Saturday marks the start of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. The 30th edition of the Africa’s premier international tournament returns to Equatorial Guinea with all the makings of a watershed tournament. History holds little chance of repeating itself this edition.
AFCON’s most successful nation, 7-time winners Egypt, and defending champions Nigeria failed to qualify. 2012’s surprise winners Zambia are tipped to finish last in their group. All-time top scorer Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba (the last two players not named Yaya to win African Footballer of the Year award) retired from international football after the World Cup. Littered among this waning familiarity lies a certain promising buzz of drama.
In another interesting twist, six of the top seven odds-on favorites drew are scattered among two groups (C and D). Worse for these top dogs, those advancing from these dual Groups of Death collide in the quarterfinals, allowing those from leaner groups A and B to find smooth sailing to the tournament’s semis.
Physical terrain must be considered too, as the semifinal locations, Bata and Malabo, will be hosting their eighth matches in 18 and 16 days respectively. Bata also hosts the final four days later. The worse the surface, the more even the playing field. This is African Football. Expect these fields to wear down.
Group A loaded up on long shots. Promising even more parity, group favorites Burkina Faso (and lesser runs Congo) continue struggling to settle among lack of space and water. Equatorial Guinea aims to combine others’ misfortune with a home-field advantage, while Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks to outpace qualifying and 2013 AFCON leading scorer Jonathan Pitroipa’s Burkina Faso to a spot in the quarters.
Group B features heavyweights Tunisia followed by a lesser supporting cast. Democratic Republic of Congo look to underachieve, but a win over Ivory Coast in qualifying shows their potential. The battle for second should be between qualifying group mates Zambia and Cape Verde. The two traded home wins in qualifying and match-up in the group B finale likely to settle runner-up and a quarterfinal shot at Group A’s winner.
Group of Death I lurks with the patience of the Grim Reaper. Africa’s beacon from Brazil, Algeria, led by Islam Slimani and Sofiane Feghouli, highlight a group of thoroughbreds. Perennial power Ghana left Brazil’s group of death with a single point only to end up in their continental equivalent. Asomoah Gyan and The Black Stars will meet Senegal in the first match of group play likely to shape the race for second. Senegal qualified a point behind Tunisia while eliminating Egypt. This campaign will be sans services of Demba Ba and an injured Sadio Mane, but Diafra Sakho, Mame Biram Diouf and Papiss Cisse are all available for the rescue. Last, and probably least, South Africa’s Bafana Bafana arrive winners of a group which saw Nigeria eliminated. Lowest expectations of the group, but lowest pressure and obvious upside.
Our deadliest group houses tournament favorites Ivory Coast. A Drogba sized hole leaves opportunity for Man City new boy Wilfried Bony and 4-time defending CAF Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure, though the Elephants expectations must be tempered by past shortcomings. Cameroon looks to fill the similarly sized shoes of Samuel Eto’o with 2-time World Cup veteran Vincent Aboubakar. If new skipper Stephane M’Bia can steer the ship clear from the storm of Brazil, this team can do damage unshackled from the Alex Song card party. Outsiders Mali and Guinea are led by lynchpin Seydou Keita and qualifying’s second leading scorer Seydouba Soumah respectively, though one legged stools shouldn’t stand against the star-studded groupmates.
This lopsided draw teases a bit of everything, while only guaranteeing Tunisia’s advancing. All other favorites face unenviable group matches, while the perceived lesser squads are left to fight amongst themselves until the semifinals. Heavyweight haymakers will go heads up from start to finish as the Davids patiently wait for their primetime shots at weary Goliaths. With such evenly matched groups, viewers are promised compelling action throughout the tournament with high-stakes upset chances in knockouts.
The Africa Cup of Nations has a habit of special surprises. Combined with the bowing out of some of the past’s most successful characters, 2015 should bring more of the same alongside a view of the future. Expect the blue bloods to survive the new boys for the right to pen the next chapter.
Group A- Burkina Faso, Gabon
Group B- Tunisia, Zambia
Group C- Algeria, Ghana
Group D- Ivory Coast, Cameroon
Quarterfinal winners- Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Algeria and Ghana
Semifinal winners- Algeria and Ghana