Uncharacteristically, perhaps, for Africa’s premier football competition, the road to the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations has been relatively smooth, but don’t expect a steady build-up to the competition to lead to a chilled campaign.
Indeed, while there are signs that things are changing off the field for African sport, the energy, dynamism and unpredictability that make the Nations Cup such an enticing spectacle should be present as ever.
Of course, as is customary in AFCON build-up, there was a now-typical date change. The tournament that was originally scheduled for June and July 2023 – to align the continental calendar with European football – was shunted back six months after it was deemed impractical for the Ivory Coast to host during the rainy season.
Are the hosts ready?
The motto of the tournament is ‘Akwaba’ – meaning ‘Welcome’ in the Baule language that is prevalent in administrative capital Yamoussoukro and surroundings – and the Ivorians are going all-out on a hospitality campaign.
The tournament will be hosted in six stadiums across five cities – including two in Abidjan – with optimism that the 800 million Euro investment in infrastructure will allow Africa’s 28th-biggest country to undertake the significant challenge of hosting the expanded 24-team tournament.
Measures will also be put in place to ensure there’s no repeat of the Stade d’Olembe disaster that overshadowed the last tournament in Cameroon, with eight supporters losing their lives, although the progress of some construction sites around the country will be ongoing until kick-off.
Beyond the AFCON, the country’s footballing community – who have struggled to put their own differences behind them after Didier Drogba’s failed presidential bid in April 2022 – will hope that the investment will breathe new life into the domestic sporting scene.
Similarly, the increased investment in the country’s road network and airports should have a broader impact for the general populace and national trade.
CAF boss Motsepe won’t be given grace this time
With South African billionaire Dr Patrice Motsepe elected as president less than 10 months before the last AFCON in Cameroon, the tournament represented something of a freebie for him, and he was able – to an extent – to distance himself from some of the complications that befell that competition.
This time around, it’s a different story; he’s had almost three years at the helm of African football’s governing body, and has had ample opportunity to shape the continent’s favourite game in his own image.
CAF’s revived media systems and visual identity, as well as new competitions such as the African Schools Football Championship and the African Football League, may prove launch-pads for a successful future of the organisation in years to come, but for now, triumphant management of an AFCON remains the base standard.
It remains to be seen how present and influential Gianni Infantino will be during proceedings. Motsepe’s close relationship with the FIFA chief continues to come under scrutiny, amidst concerns that the continent’s football is losing its autonomy, although the South African’s insistence that the AFCON must remain a biennial event (rather than every four years) was one clear area where he diverged from Infantino.
The AFCON can remain one area where Motsepe’s – and Africa’s – sovereignty can remain undiluted.
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Can Senegal defend their title?
At least on the field, supporters should get their money’s worth, not least because – in a unique situation for recent Nations Cups – three historic African generations, each relatively in their prime, are all eyeing the continent’s grandest prize.
Senegal have emerged as Africa’s outstanding force over recent years, with talent emerging from celebrated academies like Diambars and Generation Foot, before transitioning to European football and the senior side.
They’re currently the holders of the African Nations Championship, the U-20 AFCON, the U-17 AFCON, have qualified for back-to-back World Cups for the first time in their history, and reached the knockouts in Qatar.
They’re also, of course, the reigning champions, and the country’s finest generation – even surpassing the heroes of 2002 – are rightly aiming to become the first team to retain their title since Egypt in 2010.
North African teams are the strongest threat
Algeria have a point to prove, having enjoyed continental success at the 2019 Nations Cup with their golden generation, before embarking on a record undefeated streak of 26 matches. However, everything unravelled at the last edition in Cameroon, where they were stunned by Equatorial Guinea, failed to defeat Sierra Leone, and crashed out in the group stage.
Insult was added to very serious injury as they were dispatched by Cameroon in World Cup qualifying, bitterly missing out on Qatar. However, with head coach Djamel Belmadi and 12 of that squad still present this time around – including Riyad Mahrez – they have the opportunity to prove they’ve overcome the troubles of recent years.
Then there’s Morocco, perennial underachievers at the Nations Cup – they haven’t won since 1976 – but now imbued with fresh conviction after reaching the semifinals at the World Cup in Qatar.
That campaign demonstrated the squad’s unity and tactical nous under Walid Regragui, as they negotiated some ominous knockout fixtures, while allowing some of their own star individuals to shine.
Cementing their standing as Africa’s dominant force by following up their World Cup heroics with a Nations Cup victory would be a worthy testament to this talented collection, but if there’s one thing Morocco do well, it’s flatter to deceive at the continental high table.
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Beyond those three, the field looks open. Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria all have tremendous upsides but significant failings – not least bubbling tensions at management level – while hosts Ivory Coast may be quietly confident they can channel home support to win a first crown since 2015.
If the Elephants’ midfield of Franck Kessié, Ibrahim Sangaré and Seko Fofana can assert themselves, and if Sébastien Haller finds his scoring touch, then the West Africans could click in front of their own fans.
The likes of Mali, Burkina Faso and DR Congo will relish their dark horse status, while could any of the unfancied sides emulate Gambia‘s run to the quarterfinals two years ago? Zambia will be hoping to mark their return with a deep run into the competition under Avram Grant, while Equatorial Guinea are another side who know how to be more than the sum of their parts.
But how can fans watch all this action?
The handling of TV rights remains a concern, with ‘new kid on the block’ – Togolese-registered broadcaster New World TV – mopping up the lion’s share of the continental broadcast rights.
Multichoice-owned SuperSport TV announced one week before the competition that it would not be broadcasting any AFCON games, only to u-turn – after a deal was struck with New World TV behind the scenes – with CEO Rendani Ramovha announcing on Wednesday (three days before the opening game) that they would show all 52 matches live.
It’s a positive outcome, but at what cost, with the flip-flopping not a good look for CAF or for the tournament’s sponsors.
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