AFCON Preview

After the fate of the tournament was up in the air for several months leading to a change in location, the Africa Cup of Nations will nevertheless kick off this Saturday in Equatorial Guinea. The original hosts Morocco pulled out due to the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. This year’s edition of the Cup of Nations will take place in the backdrop of the same instability and tragedy that Africa always faces. With the outbreak of deadly viruses and the news of Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram massacring thousands in the villages of Baga and Doron Baga, it is hard to see why this tournament would be important at all to the people of the continent.

International football can give countries going through tough times two very important things. The first is that it can present a national identity on a global stage. National teams will sometimes take on the responsibility of being a symbol for the political and social situations within their countries. There are the stories of the Egypt national team trying to qualify for the 2014 World Cup while revolution was breaking out in Cairo. There is Rwanda, who continues to rise in FIFA rankings, while their country begins to stabilize after mass genocide in the 90s thanks to the structured changes of president Paul Kagame. Unfortunately, defending champions Nigeria failed to qualify and will not get to show the resiliency of their nation in a time of tragedy. Still there are other teams whose time in the tournament will mean more than simple sport. Tunisia is still developing its new democracy, Democratic Republic of Congo continues to be politically unstable, and there is the mostly black South Africa team who competes while racial disparity remains post-apartheid. Football allows these issues to reach those who might not have known otherwise.

The Cup of Nations will also give Africa some feeling of consistency. The tournament takes place every two years regardless of existing turmoil. Looking from the outside Africa often looks chaotic, but the Cup of Nations proves that they can organize and come together in a common goal. Therefore, I’m going to treat this like any other tournament, providing group breakdowns, players to watch, the usual. I feel like this is what Africa needs, some normalcy, and a brief distraction in a celebration of sporting excellence.

Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Congo

This group is up for grabs. Equatorial Guinea took Morocco’s place as host country, but with a FIFA ranking of 118 gracious hosts is mostly likely all they will be. This leaves a competitive trio between Congo, Gabon, and Burkina Faso, ranked 61, 62, and 64 respectively. Congo is the only team in the group to win the Cup of Nations previously, a 1972 victory over Mali. Gabon is led by their high profile forward, Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. A young team on the rise has the chance to make their first significant statement in the Cup of Nations. Burkina Faso came close to winning the 2013 Cup of Nations, but was narrowly edged by Nigeria in the final. The Stallions arguably have the strongest squad of the four and will rely on the defensive efforts of Lyon Center Back Bakary Koné and captain Charles Kaboré.

Player to Watch: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

In a group that is wide open, a strong individual effort could take a team over the top. If his Gabon teammates can get Aubameyang on the attack, then he can use his pace to expose defenders.

Group B: Zambia, Tunisia, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of Congo

Low key an interesting group. Zambia, Tunisia, and Cape Verde all are in FIFA’s top 50 with Tunisia coming in as high as 22. At the same time DR of Congo could play spoilers. They have an illustrious footballing history under their former name Zaire. They were the first Sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the World Cup and won the Cup of Nations twice. Zambia’s Cup of Nations glory came in a 2012 final victory in penalties over the powerhouse Ivory Coast. However, most of their squad plays in their domestic league, which could be a disadvantage in terms of experience against top talent. Cape Verde is the Cinderella of the tournament. A nation of 500,000, the collection of islands off the coast of West Africa surprisingly sits at 40 in the FIFA rankings. Their previous history with the Portuguese (still official language) has given their young talent the chance to develop in the Primeira Liga. Cape Verde could be the Costa Rica of this year’s Cup of Nations. Group favorites Tunisia won the tournament in 2004 and were the first African side to win a World Cup match in 1978 beating Mexico. Tunisia will most likely be strongest in the back, where Monaco’s Aymen Abdennour plays in the center.

Player to Watch: Yannick Bolasie

If the Democratic Republic of Congo wants to defy odds and advance to the knockout rounds then Bolasie will have to be at his best. Bolasie has been one of Crystal Palace’s best players this year and hopefully the winger can provide the same width for DR of Congo that he does for the Eagles.

Group C: Ghana, Algeria, South Africa, Senegal

GROUP OF DEATH! Ghana and Algeria participated in the 2014 World Cup, South Africa joined them in the 2010 version, and Senegal have a lot of talent and are on the come up in the rankings. The most intriguing group will see two of Africa’s best rise to the occasion and two fall short. Algeria is the favorite to the top the group. The Fennecses pushed world champions Germany to their limits in the World Cup Round of 16 and have arguably gotten stronger since. Other teams will find it hard to stop their high-powered attack with Sporting Lisbon’s Islam Slimani up front and Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli and Porto’s Yacine Brahimi right behind him. Ghana will not be as confident as they normally would for a tournament like this. The 2014 World Cup was tumultuous for the Black Stars, seeing infighting between players and manager. Now with a new manager and the troublemakers missing, particularly Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sully Muntari, they’ll hope to get the ship back on course. Senegal has become a favorite of mine. Never successful in the Cup of Nations, this year could be their chance to shine. They have plenty of attacking talent to advance through the group. Sadio Mané, Papiss Cissé, and Mame Biram Diouf have been brilliant in the Premier League. A controversial decision to leave Besiktas’s Demba Ba out of the squad will be forgotten if these three can continue with their performances. Much of the hype surrounding South Africa when hosting the 2010 World Cup has dissipated thanks to a dysfunctional domestic league. Bafana Bafana will really find it difficult to advance from this tough group.

Player to Watch: Sadio Mané

Mané has been a revelation since joining Southampton in the summer. He has been a critical part in their 3rd place standing. With his pace and skilled dribbling, he creates havoc on the wing. No Demba Ba means he will be the leader of the Senegal attack. If he can keep up his club form at the international level then look for Senegal to create problems.

Group D: Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon, Guinea

ANOTHER GROUP OF DEATH! All four in the top 50 and two participants in the 2014 World Cup, look for this to be as “anything goes” as Group C. There is one certainty however, Ivory Coast should not struggle to advance. With African Footballer of the Year Yaya Touré and his new teammate Wilfried Bony, the Elephants have too much talent to go home early. The real question for Ivory Coast will be can they lift the trophy. Despite their talent, they have never been known as finishers and have only won the Cup of Nations once in 1992. Cameroon’s time in Brazil last summer was disastrous. Their -8 goal differential never saw them receive their winning bonuses that they argued over. Now with no Alex Song or Samuel Eto’o the team has a new look that could provide new hope. Mali has finished third in the last two Cup of Nations and will struggle to make it even that far this year. Mali’s biggest story this tournament will most likely be the potential swan song for 35-year-old former Barcelona man Seydou Keita. Guinea is going through troubling times considering the country was at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak. However, with their 39 ranking and their neighbors hosting the tournament maybe their fans can show up and give their nation a moment of positivity.

Players to Watch: Wilfried Bony

With no Didier Drogba, the striker position is all Bony’s. Bony has a lot to prove and he can start with this tournament. He needs to show that he can lead this attack into the future as well as impress his new club Manchester City. Imagine the scenes if he wins the Cup of Nations, something that Drogba could never do.

I’m not going to predict a winner. In fact, I think there are several teams that can win this competition. All I want to see from this Cup of Nations is each player going out there and playing hard. The people of Africa suffer through too much to see these players treat this like a mini-vacation from club football.