The African Cup of Nations (AFCON) is a football tournament held every two years to determine the champion of African football, similar to UEFA’s European championships (Euros). 16 teams qualified for the tournament this year, with the hosts, Gabon, automatically qualifying. Gabon had been a last-minute replacement host as Libya was originally scheduled to host, but withdrew because of the ongoing violence and civil unrest in the country.
50 teams competed in 13 groups for the right to compete in this year’s AFCON, with the 13 group winners along with the top two runners-up qualifying for the tournament. Two groups second place teams were not eligible for the two runner up slots including African powerhouse and three time champion Nigeria, who finished 2nd place to Egypt in Group G. Uganda and Togo were the two countries that qualified as group runners-up. The 16 teams then were put into four groups of four, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the knockout rounds.
The tournament often causes conflicts between club and country, as European clubs hate that the tournament takes place in the middle of European club seasons. It is a conflict that often puts players in untenable positions, as the players fear that they will lose their place in their club side if they go, but still want to honor and represent their country. To keep the club teams from putting undue pressure on the players to stay, FIFA regulations say that if a player is picked in the final squad but does not go, the club team may not select them for the time that the national team is playing in the tournament. Many players and clubs try to lobby the national FAs to avoid being selected.
The short-sighted nature of clubs is on full display in this resistance. Part of the reason that people go to football matches is to see stars, and having players who have led their national teams to glory only adds to their fame. After all, Didier Drogba is not only known as a guy who scored all those goals for Chelsea, but also as the man who was so important to his national football team and his nation that he literally stopped a civil war. Chelsea sold many shirts all over the world because of Drogba, and every team that signed him afterwards signed him not just because of his prowess on the football pitch, but because of the fame that came from his dedication to his nation.
BTH Picks: Cameroon, Gabon
Cameroon would be considered one of the favorites to come out of this group as four time winners of AFCON, with the most recent win coming in 2002. They have also qualified for the past two World Cups. Most of the players for the Cameroon national team play in Europe. A player to watch for is forward Vincent Aboubakar, who plays for Besiktas in Turkey. He has 14 goals for the Cameroon national team, coming in 38 caps. A few players refused the call-up, including Liverpool’s Joel Matip, and were left off the final team. Hearts midfielder Arnaud Djoum has been included in the final squad for the tournament as was Montreal Impact’s Ambroise Oyongo.
Aubameyang is good at this football thing.
Gabon has twice appeared the quarterfinals of AFCON, in both 1996 and 2012. As hosts, they have an advantage over shock 2013 AFCON runners-up Burkina Faso. Gabon are powered by Borussia Dortmund talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The 2016 African footballer of the year was also picked as the Bundesliga 2015-16 player of the year by his peers. UK based players include Cardiff’s Bruno Ecuele Manga and Sunderland’s Didier N’Dong.
Burkina Faso have never qualified for the World Cup, but did lose in the 2013 AFCON finals to champion Nigeria. The team does not have any representatives from any UK clubs. Perhaps the best known player on the Burkina Faso team would be ex-Rennes player Jonathan Pitroipa. He scored 14 goals in 91 appearances for the French club, and has also scored 18 times in 68 appearances for the national team. Captain Charles Kabore featured 124 times for Marseille, but now plays in Russia for FC Krasnodar.
The Guinea-Bissau national team is making its first appearance at AFCON. Not many players from the national team are household names, with most of the players on the team playing for teams in the Portuguese leagues. Cicero Semedo, the highest active goal scorer with six goals in fourteen appearances and who currently plays for Pacos Ferreira in Portugal’s Primeria Liga, is out injured, making their chances even slimmer than they already were. Thirty year-old Bocundji Ca, who has spent his entire career playing in France, mainly for Tours and Reims, looks to be one of key players, being a joint leader in national team appearances (20) with two other players.
BTH Picks: Senegal, Algeria
If the Mahrez of 2015-16 shows up, everyone else is in trouble.
Algeria would be considered one the favorites in AFCON 2017, having come off an appearance in the World Cup 2014 in Brazil where they reached the knockout stage over Russia and South Korea. The team will also look to repeat a win over Senegal, as they were drawn in the same group in the 2015 AFCON. With such talents as reigning BBC African Footballer of the year Riyad Mahrez and Dinamo Zagreb’s star striker El Arabi Hillel Soudani, scoring goals should not be a problem for the Desert Foxes. In addition to Mahrez, Leicester City’s record signing Islam Slimani will also appear for Algeria, having scored 23 goals in only 44 appearances for the national team. Other UK based players are Watford’s Adlene Guedioura, and Tottenham’s on loan midfielder Nabil Bentaleb who currently plays for Schalke in the Bundesliga.
Senegal is the other team that should come out of Group B to the knockout rounds. The team’s most successful year was 2002 when they were runners-up in that season’s edition of AFCON, losing on penalty kicks to Cameroon, and also reaching the knockout round in the World Cup in South Korea/Japan. They would like to avenge the loss to Algeria in the last edition of AFCON, where they failed to get past the group stage after being drawn into that tournaments “group of death” with Algeria, South Africa, and tournament runner-up Ghana. Fans of English football will be familiar with a number of players from the Senegal national team. West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate, Newcastle’s Mohammed Diame, Everton’s Idrissa Gana Gueye, Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf, and Liverpool’s derby hero Sadio Mane all are scheduled to appear for Senegal in this year’s AFCON.
Tunisia hosted and won AFCON back in 2004, but they haven’t been as successful in recent years, although they did reach the quarterfinals in the 2015 edition of AFCON. Only a few players in the squad are based in Europe, but one of the ones sure to feature for the team is Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri who has scored 10 goals for Tunisia. Tunisia’s lone AFCON win was plagued with controversy, with Brazilian born Francileudo Dos Santos having represented Tunisia after he had appeared 60 times for Tunisian club Etoile du Sahel, scoring 41 goals in the years 1998-2000.
Zimbabwe, making only their second appearance in AFCON, are the team least likely to advance to the knockout rounds. Cricket would usually be considered the most popular sport in Zimbabwe, but a number of players from the national team play for South African club powerhouses such as Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. The most famous footballers from Zimbabwe would most likely be Anfield legend Bruce Grobbelaar and former Coventry City player Peter Ndlovu.
BTH Picks: Cote d’Ivoire, DR Congo
Cote d’Ivoire is one of giants of African football, having won the Cup of Nations twice, been runners up twice and placed third on four occasions. They are the current holders of the Cup, having won the last tournament in 2015, and would be considered favorites to win AFCON pretty much every single year. The team might be in for a slight transition this year, with brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure both looking to be left out of the squad with younger players starting to overtake them in the pecking order. Despite some turnover from the team that qualified for three straight World Cups, a number of high profile players will likely take the field for Les Elephants. English football fans should recognize former Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou, who has scored 28 times in 88 appearances for Cote d’Ivoire. Many UK based players will be playing for Cote d’Ivoire in this year’s AFCON tournament. Striker Wilfried Bony, who is on loan at Stoke City from Manchester City, is in the squad. Bournemouth’s Max Gradel is another UK based player, as is Sunderland’s defender Lamine Kone, who also has been linked to West Ham in the press. Also in the Cote d’Ivoire team is Crystal Palace player Wilfried Zaha, Aston Villa’s Jonathan Kodjia, and Manchester United defender Eric Bailly.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DR Congo, is the other favorite in the in group, having placed third in the last AFCON tournament in 2015. The team won the African Championship of Nations in 2016, a competition that only features players from domestic leagues, but not overseas based players. The DR Congo team had a glory period in the late 60s extending into the 70s, including two championships in 1968 and 1974, and a World Cup appearance in 1974. The team has not reached those lofty heights since, but they have placed third at two AFCONs, in 1998 and 2015. The team suffered a blow, however, when Everton’s Yannick Bolasie suffered a season-ending knee injury on December 4th. A number of UK based players might suit up for DR Congo; Hull’s Dieumerci Mbokani, Fulham’s Neeskens Kebano, Birmingham’s Jacques Maghoma, Newcastle’s Chancel Mbemba, Norwich’s Youssouf Mulumbu, Northampton Town’s Gabriel Zakuani, and Charlton’s Jordan Botaka. Bournemouth’s Benik Afobe has come home from the tournament after earlier problems registering for DR Congo after the FA had sent the paperwork to the wrong Congo.
Morocco can be considered a surprise addition to the 2017 AFCON tournament. After Morocco withdrew from hosting the 2015 edition, the team was suspended for the next two tournaments by CAF. The ban was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in spring 2015. The team won the AFCON championship all the way back in 1976, and was runner up in 2004. Recently, the team has consistently qualified for AFCON, but has rarely escaped the group stage. UK based players include Wolves defender Romain Saiss, Southampton’s Sofiane Boufal, and Watford’s Nordin Amrabat.
Can Adebayor still bring the skill that he did for so many years?
Togo is infamously known for withdrawing from the 2010 AFCON after a rebel attack on the team bus left three players dead. CAF, in a fit of empathy, banned the team from the next two tournaments. The ban was lifted a few months later after Sepp Blatter, then head of FIFA, personally met with representatives from both Togo and CAF in Zurich to settle the matter. Togo later qualified for the 2013 AFCON in South Africa, where they did not get out of the group stage. Probably the most famous footballer from Togo would be Emmanuel Adebayor. The former Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, Crystal Palace, and Real Madrid player is currently without a club, but has scored 29 times for the national team in 72 appearances. Fulham’s Floyd Ayite has also been included in many of the recent squad selections for the Togo national team and looks to be set for AFCON 2017.
BTH picks: Ghana, Egypt
Will a strong performance for Andre Ayew at AFCON 2017 jumpstart his club career at West Ham?
Ghana, nicknamed the Black Stars, is another one of the African football giants. They have won AFCON four times, winning last in 1982, and placed second an additional five times, including the most recent tournament in 2015. The team also reached the quarter-final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where they lost on penalty kicks to Uruguay. The team is currently managed by ex-West Ham manger Avram Grant. A number of players for the Black Stars are fairly household names in the footballing world. West Ham’s Andre Ayew and his brother Jordan, who plays for Aston Villa, should be key players for the team. In addition to them, other UK based players are Newcastle’s Christian Atsu, Leicester City’s Daniel Amartey. US based Columbus Crew defenders Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah will also suit up for the Black Stars. In addition, ex-Sunderland player Asamoah Gyan will captain the team in Gabon, after having scored 48 goals in 97 appearances for the national team.
Mali can be considered one of the dark horses in the tournament, having placed third in the 2012 and 2013 tournaments and having a number of experienced European club players. West Ham fans will surely recognize Mali’s captain, Modibo Maiga, and his four goals for the team in 34 appearances. His goal scoring record for the national team, 13 goals in 59 games, is quite better. The only UK based player on the national team is Crystal Palace’s Bakary Sako, who first refused the call-up when named in the preliminary squad earlier in December.
Egypt is the other team that is likely to advance from this group. The Egyptian national team was the first African team to qualify for the World Cup back in 1934. The team is a record seven time champion of AFCON, with three victories in 2006, 2008, and 2010 all coming in a row. The team was managed by American Bob Bradley from 2011-13, and is now managed by Argentinian Hector Cuper. UK based players include Arsenal’s Mohamed El Nenny and Stoke’s Ramadan Sobhi. Also appearing will be Hull’s Ahmed Elmohamady, who has been linked to West Ham in recent days. In addition, ex-Chelsea player Mohamed Salah, who currently plays for Roma in Serie A, will play for Egypt where he has a remarkable scoring record of 27 goals in 45 appearances for his national team.
This year’s AFCON will be the first to feature a team from Uganda since 1978, where the team was runner-up. Most of the national team plays for teams in the Ugandan league or in other leagues in Africa. One of the few players to feature in Europe is Farouk Miya, who plays for Belgian team Standard Liege. His goal last September against Comoros gave the team victory and a 2nd place in their group, leading to their inclusion in this year’s edition of AFCON. Colorado Rapids player Micheal Azira is slated to appear, as he was included in the final roster.
The Group stage is not set up in a way to expect any shock results leading up the knockout rounds, with the favored teams generally avoiding each other in the early parts of the tournament. Group A looks to be the most difficult, with hosts Gabon having both Senegal and 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso. However having the advantage of being hosts coupled with in-form star player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should be enough to propel them into at least the semifinals. Additionally, it is hard to pick against Algeria and reigning BBC African Footballer of the year Riyad Mahrez. Those two teams are sure to be joined in the semifinals by Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.
In the finals, Brace the Hammer predicts a thrilling game between Algeria and hosts Gabon, with the Algerian national team hoisting the trophy over the heart-broken hosts. While Aubameyang might be the best African footballer on the planet right now, the depth of Algeria plus the quality of Mahrez, Slimani, and Soudani mean that Algeria will be the champions of Africa for the second time.