The group stage of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) was nothing less than electrifying. It threw up some scintillating goals, an outpour of emotions and heartbreaks for those in the stands and others watching from their screens across the globe.
Perhaps, one of the most defining features of this year’s tournament is not just the flamboyant display of African football artistry. Neither is it the crowd baying for goals. No. But with less fancied sides stunning to victories against the continent’s football powerhouses, many pundits have tagged the competition one for the underdogs
From Ghana and Algeria failing to make the next round of games, AFCON 2023 left many on the edge as the biblical David and Goliath battle replayed in cities across Cote d’Ivoire.
Despite the conclusion of the group stage, this piece reflects on the surprises that reverberated across the continent, reshaping its football narrative.
Mauritania Knock Out Algeria
Mauritania delivered one of the most historic results in the AFCON when they stunned two-time champions Algeria to record their first-ever win in the competition. Needing a victory to confirm their status in the Round of 16, the Foxes were expected to stroll through the match. Of course, with 75 places above the East Africans, the 2019 champions were favourites, at least on paper.
But Mauritania rode against the storm and struck through Captain Mohamed Dellash Yaly after 37 minutes to send their fans into raptures.
The feat ensured the Lions of Chinguetti reached the knockouts as one of the four best losers, sending Algeria home in the competition’s group stage for the second consecutive time.
Equatorial Guinea Humiliate Ivory Coast
A day before Mauritania’s feat, Equatorial Guinea made a mince meal of one of the tournament’s favourites and home nation Côte d’Ivoire. The Central Africans bashed them 4-0, sending the packed home fans into tears. It was the biggest win of the group stage and one that gave Equatorial Guinea leadership of Group A after three games. They had seven points.
Cape Verde Dim Black Stars
Days before the host nation’s scandalous loss, Cape Verde Islands, the smallest nation competing at the event, pulled another giant-killing stunt, beating Ghana’s Black Stars 1-2. The Blue Sharks were to later defeat Mozambique to win Group B of the tournament with seven points – two wins and a draw against Egypt.
Mambas Rattle Ghana, Egypt
There were even more surprises in Group B earlier. This time, AFCON minnows Mozambique were the orchestrators. Coming into the football fiesta without a win, Mozambique were on the cusps of history against Egypt. Leading 2-1 and heading into stoppage time, they thought victory was guaranteed. But like a rising phoenix, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah converted a 97th-minute penalty at the Stade Felix Houphouet Boigny to break the Mambas’ hearts.
Still primed to prove that the result against Egypt was not a fluke, Mozambique had more shockers in the bag! They were 2-0 down until stoppage time against Ghana. But two quick goals at the death dimmed the Black Stars and effectively sent Ghana out of the competition (second in a row at the group stage) having only managed two points
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Namibia Clip Carthage Eagles’ Wings
While Mozambique’s giant-killing exploits shook the continent, fellow Southern African nation Namibia had already etched their names in the annals of African football.
The Brave Warriors fought gallantly against 2004 winners Tunisia, needing a Deon Hotto’s 88th-minute header to record their first-ever victory at the AFCON. Even though neighbours South Africa bashed them 4-0 in their next game, Nambia’s historic result against the Carthage Eagles proved crucial. They drew with Mali in their last match, a point that was enough for Collin Benjamin’s men to reach the knockouts of the competition as one of the best losers.
With the conclusion of the group stage on Wednesday, the knockouts promise even more mouth-watering games, pulsating actions and shocking results. Nigeria’s Super Eagles and Cameroon, two of Africa’s heavyweights, are among the teams to battle each other when the Round of 16 kicks off on Saturday.