AFCON: Africa’s Festival of Arts, Culture and Football

When Cameroon last hosted the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), the most important man in its football history was yet to be born. 

Fate made Cameroon wait as COVID-19 and funds proved an albatross for the country’s plan to host the continent. The timing of its return was perfect. Fifty years sounds just great. 

Samuel Etoo, the man who heads the country’s football federation typifies class, greatness and everything legendary. He’s Cameroon and the AFCON’s top scorer and is playing host to the rest of Africa, only a few weeks since his emergence. 

Cameroon will see some of the finest football talents in the world play on their soil. Egypt’s Mohammed Salah has just been nominated one of the best three players in the world. The mental picture of the greatness in display is heartwarming and so is the drama. 

Festival of Arts, Culture and The Extraordinary 

  It was 2008. Ghana hosted the African Cup of Nations. The Pharaohs of Egypt sacrificed a cow as a ritual to bring them luck. The meat was donated to Ghanaian locals, and Egypt won that AFCON. Purely African vibe. The true richness of local culture. Undiluted, unadulterated, unsullied. 

That’s the spectacle of the African Cup of Nations. Every country comes with its unique culture. Music, dance, fashion, everything is displayed in full regalia. 

It is home for the dramatic, and is never shy of seeing special effects like a cleric holding a rosary, praying for his country to win or a traditionalist sitting behind a pot, draped in his country’s flag, face-painted. You’d see women kiss the feet of their idols. You’d also probably not fail to find a footballer’s mother hold his two legs and pray for the best for him.

A Sierra Leonean player gets a kiss on the feet – for good luck, we heard.
Samuel Chukwueze’s mothers holds his legs in prayers.

African football is different in its rawest form. It’s incomparable in its side attractions. Easily the most eclectic of football played anywhere. A true festival of arts, culture, passion, glory and the expression of what can truly be. 

Contenders, Dark Horses And Banana Skins 

Algeria’s Fennecs Foxes are looking to equal and possibly break a world record of unbeaten games for any national team. Djamel Belmadi’s side hasn’t lost in 34 games and are looking to break Italy’s record of 37 games. 

The champions have one of Africa’s finest team going into the AFCON with 15 of the 23 players who won the competition in 2019 still in the team. One of those players is captain and Manchester City winger, Riyad Mahrez. 

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Mahrez is one of the best players in the world and powers the team on in unbelievable ways. Joined by 2019 MVP and AC Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer and gangly attacker, Islam Slimani, Algeria have a squad to beat. Easily favourites for the title on paper, their Arab Cup win also shows how solid the team is even without their European stars. With them, they’re only ever dangerous. 

Drawn alongside Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, Algeria will fancy their chances of progression but will hope they face none of the AFCON’s extremely cold response. Realities could bring sharp pains sometimes and somewhat bright teams face dark patches. Algeria will hope not to find such. 

Finalists in 2019, Senegal will also vie to win the AFCON having lost to the odd goal almost three years ago. The pains of that defeat is still felt at home and the current generation is seen as a wonderful one, not limited in its ability or held in its gifts. Drawn with Guinea, Malawi and Zimbabwe, Senegal understand the easiness of their opposition is just on paper. African football never comes easy.

Also Read: Senegal’s Golden Generation Must Dig Deeper

Star-studded, inspired and backed by a great contingent of locals, Senegal led by the captain of the fantastic 2002 generation, Aliou Cisse will hope to banish the memories of near successes and win something for their country.  With some of the best players in world football, led by Liverpool star, Sadio Mane, the Lions of Teranga know anything short of the trophy won’t be tagged successful by the Senegalese local.  

Morocco last won the African Cup of Nations in 1976, and will hope to do something incredible in Cameroon after getting the boot at the group stage in 2019. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has dropped some of the nation’s finest talents in Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Ajax’s Noussair Mazraoui but the team still brims with great individual quality. Sevilla attacker Yousef En-Nesyri promises goals if fed while captain and Wolves defender Romain Saiss is there to remind the team of the weight of expectations. Inter Milan defender, Achraf Hakimi is one of the best players in the world in his position and will hope to leave the capitulation in Egypt almost three years ago behind him. 

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Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt and Mali head to the AFCON with an outsiders’ chance of emerging victorious. The Malian team is young, and has some of the finest talents on the continent as part of its contingent to Cameroon. 

Hosts Cameroon haven’t lost a competitive home game in since February 1973 and that means something – they will be difficult to beat on home soil. Known for its extremely physical game, the 2017 champions and 5-time winners  will hope to repay the sacrifice, investments and faith of the nation. That journey starts with the opening clash against Burkina Faso.

Ghana also hold an outsiders chance of breaking its 40-year jinx. The last time Ghana won the AFCON was 1982 and has come close many times ever since. Its current squad doesn’t have as much talent for bravado but that may be an advantage. With Arsenal midfielder Thomas Teye Partey, and a host of other experienced names in the team, the Black Stars will hope to be found on the darkest nights. 

Also Read: Ghana Takes On Africa Again, Forty Years Since Last AFCON Triumph

Nigeria’s AFCON dreams has suffered a hit one moment at a time. From sacking former coach, Gernot Rohr only days to the competition to missing out on arguably three of its best attackers due to club rows, injuries or a mix of all, to inadequate preparations, the Nigerian team has placed its strength on the much-vaunted relentlessness. The feeling at home is more cautious than confident but when the referee blasts the whistle, expectations don’t change for the Super Eagles. With former coach Austin Eguavoen at the helm on an interim basis, Nigeria hopes to surprise themselves when the competition begins. 

Tunisia has been on the fringes of glory since winning on home soil in 2004, having to settle for quarterfinal exits and third-place games ever since. One of Africa’s best teams today, they go into the AFCON sure of the respect every opposition has for them. With new entrants keen to make a difference and stamp a place, the Carthage Eagles are as dangerous as they get in African football. 

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The Elephants are not going to AFCON as favourites, no thanks to shaky results along the way, but easily possesses one of the most talented squads on the continent. If they come to the party, and play with great discipline, impossibility is nothing for Patrice Beaumelle’s side. 

Egypt’s X-factor remains Mohammed Salah and on his day, he’s enough. Without the great talent base of years past, or the fear factor of earlier generations, the Pharaohs count on their big star for motivation. Finalists in 2017, their AFCON experience will come to bear but with Carlos Queiroz in charge, doubts have been raised about the team’s quality and strength without Salah. Coming 4th at the Arab Cup also didn’t help expectations. 

Lesser-known footballing nations like The Gambia, Comoros, Zimbabwe, Malawi and others also pose great threats to the dominance of more established teams. One of such examples was at the 2019 AFCON when Madagascar defeated the Super Eagles 2-0. 

AFCON, Europe And Colonial Presence 

There are at least 600 players participating at the 2021 AFCON and 191 of them were born in Europe. One hundred and nine (109) of these dual nationals were born in France. 

The nation with the the highest number of dual nationals is Equatorial Guinea with 16 players born in Spain. Eleven of Algeria’s players were born in France while one was born in the Netherlands. Guinea-Bissau, a Portuguese colony has six of its players born in Portugal, three born in France and one in Italy. Twenty-three of Comoros’ twenty-six players were born in France. Three of them hold a Mayotte passport. 

In the Cape Verdean team to the AFCON, four of them are France-born, three in Portugal, three in Netherlands, one Irish dual national and a Swiss. 

Morocco has 5 players born in France, four in the Netherlands, four in Belgium, three in Spain , one apiece in Canada and Germany. Senegal are heading to the AFCON with ten of its players born overseas. Eight of them hold French passports, one was born in Spain and one in Switzerland. 

Nigeria is going to the AFCON with six overseas-born players.

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