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5 key talking points as Afcon enters the knock-out phase in Côte d'Ivoire

Professor Wycliffe W. Njororai Simiyu is a sports scientist with a research focus on African football. He has been watching developments with keen interest. As the tournament heads into the second round this weekend, with 16 teams still standing, below, he has outlined what the five key talking points are – or at least should be – at an upbeat Afcon this year.

Judging from media and online activity, this has been the most talked about Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in many years. That’s not just because the tournament, held every two years, is becoming a significant event on the international football calendar. It’s also because there was a lot at stake this year – for competing nations, teams, organisers (the Confederation of African Football or Caf) and hosts (Côte d'Ivoire).

This is, after all, the third Afcon to test the new format of 24 countries in the final stage instead of 16. Has the move to bring more “smaller” teams to the big stage made the game more competitive? Would Senegal and Morocco prove they deserved their powerhouse reputations? Côte d'Ivoire invested heavily in hosting the tournament: would they pull it off? And did the new Caf boss, Patrice Motsepe, have the experience to take the tournament to the next level?

As the tournament heads into the second round this weekend, with 16 teams still standing, here are five key talking points are – or at least should be – at an upbeat Afcon this year.

1. Upsets make gripping tournaments

Eight teams have been eliminated so far. This includes teams that have won the tournament before – Ghana, Algeria and Tunisia. Others eliminated are Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, The Gambia, Zambia and Tanzania. But the biggest shocks were that Algeria, the 2019 champions, and Tunisia, the 2004 champions, finished last in their groups.

The countries that exited at the preliminary stage have inquests going on into their failure. Algeria, Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, Tunisia, The Gambia and Tanzania have fired their coaches.

These kinds of shock exits provide fodder for fans to engage with the sport on social media and debates at family and community levels. The drama generates excitement and it’s clear that adding eight underdogs has paid off.

2. All eyes on Senegal and Morocco

The last Afcon was held in Cameroon and won by Senegal, who are under pressure to recapture the trophy and prove that they’re the best team in Africa. Since then, Morocco have become Africa’s first football team to make the World Cup semi-finals. They’re the highest ranked African team, under pressure to match that status with an Afcon title.

So far, Senegal have excelled. They strolled to victory over The Gambia, Cameroon and Guinea. Morocco have not displayed the kind of fluidity and team chemistry that was on show in the World Cup. However, they beat Tanzania and Zambia and drew with DR Congo to lead their group.

The rivalry between the two top ranked teams will continue into the next round and provide fuel for many heated conversations among fans.

3. The playing field is leveling

The preliminary round of Afcon has shown that the gap between the traditional superpowers and minnows of African football is shrinking fast.

Although west and north African countries have historically dominated, there are prospects for new countries to put a mark on the tournament.

Lesser known football nations like Cape Verde, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Mali dominated their groups and exhibited excellent football. It’s been refreshing to see them, as well as Namibia and Mauritania, assert themselves at Afcon.

Better known football nations like Egypt, Nigeria, DR Congo, Cameroon, Côte D’Ivoire and South Africa were given scares before making it to the next round. Will these countries learn from the early slip-ups?

4. Being a host with the most

Côte d’Ivoire is staging its second Afcon in 40 years, the first having been in 1984. All eyes were on whether the country would be able to pull it off. So far, it has done an exceptional job in a new era of internet, social media, streaming and global interest.

The tournament is being held in six stadiums located in five host cities across Côte d’Ivoire, involving a massive injection of money into infrastructure, which can ultimately boost the nation’s economy. With a successful Afcon, Côte d'Ivoire will benefit from its new global visibility.

However, preparations for the tournament were not without controversy. President Alassane Ouattara had tongues wagging when he sacked the prime minister, Patrick Achi, in October last year after the pitch infrastructure at a showpiece stadium in Ebimpé, which hosted the opening and will host the final match, failed to meet tournament standards. It required remedial work, despite the US$257 million spent on it.

There are plenty of lessons here for future hosts. Fans in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania will be watching as their countries prepare to co-host the tournament in east Africa for the first time in 2027.

5. Patrice Motsepe put to the test

It’s Caf’s job to ensure that organizationally everything runs smoothly at Afcon. South African businessman Patrice Motsepe’s debut tournament as Caf president was in Cameroon, under COVID-19 restrictions. It was a bloodstained start. Eight people died and more than 38 were injured because of poor crowd-control measures at Yaoundé’s Olembé Stadium. The tragedy, the first of its kind in the history of Afcon, left a question mark over Caf.

The current Afcon is therefore a test of both Motsepe and Caf. Going by the field display, quality of officiating and overall organization, including media coverage, Caf’s organizational standards have been given a facelift this year.

These elements – professional organization and hosting, growing fan bases and, most importantly, gripping matches – are what will be required on a sustainable level if Afcon is to continue to grow in stature and expand its global appeal and viewership.


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