By Babatunde Koiki @BabatundeKoiki
The 33rd edition of the African Cup of Nations #AFCON2021, after much postponement, finally kicks off in six venues across five Cameroonian cities from Sunday 9th January through to February 6 as Africa seek to crown its first champion of the decade.
In this first of three parts, ace writer Babatunde Koiki runs the rule over all 24 participating teams and gives his expert opinions as to who will emerge champions on the last day…
Qualification: Hosts/Group F winners ahead of Cape Verde, Rwanda and Mozambique
Last appearance: 2019
Record: Five time winners (1984, 1988, 2000, 2002, 2017)
Coach: Antonio Conceicao has been in charge since September 2019. His preferred formation is a 4-3-3. The Portuguese tactician has overseen 16 matches, winning 9, losing twice (to Ivory Coast and Cape Verde) and drawing 5 matches. He has quietly and unobtrusively rebuilt Cameroon back into the solid, powerful outfit of old. Not flashy. But efficient. As hosts, there is enormous pressure on Conceicao to lead the Indomitable Lions to a sixth African title and failure might cost him his job.
Key Players: Andre Onana is undisputed number one. Experienced central defender Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, who was one of the key pillars on which the 2017 tournament was won. Andre-Frank Zambo-Anguissa has set Serie A alight and is one of the best players in the squad. He will be instrumental to anything Cameroon acheive. Upfront, there are so many talents to choose from like Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, Karl Toko Ekambi, Jean Bassagog and the man for the big occasion, Vincent Abubakar.
Qualification: Group B winners (ahead of Uganda, Malawi and South Sudan)
Last appearance: 2017
Record: Runners up (2013)
Coach: Kamou Malo, appointed in July 2019 and has been in charge for 21 matches, winning 10, losing three and drawing eight. His preferred formation is a 4-2-3-1. His side pushed Algeria hard for a playoff ticket for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup. In two meetings, they held the African champions to a 1-1 in Ouagadougou and a 2-2 draw in Blida with captain Issoufou Dayo scoring an 83rd minute penalty.
Key Players: No more Aristide Bance but they some experienced and exciting young talent coming through. Goalkeeper Herve Koffi is a dependable shot stopper. Central defender and captain Issoufou Dayo is as solid as they come, a source of goals and is vastly experienced playing of the African continent. He scored the winning goal when his club RS Berkane of Morocco in the 1–0 victory over Egyptian club Pyramids FC in the 2020 CAF Confederation Cup Final. But the biggest star in the team in undoubtedly Aston Villa forward Bertrand Traore. A talented striker capable of playing multiple positions and an excellent finisher.
Qualfication: Runner up in Group F (1 point behind Cameroon and ahead of Madagascar)
Last appearance: 2015
Record: Quarter finals (2013)
Coach: Bubista, appointed in January 2020 and has been in charge for 13 matches winning six, losing three and drawing four. Some of those results have been particularly good, including a 1-0 win away in Mozambique, thrashing Cameroon 3-1 at home and putting Nigeria through the wringer in a 1-1 draw away in Lagos in a Qatar 2022 qualifier. His team is very tactically flexible, depending on the opposition, with 5-4-1 and 3-5-2 against stronger teams but he usually favours a 4-3-3. Ever since the country started looking at players born abroad over a decade ago, the pool of players eligible for the team as well as quality has improved. Cape Verde have never lost a group stage game at the AFCON (W1 D5), their only win was against Angola in 2013. With Bubista as their coach Cape Verde have lost just one of their 10 official matches, a 2-1 home loss to Nigeria in 2022 FIFAWC Qualifying (W5 D4).
Key Players: 35 year old goalkeeper Vozinha brings bags of experience, the arrival of Irish-born Roberto Lopes has improved defensive solidity and experience while captain and attacking midfielder Ryan Mendes’ is an experienced campaigner. He is also their top scorer with 12 goals.
Qualfication: Runner up in Group K (4 points behind Ivory Coast)
Last appearance: 2013
Record: Winners (1962)
Coach: On 25 September 2020, Wubetu Abate was confirmed as Ethiopia’s manager, signing a two-year contract. In 14 matches he has won six, lost five and drawn three. He swears by the 4-3-3 and his squad is dominated by locally based players featuring in the Ethiopian Premier League with only two internationally based players in midfielder Shemeles Bekele (El Gouna, Egypt) and forward Mujib Kassim (JS Kabilye, Algeria).
Key Players: Captain Getaneh Kabede carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. With 32 goals in 61 appearances, his goal per game ratio is one of the best anywhere and he will be instrumental in their offense. Shemeles Bekele is also a vastly experienced midfield operator and the most capped player in the team. Alongside Kabede and goalkeeper Jemal Tasew, the trio are the only players who were part of Ethiopia’s team in their last appearance at the 2013 AFCON held in South Africa. But watch out for Abubaker Nasser. The 22-year old, who can play as a center forward and out wide, has been in blistering form for Ethiopia Coffee, scoring a total of 29 goals in 23 matches last season and already has four goals in eight matches this term.
Qualification: Group I winners (ahead of Guinea Bissau, Congo and Eswatini)
Last appearance: 2019
Record: Runners up (2002, 2019)
Coach: Aliou Cissé has been the head coach of Senegal since 2015, having briefly taken charge of them following Amara Traoré’s sacking, in a caretaker role in 2012. One of the longest serving manager’s in Africa, he qualified the Teranga Lions for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, took them to the final of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and made them Africa’s number one ranked team on the FIFA rankings. He prefers a 4-2-3-1, reminiscent of the late Bruno Metsu who was his coach when Senegal reached the quarter finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. He’s been in charge for 63 matches with an impressive 40 wins, nine losses and 14 draws.
Key Players: A team oozing with quality, in goal the have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world in Edouard Mendy, captain Kalidou Coulibaly in central defence is a rock, Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate’s midfield partnership is impressive while all eyes will be on reigning African footballer of the year Sadio Mane upfront. His pace, dribbling and finishing ability are crucial to success. If Ismailla Sarr can overcome recent fitness problems, he will he a key asset too.
Qualification: Group H runners up (behind Algeria and ahead of Zambia)
Last appearance: 2019
Record: Group stage (2004, 2006, 2017, 2019)
Coach: Norman Mapeza was appointed on 15th September 2021 in a caretaker capacity after Zradvko Logarusic was fired during the Qatar 2022 qualifiers. He oscillates between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 as he tries to find the best combination from his team. After losing his first three matches, he has followed it up with two draws using the latter formation.
Key Players: Aston Villa defensive midfielder Marvelous Nakamba is injured and will be a big miss. As will Kaizer Chiefs attacking midfielder Khama Biliat who retired from international football in November. But they still have topscorer Knowledge Musona who has 23 goals in 47 appearances and Olympique Lyon striker Tino Kadewere who scored 10 Ligue 1 goals last season.
Qualification: Group A runners up (behind Mali)
Last appearance: 2019
Record: Runners up (1976)
Coach: Former striker Kaba Diawara was appointed head coach one month to the start of the tournament following the departure of Frenchman Didier Six. Six was relieved off his duties after an abysmal showing in the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifications where they didn’t win a single game. It is the first coaching job for the French-born former striker, who had been serving as Six’s assistant. It remains to be seen if Diawara will stick with or discard his predecessor’s 4-3-3.
Key Players: An embarrassment of riches exists in the midfield. How the coach gets the best out of Amadou Diawara of AS Roma, highly rated Ilaix Moriba, Olympiakos’ Aguibou Camara and Liverpool’s Naby Keita will be crucial. Incredibly talented and capable of dictating the tempo of a game Keita is undoubtedly the team’s talisman. But his horrendous injury record will have fans in Guinea and Liverpool perspiring. Striker Mohamed Bayo has caught the eye with some excellent goals for club and country. He will also be one to look out for.
Qualification: Group B runners up (behind Burkina Faso)
Last appearance: 2010
Record: Group stage (1984, 2010)
Coach: Romanian coach Mario Marinica was appointed to take charge just last month, naming 23 players for the tournament in Cameroon in spite of the fact that competing countries are allowed to take 28 players because of Covid-19 concerns. 10 of the players are foreign-based players – five from South African clubs and one each from clubs in Ethiopia, Georgia, Moldova, Mozambique and Tanzania. He went with a 4-1-3-2 in his first match in charge; a 2-1 win in a friendly with Comoros.
Key Players: Centerback and captain Limbikani Mzava’s presence and cool head will be very important in defence. Striker Gabadinho Mhango will also be a handful for opposing defenders. He needs to get his scoring boots on though. Hasn’t scored for his country since November 2019.