Every two years, Africa’s biggest nations go head to head for perhaps the most prestigious crown in African Football, The African Cup of Nations. This is the only competition where George Orwell’s Animal Farm overly applies. There is a Super Eagle, a Carthage Eagle and more Eagles. There are Indomitable Lions, Atlas Lions & Teranga Lions; There are Elephants, Sharks, Mambas, Scorpions, Foxes, Leopards and Stallions. Like a tropical forest, there are warriors, thunders, copper bullets and more boys and probably a Pharaoh everyone answers to. You would not be remiss to liken it to a movie from the Stone Age.
Ivory Coast hosts the 2023 edition, and across four weeks, five rounds and six venues, the fates of many will be decided. We preview the tournament.
Teams: Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau
Ivory Coast and Nigeria are the overwhelming favorites in Group A. The track record speaks for themselves, both teams have a combined five AFCON titles and share more similarities than most. Ivory Coast’s first title came the edition before Nigeria’s second, while their second triumph came exactly after Nigeria’s third triumph. The last time Les Elephants hosted the AFCON? Four years after Nigeria hosted and won their first-ever African title.
The fixture between both sides on Matchday 2 will carry significant weight, with many tipping the winner to go on and finish group winners. They have enjoyed classic encounters too. Sunday Mba’s beauty in the 2013 quarter-finals in a game where everyone wrote off the late Stephen Keshi’s Eagles. Who would forget Salomon Kalou’s mazy dribble and finish back in 2008 against Berti Vogts’ Super Eagles? How about Joseph Enakahire misjudging the flight of the ball, and leaving Didier Drogba one-on-one with Vincent Enyeama in 2006?
It proved to be Jay-Jay Okocha’s swansong, An appearance off the bench to salvage what was left only that it wasn’t salvageable. How about Rashidi Yekini’s special moment in 1990? Or Michel Bassole and his brace in 1994, which almost stopped Nigeria from earning a place in the final. The evidence that this fixture may have come full circle however is that both sides clashed in 1980, when Nigeria hosted the tournament and it ended up goalless. Segun Odegbami, Adokiye Amiesamaka, Christian Chukwu, Adama Konate and Laurent Pokou (whom the 2023 AFCON ball is named after), lined up on the day. Legends, the lot of them. This one would certainly produce more.
Should anything go wrong for the two favorites in Group A, the most likely beneficiaries would be Equatorial Guinea. The Nzalang Nacional are attending their fourth AFCON, and boy, have they made a mark. Coached by the wily Juan Micha Obiang, they have always advanced from their AFCON group. Their worst finish is a quarterfinal berth, achieved in 2012 when they co-hosted and in 2021 in Cameroon. They even finished fourth in 2015 when they hosted the tournament. It is not beyond the realm of imagination that a team that has aided the eliminations of past champions like Algeria, Tunisia and Senegal would not repeat the trick.
It’s now three consecutive AFCONs for Baciro Cande and Guinea Bissau. They are no longer a surprise package. They are yet to win an AFCON game though, and have three points from a possible 27. They have averaged two losses per tournament, and it seems the more things change, the more they have remained the same, or maybe not. Franculino Dju headlines the attack for FC Midtjylland and is a dangerous prospect. Mama Balde struck the only goal in an upset win over Nigeria in Abuja in March 2023. Moreto Cassama is beginning to look like who they thought he would be. Perhaps a familiarity with these opponents is beginning to yield results. A wild dog is on the prowl.
Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast have always advanced when placed in the same group as the hosts of a competition. Ivory Coast, were in fact the second team to host the AFCON and not advance from the group stage. Only Tunisia (1994) and Gabon (2015) have done the same since.
Nigeria (4-3-3): Nwabali; Osayi-Samuel, Ekong, Bassey, Bruno; Iwobi, Ndidi, Iheanacho, Lookman; Boniface, Osimhen
Ivory Coast (4-3-3): Y. Fofana; Koussonou, Aurier, Boly, N’Dicka; Kessie, Fofana S, I. Sangare; Adingra, Kouame, Traore
Equatorial Guinea (4-2-3-1): Owono; Ndong, Coco, Akapo, Orozco; Bikoro, Ganet; Salvador, Machin, Miranda; Nsue
Guinea-Bissau (4-2-3-1): Mendes; Mendes, Sangante, Djalo, Encada; Manconi, Semedo; Cassama, Balde, Piqueti; Franculino
Stars to Watch
Victor Osimhen (Nigeria & Napoli)
The African King, what more needs to be said? A league champion, the reigning Capocannoniere winner, the leading scorer in the AFCON qualifiers. Osimhen is barely scratching the surface. He has already marked his African Player of the Year Award with goals in back-to-back games, including an assist that many thought was training ground material.
If he keeps up his form and leads Nigeria to AFCON glory, there is a possibility he is backlifting the Player of the Year gong next year. He already has seven Serie A goals this season in 12 appearances, and when he doesn’t play, The Neapolitans are as dysfunctional as it gets, the only more dysfunctional unit? The Super Eagles, who look like they can’t tear apart a piece of paper, let alone a defence in his absence.
Franck Kessie (Ivory Coast & Al Ahli)
Kessie has had a phenomenal past 24 months. The two teams he helped to titles have looked totally different without him, and the team he is on right now? They often look out of sorts when he doesn’t play. For context, his current team boasts four former Premier League stars. He is an anchor in midfield, a proper metronome. His stats back it up wholly.
His only goal for Barcelona effectively handed them the league title, everyone believes he was just as pivotal to Milan’s title success. He has already come up clutch for Al Ahli as well, scoring late winners and keeping them in games. He has 5 goals in 17 appearances already this season. If he brings a bit of that form to the national team, complemented by Seko Fofana, Les Elephants could go all the way.
Jose Machin (Monza & Equatorial Guinea)
The midfielder stands out as the biggest export out of Equatorial Guinea right now. A cultured midfielder, he is not your typical central midfielder, boasting good touches and a good carriage. If Machin is on song, with Ganet & Bikoro supporting him, the Nzalang Nacional are a force to reckon with.
Franculino Dju (Midtjylland & Guinea-Bissau)
A fleet-footed forward. Dju has gone from playing in the UEFA Youth League with Benfica to taking Danish League games by storm. He has scored six goals through 14 appearances already in the Danish League, outperforming his xG. He has done it while averaging a shot on target per game, and he boasts two assists as well. A physical and proper forward, He holds the key to Baciro Cande’s team and their progression in Abidjan.
By: Tosin Holmes / @Cosimo_diMedici
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / CAF