Teams: DR Congo, Morocco, Tanzania, Zambia
There is no doubt in anybody’s mind as to who the overwhelming Favorites for not just the group but the tournament as a whole are. The Atlas Lions have a big reputation to live up to. Manager Walid Regragui has cranked up the pressure on his team himself, claiming their World Cup semifinal exploits mean nothing if they don’t dominate on the continent. They are big words, but Regragui has often always matched his words with actions.
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He is the African Coach of the Year for a reason. The Lions are stacked in the real sense of the word, and after clinching the 2023 U23 AFCON, Regragui has more good headaches, a luxury not many coaches can afford. Abdesamad Ezzazouli is due time in the light, while Amine Harit has more to prove after missing the World Cup. Tarik Tissoudali scores every other game in Belgium, and yet there is space for Amine Adli, the former French youth international.
The responsibility looms large, but the precedence helps. A bonus is the familiarity with the group opponents. Morocco smashed the DRC en route to their historic World Cup run, in fact, they are fresh off a victory over Tanzania in Dar Es Salam in 2026 World Cup qualifying, while they faced Zambia as recently as 2019. A first title since 1976 is in high demand
The Leopards are under pressure and Sébastien Desabre has to manage high demands from home while putting together a team that will bring back the glory years. The Democratic Republic of the Congo have been in the African Football wilderness too long at the National Team level. Their 2015 Bronze medal achievement seems a long time now. Dieumerci Mbokani, Robert Muteba Kidiaba & the lot are far gone in the rear mirror, and it is now a generation of players who were born abroad, or trained abroad that populate the national team.
It is a bid to jumpstart an ailing system that never built on the success of TP Mazembe in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Their record since the turn of the century includes multiple group stage eliminations (3 to be precise), a failure to qualify for 3 straight editions between 2008 & 2012, an embarrassing last 16 exit in 2019 to Madagascar, well and a failure to reach the tournament in Cameroon. Desabre understands the task ahead of him, players the talent of Yoanne Wissa, Fiston Mayele, Cedric Bakambu, Chancel Mbemba, Gael Kakuta and Gedeon Kalulu must journey far in tournaments like this.
Rest assured Zambia have what it takes to upset the apple cart. Chipolopolo are in the business of disrupting the order, especially after missing three straight AFCON tournaments. Zambia struggled to build on their success of 2012, one that was preceded by a valiant quarterfinal elimination in 2010, and had seen strong performances in 2006 & 2008. The 2013 group stage elimination saw the departure of Herve Renard, and from then, it was down the hill.
Avram Grant, the man Renard beat to clinch the 2015 AFCON title is now in charge and has found a way to mesh Zambia’s golden class of players with a sprinkle of the old guard. The result has been goals, more goals and excitement. The Levy Mwanamwasa stadium is now always packed to the rafters and the joy amongst the fans is palpable. You won’t berate them for expecting much of Patson Daka, Fashion Sakala, Claotus Chama and Stopilla Sunzu, it is a team of AFCON winners at senior level and U20 level. It would be wise to take them seriously, as Ivory Coast experienced, at their best, Zambia are a wrecking ball.
Adel Amrouche has worked magic with the Taifa Stars. The Algerian has followed in Emmanuel Amuneke’s footsteps in taking Tanzania to an AFCON, and can even overtake that if he manages to steal a point. Amrouche is pragmatic and knows what obtains.
Tanzanian football may be on the rise, especially at club level, with Simba and Yanga particularly impressing on the continent, but it is a different ballgame in the National Team. The investment in football is beginning to yield. A 39-year wait for a qualification has seen a second qualification within four years, and while they are rank outsiders, it would be smart to not underestimate a team that held Algeria to a goalless draw in Annaba only as recently as September 2023.
Morocco – Bounou; Mazraoui, Ghanem Saiss, Aguerd, Hakimi; Ziyech, Ounahi, Amrabat; Boufal, En Neysri, Harit
Zambia – Nsabata; Sunzu, Kabwe, Musonda, Chepeheshi; Banda, Kangwa; Chama, Sakala, L. Banda; P. Daka
DR Congo – Mpasi; Kalulu, Mbemba, Kayembe, Baka; Tshibola, Moutoussamy; Kakuta, Wissa, Bongonda; Bakambu
Tanzania – Manula; Hamad, Mnoga, Mwaikenda, Mwanymeto, Job; Salum, Bajana, Kibu; Samatta, Msuva
Stars to Watch
Hakim Ziyech (Morocco and Galatasaray)
One could easily pick any Moroccan player to watch and would be totally right. But there is something that distinctly stands Hakim Ziyech out that makes it almost difficult to explain. While Achraf Hakimi, Youssef En Neysri and Yassine Bounou soaked up all adulation in the World Cup run, it was in fact Ziyech who proved PIVOTAL at each stage. His goal effectively sealed their group winner status.
It was his pass that led to the cross that eliminated Portugal, and his leadership, which remains a silent part of his game did help a lot. Ziyech’s range of passing, vision, dynamism as well as selfless acts in Atlas Red is a feature to watch out for in Ivory Coast. He probably hasn’t gotten over the penalty miss against Benin in 2019, but it definitely must have lit a fire in his belly. If Morocco are to achieve their ultimate aim, the Galatasaray man must keep things ticking like the leader of the orchestra he has proven himself to be.
Yoane Wissa (DR Congo and Brentford)
Fiston Mayele, Theo Bongonda, Cedric Bakambu and Simon Banza are probably names many would pick when asked about DR Congo’s star, but Yoanne Wissa is the one who slips under the radar always. Wissa has always been none the wiser, a willing sacrificial player whose expertise is in complimenting his teammates.
Either in a front two or in a front three, Wissa’s ability to run into and create space for his teammates has always ended up working in his favor, with the ball somehow always ending at his feet. He scores in tight and big spaces, and in big moments too; boasts good close control, and can find a teammate like a needle in a haystack. The fluency of the Congolese offense may yet rely on whether he is on song.
Patson Daka (Leicester City and Zambia)
Daka may finally be fulfilling the potential he showed as a U20 star several years ago. The ultimate gunman, he has an unlimited arsenal of finishes. His speed is a scary prospect, and while he has gradually improved in his physicality, an area that seems to get better is his one-on-one situations. He has four goals for Leicester in just seven appearances this season, already equalling his total from last season. The expectations of him are high and those questioning his abilities are within their rights to do so, but Daka is a star, and what they do is shine in the brightest moments.
Mbwana Ally Samatta (Tanzania and PAOK)
Probably Tanzania’s greatest-ever export, Samatta has etched his name in Tanzanian lore. He now has more AFCON appearances than most players, and is three goals shy of the all-time scoring record. He didn’t enjoy the 2019 AFCON in Egypt, and for many, it is believed he has a score to settle. Samatta scores in any competition he participates in, and always makes a mental note of letting his rivals know he was there. He is yet to have an AFCON coming-out party, however, this stage is set for him. He won’t have many more chances to play in an AFCON tournament.
By: Tosin Holmes / @Cosimo_diMedici
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / DeFodi Images