven times.
This edition is most significant in many respect. First, it is the biggest Africa Cup of Nations ever with 24 teams, and secondly, the first to be played in Europe’s summer. The tournament is usually held in January and February, causing disputes with European clubs who had to release players in the middle of the season. But in July 2017 the Confederation of African Football decided the tournament would be played in June and July this year instead.
It also increased the tournament from 16 to 24 teams, in a similar format to Euro 2016, with the top four third-placed teams from the six groups also going into the last 16. More games, means more viewers, and more interest, particularly in the nations of debutants and returnees.
Mauritania, Madagascar and Burundi – for whom Stoke City’s Saido Berahino will be key – are all making a first appearance.
For the returnees, Tanzania was last at an African Cup of Nations, AFCON 39 years ago. Kenya, their rivals and neighbours, haven’t been on this stage for 15 years. Somehow, the two Swahili-speaking countries are not only returning to the prestigious African football fiesta, they find themselves in the same group. Tasty.
Guinea is not a favourite to win, but they are sweating on the fitness of Naby Keita, whose Champions League semi-final injury is not fully healed. Liverpool don’t want him to play, but Guinea can be ordinary without him, so play he will. Speaking of injuries, this tournament will be poorer due to the absence of some big names.
South Africa would prefer Itumeleng Khune, who was in goal for the 2010 World Cup and the subsequent two AFCONs in 2010 and 2013, as first choice, but a niggling shoulder problem means he was dropped.
Manchester United’s Eric Bailly (Cote d’Ivoire), Leicester’s Daniel Amartey and Crystal Palace’s Jeffrey Schlupp (Ghana), Kenyan defender Brian Mandela and Morocco duo of Real Madriddefender Achrif Hakimi (metatarsal) and prolific striker Abderrazak Hamdallah (back and hip) are all out.
Morocco. Being led by the hipsters’ favourite coach, Hervé Renard, is bound to make the Atlas Lions feel pressure. An AFCON winner twice this decade alone (with Zambia in 2012 and Cote d’Ivoire in 2015), ‘the Fox’ also has a solid squad.
Renard, who defeated the Ivorians in the 2012 final, then led the Elephants to win it in 2015, and will now face them on the second match day of Group D. They must be sick at the sight of him.
But Morocco won’t be the only side with strength in depth, for Senegal’s 23-man team look good. Problem is, their past three AFCON teams have been similarly loaded, and yet, their best showing was when El Hadj Diouf was still a Bolton player, in 2006.
Napoli’s highly-rated Kalidou Koulibaly leads a formidable defence, and Sadio Mane leads a star attack, but their only problem may be too much brawn in the middle. Cheikhou Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye are good at what they do, but it is not picking a visionary pass.
Kalidou Koulibaly of Senegal looks on during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group H match between Senegal and Colombia at Samara Arena on June 28, 2018 in Samara, Russia.Getty Images
Across the aisle, Nigeria may not look instantly like favourites, but a group having Madagascar, Guinea and Burundi should not be troubling. Gernot Rohr, when not scowling, likes to keep the Super Eagles compact, which could come in handy later in the tournament.
A slice of luck
Ghana needs focus, too, but they’d settle for a bit of luck.
After their youth side won the U-20 World Cup in 2009, Ghana has built on that core to qualify for five straight AFCON semi-finals. Include 2008, and you’ve got six semis in a row. In a 16-team tournament, they should have bagged at least one title, by the law of averages. Yet, that drought has persisted since 1982.
Newcastle’s Christian Atsu reckons if they don’t win it now, “most of the players in the current squad will retire,” which gives an idea of the thinking in their camp. Now captained by Swansea’s André Ayew, Ghana will likely not have the familiar sight of ex-Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan among the starters. “I’ve played in every AFCON since 2008, and if I have to come off the bench in every game to help us win, so be it,” Gyan – scorer of 51 goals in 106 games – tells Eurosport.
Players to watch
Ajax attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech has delighted in pre-tournament friendlies for Morocco, while Huddersfield’s Steve Mounié bagged a hat-trick on Tuesday in Benin’s 3-1 win against Mauritania. Nicolas Pépé had 22 goals and 11 assists for Lille, and with a decent midfield for Ivory Coast, could have a breakout international tournament.
Ivory Coast’s Serge Aurier (L) and Nicolas Pepe (R) celebrate a goal during the 2019 African Cup of Nations Group H qualification football match between Ivory Coast and Rwanda on March 23, 2019 at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium in Abidjan.Getty Images
Tanzania will hope simply to leave an impression, but Mbwana Samatta, fresh from raking in 32 goals from 54 matches in Belgium for Genk, can power them further. Regular AFCON watchers are used to Gyan and the older Ayew being Ghana’s poster boys, but the man likely to shine will be Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey.
Special mention to South Africa forward Percy Tau and Zimbabwe’s exciting – but prone to selfishness – Khama Billiat. Both players, for a long time chasing permanent European football, will see this tournament as a shop window.
It’s not all about scorers, because goalkeeper André Onana (Ajax) will show why his Champions League form was not a fluke, as Cameroon seek a title defence. Uganda’s best player, Dennis Onyango is also in goal.
VAR is here
On the subject of goalkeepers, they would hope to be bailed out by VAR decisions, as the controversial technology makes a tournament appearance from the quarterfinals.