Algeria the clear favourites, but Afcon does not usually play to form

 Sofiane Feghouli

Algeria's forward Sofiane Feghouli (right) fights for the ball with Sierra Leone's midfielder John Kamara during their Group E 2021 Africa Cup of Nations match between against Sierra Leone at Stade de Japoma in Douala on January 11, 2022.
 

Photo credit: Charly Triballeau | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Games have gotten tighter and I can say with confidence that even with the increased fixtures and presence of top predators – Mane, Salah, Wilfried Zaha, Sebastien Haller of Cote d’Ivoire, Samuel Chukwueze of Nigeria et al, on the prowl, Ndaye Mulamba’s stupendous record of nine goals scored for Zaire (now DR Congo) in a single tournament (1974) is safe.
  • There is an ignominious record I pray gets broken soon. Kenya holds the record of the team with the highest appearance in the finals (six) that has never gone beyond the group stage.

In my honest view, the failure of Kenya to qualify for the expanded 24-team Africa Cup of Nations should have been declared a national disaster.

A national disaster that would prompt the Head of State to lock up the entire Harambee Stars squad in a military camp, preferably in remote Isiolo at the Kenya School of Infantry, just like Cote d’Ivoire did two decades back.

At the 2000 finals co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana, fancied Cote d’Ivoire beat Ghana 2-0, were held to a draw by tiny Togo before tumbling out following a 3-0 thrashing by Cameroon . The military government in Abidjan was so incensed it detained the Elephants in an army camp.

A spokesman for the military government explained the squad was being held for its own protection, to guard against possible reprisals by angry fans. The truth later came out.

They were detained for three days before being taken to the country’s military dictator General Robert Guei who admonished them for wasting the money the country had spent on them to participate.

I repeat, Harambee Stars’ failure to qualify should have been declared a national disaster leading to the President summoning the entire FKF executive and publicly ordering them to resign at once.

Very well, we are a democracy and our constitution recognizes the individual rights of a person and such a scenario would never unfold in Kenya.

Still it pains me that Harambee Stars are not in the African football fiesta in Cameroon yet lesser football playing nations the likes of tiny Comoros, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde are in the mix.

Even our neighbours whom we have regularly thumped in Cecafa, Sudan and Ethiopia are basking on the Cameroon football jamboree.

To be fair to Ethiopia and Sudan, they have excelled at this level in a time gone by. Ethiopia won the Afcon in 1962 and Sudan in 1970.

With or without Kenya the 2021 Afcon promises to be a dramatic affair.

The opening day served up a prelude of what is in store. Five-time champions and highly fancied Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions struggled to beat Burkina Faso 2-0 thanks to two penalties and VAR technology, which will likely be a big factor in this edition.

Only three countries Egypt, Ghana and Cameroon have won back-to-back Afcon titles and defending champions Algeria will have their work cut out joining this elite list.

In fact, the last team to hold consecutive crowns was Egypt, who actually won in 2006, 2008 and 2010. I should know. I covered all these editions for Nation in Egypt, Ghana and Angola respectively.

But Algeria, Africa’s top ranked nation by Fifa, have come into this tournament with a wonderful, scary international 39-match unbeaten record. They last lost an international match on December 27, 2018 when they succumbed 1-0 to Qatar in a friendly encounter.

With composed, goal-sniffing forwards Riyad Mahrez, Baghdad Bounedjah and Yacine Brahimi and a rock solid defence, I could say this is the Desert Foxes’ title to lose.

Senegal are the second highest ranked nation in Africa and possess one of the best strikers in the world now, Sadio Mane.

But root for them at your own peril. They are the only nation belonging to the ‘big boys’ of African football never to have won the title. Zero, zilch, nothing. They came closest in 2002 and 2019, as losing finalists. What a jinx!

Egypt, record seven-time African champions, have the pedigree, and the world’s hottest forward at the moment in the name of Mohamed Salah.

You cannot discount the hosts. Their hard-fought victory in the opening game on Sunday at the magnificent, newly-built Olembe Stadium in Yaounde showed their gritty determination to win. But will that be enough with the lack of real quality and a genuine star(s)?

The last time a host nation won the title was Egypt in 2008.

Out of the 32 previous editions, the hosts have won the title only 11 times. Kenya were given hosting rights in 1996. They could not even stage it.

Harambee Stars are missing out in the fight for the increased tournament purse. All 24 teams that qualified for the Cameroon final are guaranteed $534,000 (Sh60.5 million) each.

Winners will pocket some cool $5m (Sh567m), runners up will walk away with $2.75m (Sh311.85m) and the third placed team $2.2m (Sh249.48m).

Also watch out for Nigeria, Morocco, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, regular title contenders though their fearsome reputations has noticeably diminished.

Games have gotten tighter and I can say with confidence that even with the increased fixtures and presence of top predators – Mane, Salah, Wilfried Zaha, Sebastien Haller of Cote d’Ivoire, Samuel Chukwueze of Nigeria et al, on the prowl, Ndaye Mulamba’s stupendous record of nine goals scored for Zaire (now DR Congo) in a single tournament (1974) is safe.

There is an ignominious record I pray gets broken soon. Kenya holds the record of the team with the highest appearance in the finals (six) that has never gone beyond the group stage.

Take your pick and let’s enjoy Africa’s showpiece football tournament.


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