The 33rd edition of the African Nations Cup competition started last Sunday in Duala, Cameroon with some notable stars missing out. It’s a huge shock that Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech was excluded by Morocco. Ajax midfielder, Noussair Mazraoui and Sevilla forward, Youssef En-Neysri were also excluded from the Atlas Lions squad.
The Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire will also file out without Gervinho and Sylvain Gbohoud just as Senegal excluded Krepin Diata from its final list. We observe that Nigeria also has its share of high profile absentees as injury knocked out Leon Balogun, Shehu Abdulahi and Victor Osimhen while Emmanuel Dennis was not released by his English Premier League team, Watford; just as the Saudi club of Odion Ighalo also held on to him and prevented him from joining the Eagles. Jamilu Collins hit camp less than 24 hours before the first match against Egypt on Tuesday because of issues with his club.
However, Muhammed Salah will be on parade for Egypt, Sadio Mane for Senegal, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang will be on parade for Gabon, Wilfred Ndidi will be on duty for Nigeria, Edouard Mendy will be in goal for Senegal just as Thomas Partey will file out for Ghana. The stars are not as notable as before. Salah and Mane are the obvious ones. We are aware of the fireworks expected in the first round which is the preliminary stage of the competition.
The group E tie between Cote d’Ivoire and Algeria slated for next Thursday is one of such mouth-watering ties in the prelims, just as Nigeria’s impressive win over Egypt on Tuesday was. As we celebrate football on the continent in which the champions will go home with a cash prize of $5 million and runner-up $2.75 million, it is important for the chieftains of the Confederation of Africa Football (CAF) to evaluate the timing of the competition.
The club vs. country row has denied some players the chance of making it to AFCON in Cameroon and this cannot continue like this. The issue of weather should not be overemphasized because with civilization, the best facilities should be in stadiums across the continent.
Defending Champions, Algeria, are yet to lose a match in 39 competitive games and this makes the Desert Warriors one of the top favourites just as one will also look at Egypt as another top favourite with Muhammed Salah and Senegal as well with Sadio Mane. Algeria was however held 0-0 by Sierra Leone just as the Pharaohs lost 1-0 to the Eagles of Nigeria. Super Eagles are plagued with many problems in the run-up to the competition, especially injuries which ruled out Victor Osimhen, Paul Onuachu and Shehu Abdulahi.
The change in technical crew and other administrative matters also had to be contended with. However, interim coach Austin Eguavoen did well to kick off the competition with a win over highly rated Egypt, playing some impressive football in the process. AFCON has placed the continent on global focus, so, the players and teams should rise to the challenge in Cameroon to give Africa a good image in the round leather game. The Africa Cup of Nations is the biggest football tournament on the continent. It is Africa’s version of the FIFA World Cup and so it is by all means a big stage for individual players, the federations and the country to make a statement which will boost their image for sponsorship/ branding, better revenue, development and of course bragging rights.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan started the journey in 1957 in Sudan but between then and now so many changes have been made to make the competition bigger and better. The earlier editions were staged like international friendlies of sorts but as many other countries attained independence, the number of participating countries increased and the awareness grew.
Today, the Africa Nations Cup is attracting global attention because many talented players on the continent, who ply their trades abroad, will have to excuse their respective clubs to be part of the continental showpiece which runs for roughly one month. One can easily recall some notable players who have made this competition tick in the past. In the 60s, Ghana’s Osei Kofi and Laurent Pokou of Cote d’Ivoire were the star players. They emerged top scorers for the 1968 and 1970 editions. Pokou will always be remembered for scoring five goals in a single match against Ethiopia in the 1970 AFCON. The 80s and 90s also produced great players on the continent.
Egypt’s Hassan Shehata was a standout player for his country and he later added more feather to his AFCON glory by leading the Pharaohs to win the title three times. Other stars at the time include Rabah Madjer, Segun Odegbami, Lakdar Belloumi, Stephen Keshi, Theophile Abega, Roger Milla, Thomas Nkono, Rashidi Yekini, Abedi Pele, Kalusha Bwalya, Jean Bocande and George Weah. Notable recent legends of the competition are Samuel Eto’o, Mohammed Aboutrika, Ordatey Lamptey, Austin Okocha, Patrick Mboma, Didier Drogba and Hosam Hassan. The list is endless. It is important to stress the timing of the competition to avoid the cub vs. country row.
The African stars and the competition itself have come of age and we expect the world to respect the Africa Nations Cup. The weather and other issues affecting the January timing should be looked into by CAF so that players can attend the event with ease without having to be torn between honouring their nation and the clubs which pay their salaries. It is also important to state that while facilities should be upgraded on the continent to ensure at any time, the event could be held.