The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is being held in Cote d’Ivoire for the first time in over four decades.
The event began a week ago with a colorful display of dance and singing, blending tradition and contemporary to express West African identity.
President Alassane Ouattara’s insistence on the celebration of the talent and genius of young Africans was evident in an investment of about $1.5 billion in improving infrastructure to prepare for the tournament and the deployment of 17,000 police and soldiers to ensure security.
After several days of actions, games, sensational displays, and breathtaking goals, the group stage of Africa’s most glamorous competition ended. Out of 24 teams, eight of them were sent home with the remaining matching to the round of 16.
But before the knockouts kickoff on Saturday, here are five major takeaways from the group stage matches of the 2023 AFCON:
A big positive in the AFCON 2023 has been improved officiating compared to the last tourney held in Cameroon.
The unsung heroes have been the referees, assisted judiciously by the video assistants. Also, the use of VAR technology across the five stadia in Cote d’Ivoire has been good.
The officiating has been praised by many across the continent when it concerns penalty decisions as communication between the centre referees and VAR officials has been swift, and final calls have been more or less the right.
History was also made as Moroccan referee Bouchra Karboubi became the first Arab woman to officiate a match at the AFCON.
Defender Now Top Scorer
Away from refereeing, one person who has caught the attention of the football fraternity in this competition is a defender who ironically leads the goalscorers’ chart.
Emilio Nsue, a right-back who plays for Equatorial Guinea and the Primera Federación club CF Interci has outshone Africa’s best strikers such as the continent’s Player of the Year Victor Osimhen, Liverpool’s Mohammed Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mane among others.
In three games, the defender who plays in the Spanish third tier has netted five times, pushing
Nsue might not be considered a typical goal scorer but he has managed the almost impossible, netting a hat-trick against Guinea-Bissau and a brace against the host nation in a 4-0 rout.
Thanks to his dazzling goalscoring form, the Nzalang Nacional of Equatorial Guinea finished at the summit of Group A on seven points – above the likes of three-time winners the Super Eagles who got the same number of points.
North Africans Struggle
Just as Equatorial Guinea shook the continent, pundits and fans alike were surprised to see North African teams struggle in the first phase of the tournament. Represented by Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, the region houses the team with the most AFCON titles – the Pharaohs of Egypt.
But barring Morocco, the other teams from the region stuttered into the next round. The Pharaohs – who have seven titles – have had a roller coaster ride, coupled with an injury to their talisman Salah. They conceded a whopping six goals in the group stage. They only managed to qualify as one of the best losers, having drawn all games.
It was a sour story for Algeria and Tunisia. Both sides, with three between them – Algeria winning the 2019 edition – the Desert Foxes and Carthage Eagles have crashed out of the competition. Their inglorious journey saw them parting ways with coach Djamel Belmadi and Jalel Kadri respectively.
Belmadi’s exit came a day after the Desert Foxes’ shock 1-0 loss to minnows Mauritania, which meant they finished bottom of Group D – the second consecutive time they are leaving the tournament in the group stage.
Tunisia, on the other hand, fell to a surprise 1-0 defeat against Namibia before drawing with South Africa and Mali.
But Morocco continued to justify their tag as one of the favourites after beating a stubborn Zambian side 1-0 to advance to the last 16 as Group E winners courtesy of Hakim Ziyech’s first-half strike.
Senegal Still Team To Beat
Another team that have lived up to the hype as a title contender is Senegal. Aliou Cisse’s side were the only team to finish the group stage with a 100 per cent record.
Led by Sadio Mane, the defending champions swept aside Gambia, Cameroon, and Guinea and are buzzing with confidence going into the last-16 tie with the Cote d’Ivoire in Yamoussoukro
They remain on track to become the first side to retain their AFCON title since Egypt won their third in a row in 2010, while Guinea will aim to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2015.
Unlike their Senegalese counterparts, the Super Eagles have had a surprising reality at the AFCON. While they made it to the next round, several fans and pundits are unimpressed about their outing so far.
They have been shy in front of goal but have looked remarkably sound defensively, conceding just once in three matches. Despite the Super Eagles’ impressive array of attacking options around superstar Victor Osimhen, the African player of the year, they have succeeded in finding the back of the net twice and an opponent’s goal to wrap up proceedings.
The performances have triggered a barrage of criticisms. But Coach Jose has stoutly defended his boys, maintaining that keeping clean sheets is his priority.
“My responsibility is to choose the best way to win this competition,” Peseiro said when asked about his decision to put the focus on the defence.
“I chose another strategy, and the players believe in it — don’t concede goals because we will score at least one.”
Can Darkhorses Go All The Way?
With the knockouts beckoning, and mouthwatering games looming large, there is a belief among football faithful that this competition may well see one of the underdogs go all out being crowned kings of Africa!