AFCON 2017: A Preview

by | Jan 11, 2017

Complaints have been less frequent this year, as the English Premier League (EPL) “loses” players to the biggest international football tournament to take place during its season.It has at last sunk in that many foreign players are more honoured by international call-ups than English ones. Thus 23 EPL and 13 Football League players will spend up to five weeks in Gabon for 2017’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). Indeed, Sunderland fans might want more than four of their squad on West Africa’s coast. AFCON’s 31st edition begins on Saturday, with Cote D’Ivoire as holders, after years of star-strewn under-achievement. In contrast, 2013 African champions Nigeria are conspicuous by their second consecutive finals’ absence. And, in further contrast, Egypt are in their first finals since their 2010 triumph, a remarkable slump after a third title in-a-row.

African football has never kept politics out of sport. And recent choices of AFCON hosts have been politically fraught. Gabon co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea in 2012. But they were about 94th choice for 2017, ‘winning’ after a process Franz Kafka might have thought convoluted (the old ones are the only ones). South Africa were the original choice. But they swapped with 2013’s first choice because of Libya’s (yes, LIBYA’S) little local difficulties which were BOUND to ease before 2017, as such turmoil always does. When, in 2014, it finally dawned on the dozy denizens of Africa’s football confederation (CAF) that…well…LIBYA, the bidding process restarted, with Gabon edging Ghana and Algeria in the final vote. In there somewhere, original 2015 hosts Morocco were banned from the 2017 and 2019 AFCONs for refusing to host because of the Ebola virus and…they’re in Gabon (don’t ask).

The 13 qualification groups were largely decided before the final matches. And with Egypt and Nigeria in the same group, one big name was always bound to miss out, especially as Chad’s withdrawal left just them and Tanzania in the group and denied the runners-up a qualification route. Egypt won the crucial clash in Alexandria in March 2016, 1-0, after Nigeria’s Victor Moses hit the post late on. The campaign produced one finals debutant, Guinea-Bissau, and a first appearance for 1978 runners-up Uganda since…1978.  Guinea-Bissau beat Congo by a point, despite losing twice to them…Congo’s only two victories (I’m guessing that’s not happened before). DR Congo hammered the useless-away-from-home Central African Republic 4-1 in their effective group decider in Kinshasa, the pivotal moment being Firmin Mubele making it 2-0, SEVENTEEN seconds after half-time. Les Fauves won the home game 2-0 but only drew 1-1 in Madagascar, where DR Congo won 6-1.

Burkina Faso and Uganda were inseparable on points and goals scored AND conceded. But the Les Etalons won the low-scoring group on the head-to-head rule, with Jonathan Pitroipa’s penalty in their 1-0 home win over The Cranes (the birds, presumably) and their goalless draw in Uganda. However, both sides qualified, as Uganda, with five players from Lebanese and…Vietnamese clubs, were one of the two best group runners-up. At least Uganda will be there if their FA (Fufa) resolve their dispute (financial, natch) with their government, whose promised funds to help the team’s preparations were only half what was expected. Members of Uganda’s parliament have individually donated small sums to reduce the shortfall.

Togo were the other best runner-up and head for Gabon with 32-year-old free agent, ex-everybody striker and serial international retiree Emanuel Adebayor as…captain (!). They overtook Liberia, on a final day where three teams could still qualify, to finish second to Tunisia, after a 5-0 win over the group’s proverbial whipping boys Djibouti, who had the worst qualifying record by a neck…a giraffe’s neck. Tunisia dashed Liberia’s hopes by beating them 4-1 in Tunis. The Lone Stars were already one-down when keeper James Galley’s spectacular fly-kick clearance failed spectacularly and gifted Taha Yassine Khenissi a tap-in. Serious injury was surely only avoided by luck. “I’m sorry…ay, ay, ay,” said the French match-commentary, when Galley had another personal nightmare for Tunisia’s fourth goal.

Senegal were the only qualifiers with maximum points, while Algeria were the most expansive. The Senegalese “Lions of Taranga” jogged through with a series of solid, mostly two-goal, wins inspired by strikers Sadio Mane of Liverpool and Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf. The opener in their 2-0 home win over Niger possessed a terrible beauty. Niger’s Dankwae Kofi appeared ready to take a seriously ill-timed dump in the penalty area (not that I can envisage a well-timed one) as keeper Moussa Alzouma tried to hack the ball clear. The clearance whacked Kofi’s protruding backside and Mohamed Diame only had to stop laughing to score, which wasn’t easy. Algeria ran predictable lanes through Seychelles and Lesotho. But their 7-1 win over 2013 qualifiers Ethiopia, including Saphir Taider’s stunning 30-yard volley from a corner, was less predictable. Especially as qualifiers’ top scorer, seven-goal El Arabi Hillel Soudani, didn’t play. Algeria only dropped points in the 3-3 draw with Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, three days later.

Bizarrely, Gabon played in a qualifying group, their games deemed friendlies. It was a Group of Death(ly dull football) with seven goals in six games between Cote D’Ivoire, Sudan and Sierra Leone and Cote D’Ivoire winning only once. Oh…and in case you care, had Gabon’s matches counted, Cote D’Ivoire would have won on head-to-head results with Gabon, who would have missed a “best runner-up” spot by a point.

This at least suggests Gabon will be competitive hosts, especially if star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hits his straps. It remains unclear whether their schedule of “competitive” friendlies will leave them better prepared than hosts normally are…presumably the reasoning for such odd scheduling. Nigeria apart, the recognised continental powerhouses largely qualified. Ghana hockeyed Mauritius 7-1, with two goals from approximately-94-year-old striker and skipper Asamoah Gyan, and never looked back. And Cameroon made up for not beating South Africa by beating everyone else. But while the Indomitable Lions will roar (sorry) in Gabon, seven of their preliminary 35-man squad refused to. Liverpool’s Joel Matip withdrew after an unspecified “bad experience with previous technical staff,” according to an angry statement by Cameroon football federation, Fecafoot (an onomatopoeia in certain accents), which added: “These players want to privilege their personal interest to the detriment of the national team, which some of them have already used for their development.” Wooh.

Continental non-powerhouse Zimbabwe also qualified impressively, as Southern Africa’s sole finals representatives, with a game left. But their squad has been in near-constant dispute with their FA, over money, accommodation, money, facilities and…money. They boycotted a formal send-off dinner and while captain Willard Katsande said: “Obviously we are going to play,” it isn’t obvious yet. Morocco also qualified with a game left. The Atlas Lions conceded just once, a stoppage-time equaliser in Libya where the draw sealed their passage. Mali failed to win just once and hammered Benin 5-2 in a last day decider in Bamako. Oh…and Jhon Baggio Rakotonomenjanahary played for Madagascar. He didn’t do much. I just thought you’d like to know.

Aside from Cameroon’s Lions proving 20% domitable, there are “notable absentees.” DR Congo’s Yannick Bolasie crumpled in a tournament-missing heap during Everton/Manchester United last month. And Leyton-born Benik Afobe is focussing on his Bournemouth career. He represented England at all underage levels and was denied a senior DR Congo debut when “the FA sent the paperwork to the wrong Congo.” Honestly, these incompetent, chaotic, third-world…wait…what? OUR FA? Oh. Morocco’s Nordin Amrabat sheepishly limped out of Watford’s recent loss to Spurs, implying that while Watford collectively “didn’t fancy it,” he “didn’t fancy it” most. Seems he was physically hurt after all. Morocco also lost Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal to injury. And Mike Dean’s favourite Hammer, Sofiane Feghouli, was dropped by Algeria. Something wrong with the name Sofiane? Arsenal fans will be spared Gervinho flashbacks by the Ivorian “forward’s” injury absence.

Injury deprives Ghana of Juventus midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah. And although Mali have Adama Traore in Gabon, it won’t be Middlesbrough’s Adama, the (clichéd alliteration alert) Spanish-born speedster turning down the chance to accompany his Monaco-based namesake. Cote D’Ivoire also have an Adama Traore. So anyone singing “there’s only one Adama Traore” is lying. Notable presences include Wilfrid Zaha, whose Cote D’Ivoire debut was a 2-1 friendly win over Sweden last Saturday, and Egyptian keeper-skipper Essam El-Hadary, who will be, eeek, 44 on Sunday. Familiar bosses will abound. Gabon will be shouted at by ex-Spanish manager Jose Antonio Camancho. Smile-a-year Avram Grant is still Ghana supremo. While serial AFCON managers Henryk Kasperczak, Herve Renard, Alain Giresse and Claude Le Roy will guide Tunisia, Morocco, Mali and Togo respectively.

Meanwhile, CAF president Issa Hayatou, faces possible corruption charges (yes, I’m shocked too) over AFCON broadcasting contract awards (sound familiar?) to French-based broadcast rights managers Lagardere Sports. Cynics have already likened the process to FBI-indictable practices in Americas football confederations. But Hayatou has survived all recent Fifa scandals…and may be innocent. No…really. The tournament is refreshingly open…my excuse for having no idea who will win it. Zimbabwe and Guinea-Bissau were 37th and 41st seeds respectively for the qualifying campaign, so their mere presence is probably fairytale enough. But it is difficult to entirely dismiss anyone else.

CAF 2018 World Cup qualifying (WCQ) is the most recent form guide. The AFCON could not be much more slap-bang in the middle of it but as the next qualifiers are in late-August, everyone in Gabon should be fully focussed. That said, the qualifiers have torn-up some form books. After their 100% AFCON qualification record, Senegal lost in South Africa. And absent Nigeria top a WCQ group propped up by genuine AFCON contender Algeria, goals from then-Chelsea duo Moses and John Obi-Mikel overcoming the Fennecs 3-1 in November. Worryingly for football fun-seekers, the one WCQ group with four AFCON finalists has produced three nil-nils in four matches.

Ghana are due an AFCON title, even more than Cote D’Ivoire in 2015. They last won in, ulp!, 1982. And while their WCQ campaign falters (two games, one point, no goals) I have a feeling that 2017 will be their AFCON year…though that could, of course, be wind. Ghana’s WCQ loss was in Egypt, who are in Ghana’s AFCON group. But I still fancy both as AFCON finalists, a repeat of 2010’s final, which Egypt won 1-0. Otherwise, Gabon can be filed under “not the best team but good enough to win it as they’re at home,” like many past international tournament winners, including, dare I say, in 1966. Algeria have African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez, hopefully ready and willing and definitely able to win games single-handedly. And, like Germany, regardless of current ability, “you can never write off” Cote D’Ivoire. Apparently. In truth, a mixed bag of football probably awaits. Usually the group OR knock-out stages thrill, rarely both. Let’s hope for an exception this time.

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