By Tosin Abayomi
Every two years the best countries on the continent converge to battle for Africa’s most coveted football trophy. Several countries try but only one winner will emerge. Talent is key, experience and chemistry are important to determine the possible candidates that will triumph at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Egypt. But sometime, mother luck also plays a crucial role.
The tournament in Egypt will be the first time 24 teams will be participating. It’s also the first time featuring six groups and a round of 16 which brings about uncertainty in the possible second-round match-ups.
Over the years, it has been established that there are no more minnows in African football with the game developing immensely, but there are teams who have established themselves as traditional powerhouses over the past editions of the tournament.
This year, the favourites will be hosts Egypt, Morocco, defending champions Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, star-studded Senegal and Nigeria making a return.
The Pharaohs of Egypt come into the 2019 AFCON with a renewed sense of hunger following their devastating defeat to Cameroon in the final of the last edition. Egypt were heavy favourites to win the title in Gabon only to fall short at the last hurdle, something they will aim to correct when playing in front of their home supporters.
In AFCON history, the host country has progressed to the final of the competition 14 times out of 31 and the three times Egypt has hosted the competition in 1959, 1986 and 2016 they won in front of their home fans. Who will bet that 2019 will be an exception?
With Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah now a two-time African footballer of the year and regarded as one of the best players in the world, Egypt has a high chance of winning their eighth AFCON and making amends for last edition’s final loss.
While many critics and analysts have batted away the chance of the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon to retain their trophy in Egypt, as defending champions winning will not be an abnormality. Cameroon are five-time champions. Before their triumph in 2017, Cameroon won back to back titles in 2000 and 2002, so who is to say a repeat is not on the cards.
Gone are the days when the Cameroon team was full of stars such as Samuel Eto’o, Rigobert Song and Eric Djemba-Djemba. The current set up has a mixture of youth and experience ranging from young Ajax goalkeeper André Onana to Paris Saint-Germain forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. The Lions have a capable team that relies on teamwork and an understanding formed from last edition’s triumph. They come with a chemistry that can take them to the final stages of the competition and possibly repeat their heroics.
Star-studded, young and vibrant, everything is set for this Morocco team to take center stage when the 2019 AFCON kicks off. This is a new era for the Atlas Lions, after a disappointing quarter-final exit to Egypt in the last edition. Coupled with a good outing in a tough group at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, they come into this edition with more experience for their youthful team.
Led by veteran defender Medhi Benatia, this Moroccan team is full of future superstars such as Real Madrid defender Achraf Hakimi, Youssef En-Nesyri, Ajax duo of Noussair Mazraoui and Hakim Ziyech along with a veteran coach Hervé Renard who has previously won the title with Zambia and Ivory Coast, they could be set for an era of dominance on the continent starting in Egypt.
The Elephants of Ivory Coast come to the 2019 AFCON with one thing on their minds: revenge for an unexplainable group stage exit at the last edition. Ivory Coast was tipped to retain their title in Gabon despite the departure of influential midfielder Yaya Toure, but their superstars did not live up to the hype. The AFCON heartbreak was followed by missing the 2018 FIFA World Cup altogether.
The Elephants have moved away from the era of Didier Drogba with current stars such as AC Milan’s Franck Kessié and Jean Michaël Seri now their focal points. With one of Europe’s most sought after sensation Nicolas Pépé, Lyon’s Maxwell Cornet and Crystal Palace Wilfried Zaha, the Elephants boast one of the best front lines at the competition. They also have the pedigree of former champions and come to Egypt with a chance to show the continent how far they have come in their rebuilding process. With their star quality,anything is possible.
To not include Ghana among the favorites for the upcoming AFCON in Egypt will be an insult to the squad. Despite the dearth of star players at the moment, the Black Stars are still a formidable team and pose a threat. Depending on the second round placements, Ghana could easily find themselves in the latter stages of the knock out round.
Since 2008, Ghana have advanced to the semifinals of the last six editions, coming short in the 2010 and 2015 finals. The team boasts experience from their recent outings, although following their failure to make the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there has been less buzz about the Black Stars.
The leadership of James Kwesi Appiah still has the structure and experience of key players such as André Ayew and Jordan Ayew, Captain Thomas Partey and Jeffrey Schlupp to rival the best teams on the continent. Ghana is one of the traditional African teams at this stage with four titles. They will be hoping to summon one last charge to erase the heartbreak of recent outing, provided the late drama caused by former skipper Asamoah Gyan doesn’t cause a division in the team.
The Teranga Lions of Senegal come to the 2019 AFCON with another opportunity for their golden generation to take center stage. After failing to live up to the hype as favorites in 2017, Senegal comes to Egypt with more experience after their 2018 FIFA World Cup showing where they narrowly missed out of qualifying for the knockout stage.
Of all the teams at the tournament, Senegal boasts arguably the strongest on paper. From their goalkeeping to striking options, there are very few weaknesses. In defends are Napoli strongman Kalidou Koulibaly, Schalke’s Salif Sané and Barcelona’s Moussa Wagué in defense. In midfield are Premier League workhorses Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyaté while in attack, Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, Inter Milan’s Keita Baldé and one of Europe’s rising stars Ismaïla Sarr should strike fear into the hearts of opposing teams. However, the question has always been if they could find a system to harness the potential of their star players and develop team chemistry that will make them an unstoppable force.
The talent, reputation and star quality is there, but can they deliver? Head coach Aliou Cissé was part of the previous golden generation consisting of El Hadji Diouf, Souleymane Camara and Papa Bouba Diop that failed at the final stage in 2002 and will hope this current crop can win the country’s first AFCON trophy.
Only the Super Eagles of Nigeria will miss the last two AFCON editions and still be among the favourites. Gernot Rohr’s team were one of Africa’s better performers at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and after negotiating a tough qualification group, they come to Egypt with renewed optimism for AFCON glory.
The Super Eagles’ last appearance at the AFCON was in 2013 where Joseph Yobo lifted the trophy and their return will most definitely have sent shock waves to the continent’s best. Nigeria is one of the traditional AFCON teams with three trophies, four runners up and seven third-place finish. The Super Eagles have reached the semifinal an astonishing 14 out of 17 times, therefore, a minimum last four appearance is expected in Egypt.
The question marks on the Super Eagles will not be talent but experience. Only team captains Mikel Obi and Ahmed Musa were part of the team to the 2013 edition in South Africa. Expected to present one of the youngest teams at the competition coupled with a group stage exit at the World Cup in Russia, most critics are unsure how far this team can go. With pedigree not in question, striker’s quality may be the hindrance as, despite Odion Ighalo topping the qualification scoring charts, his potency compared to some of Africa’s leading marksmen has been called into question especially at tournament level which will be his first at 30.
The technical capacity and continental experience of Rohr could, however, be an added advantage for the Super Eagles, having coached several African teams. One thing about the Nigerians on the African stage is that they rise up to the occasion and who is to say a return to the AFCON will not end in victory.
The favorites selected for the AFCON in Egypt have to their credit previous history and form, which are the bases for selecting these seven countries. However, time and again over the course of every competition, there have been teams who have sprung surprises to the shock of many. That being said, these aforementioned teams looktoo strong for neither to emerge victorious.