Gabon Is Coming
Held on a biennial basis, under the jurisdiction of the CAF (Confederation of African Football), the African Cup of Nations has grown from an initial three-team tournament in 1957 to a 16-country behemoth, with the January 2017 edition in Gabon set to mark the competition’s 60th anniversary. With the African Cup of Nations draw set for Libreville on 19 October, join Kitbag for a journey across the AFCON tournament; all the way from A to Z.
The largest of all the African nations, at a sprawling 900,000+ square miles, it is unsurprising that Algeria are among the frontrunners for the 2017 AFCON crown, with the likes of Leicester City’s PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, teammate and record signing Islam Slimani and the qualifying round’s top goalscorer El Arabi Hillel Soudani of Dinamo Zagreb leading their title tilt. England’s last African opponents at a World Cup finals, the Algerians are in the midst of a feted ‘Golden Generation’ but will hope to achieve what their English counterparts could not and cap this purple patch with tournament triumph. The Desert Warriors have one previous AFCON title to their name, prevailing in the 1990 tournament on home soil. Over 100,000 fans witnessed the final in Algiers, a 1-0 win over Nigeria.
Another top contender for 2017 honours, Ghana will be guided in Gabon by former Chelsea, Portsmouth and West Ham United manager Avram Grant; with another bearing the same initials instrumental to their hopes. With a ratio of almost one goal every two appearances, Asamoah Gyan’s international career has already taken in six African Cup of Nations, though on each occasion the trophy has eluded the former Sunderland star. Conversely, Ghana have won the tournament on four previous attempts, tying them for second-place in the all-time standings. However, the Ghanaians must look as far as 1982 for their last AFCON success. With another Leicester duo in Jeff Schlupp and Daniel Amartey bolstering their squad, West Ham’s André Ayew is also expected to feature, as the Black Stars attempt to shine again.
Culminating in an exhilarating quarter-final with England, Cameroon’s 1990 World Cup exploits won the Indomitable Lions a place in the hearts of fans for for a generation. Star man Roger Milla’s Indian summer would even extend as far as the 1994 tournament, where the charismatic forward became the oldest ever World Cup goalscorer, aged 42. Cameroon’s squad for 2017’s African Cup of Nations is significantly more spritely in comparison, with 24-year old Beşiktaş forward Vincent Aboubakar joining 27-year old Schalke hitman Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting in attempting to replicate the prolific Milla’s free-scoring feats. Meanwhile, of home interest, West Bromwich Albion right-back Allan Nyom is poised to line up in defence for the four-time AFCON champions, who remained unbeaten throughout qualifying.
2017 sees tiny Guinau-Bissau make their AFCON debut, though the squad are by no means coming to make up the numbers, having successfully won their qualifying group with a round of group games to spare. The majority of the Guinea-Bissau national team play their club football in Portugal, which might not be unexpected given the nation’s status as a former Portuguese colony. Rising above a variety of domestic problems, not to mention the protests of the Zambian FA over the qualifying eligibility of goalkeeper Papa Massa Mbaye Fall, Guinau-Bissau had won a mere four competitive matches in 22 years of trying, but added three more to their tally in a three-month spell to reach their first ever tournament finals.
No nation has won more African Cup of Nations titles than Egypt, who have amassed a haul of seven championships from their record 23 appearances. However, the Pharaohs have been noted absentees from the last three continental gatherings, making their prospects for 2017 particularly tough to determine. Unbeaten in competitive play in 2016, Egypt’s goals this calendar year have come primarily from the left foot of Mohamed Salah; with the Roma man scoring twice in their June victory in Tanzania, after opening his account for the year with a stoppage time equaliser in Nigeria. Egypt’s English Premier League contingent meanwhile consists of Arsenal’s Mohamed Eleny, Hull City’s Ahmed El Mohamady and Stoke City youngster Ramadan Sobhiz; each of whom eager to boost their standing in one of Europe’s leading divisions with an impressive display on African football’s grandest stage.
The 2017 African Cup of Nations will take the form of a 16-team knock-out competition, mirroring the structure used for various European Championships, albeit with the FIFA World Cup-like addition of a one-off play-off for third place. Contested over 22 days, the tournament commences with four groups of four in a standard single round-robin format, with only the winners and runners-up advancing to the quarter-finals. Ahead of the draw, it is worth taking note of the seedings, decided using a system that takes into account results from the previous three AFCON tournaments and the last three qualifying campaigns, as well as 2014 FIFA World Cup and qualifying performance. Consequently, recent AFCON performers Mali, Congo, Burkina Faso are ranked in a higher pot than more-established campaigners like Cameroon, Senegal and Morocco, setting up some interesting potential scenarios.
In addition to the struggle for overall team honours, the eyes of African football will be on the battle for the Golden Boot, with a number of contenders expected to stake their claim across the three-week tournament. With 18 career goals to his credit, striker Samuel Eto’o stands alone as the top scorer in AFCON finals history, scooping the competition’s coveted Golden Boot on two separate occasions. However, the Cameroonian will not contend in Gabon, having retired from international football two years ago. As a result, the stage is set for a new marquee marksman to emerge. Assessing the field, Togo’s free agent Emmanuel Adebayor will be among those keen to challenge, while completing the unenviable task of securing a new club in the process. Moreover, the likes of Congo’s Férébory Doré may also be looking to use the tournament as a veritable shop window, with Doré (currently playing for Angers in France’s Ligue 1) having already helped himself to five goals at the qualifying stage.
Stepping into the shoes of original choice Libya, the French-speaking nation of Gabon edged out bids from Algeria and Ghana to bring the 2017 tournament to Africa’s central western coast; their second competition, after previously co-hosting with neighbours Equatorial Guinea in 2012. Quarter-finalists that year and in 1996, Gabon’s previous success on the AFCON stage has been modest at best, but the Panthers have an accomplished winner in their camp in manager Jorge Costa. As a player, Costa won eight Primeira Liga titles with FC Porto, captaining the side in both their 2003 UEFA Cup Final win over Celtic and the UEFA Champions League Final whitewash of Monaco a year later. Premier League fans meanwhile might remember Costa most fondly as one-quarter of Charlton Athletic’s ‘Young, Fish, Costa, Fortune’ back-four, who briefly brought much mirth to English top flight teamsheets.
Current African Cup of Nations champions and the highest-placing African team in the FIFA World Rankings, few would bet against the impressive Ivory Coast continuing their stream of success in the 2017 tournament. With their squad home to a wealth of playing riches, from Sunderland’s Lamine Kone and Stoke’s Wilfred Bony to Bournemouth’s Max Gradel and Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, the Elephants also have the experience of Hertha Berlin’s Salomon Kalou in attack, yet will however be without 113-cap Yaya Toure, who recently announced his retirement from the international scene. One of only three competing nations to have previously featured in 20 or more AFCON tournaments, any other aspiring champions’ road to victory may well have to go through the Ivory Coast this January.
Journey to the World Cup
While the African Cup of Nations competition will take clear precedence in 2017′s opening month, the road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup is already underway for each of its competing nations; with three of them already falling by the wayside. With two two-legged knockout rounds being completed in October and November 2015, Guinea-Bissau saw their World Cup dreams ended with a first round exit to Liberia, while Togo lost out to Uganda at the second stage and Zimbabwe’s exclusion for non-footballing issues brought the number to three. Of those who did progress, AFCON hosts Gabon would require a penalty shoot-out to see off Mozambique, while Senegal trailed 2-0 in Madagascar before roaring back to claim a 5-2 victory. The World Cup qualifying group stages then commenced earlier this month, with further matches set for this November, before the 2017 African Cup of Nations begins.
It would be remiss for Kitbag.com to not weigh in on the AFCON kits, with those donned by African countries in previous campaigns often among the most colourful, and indeed controversial, on the international scene. At the 2002 African Cup of Nations, Cameroon wore a set of sleeveless jerseys (pictured) en route to their eventual tournament triumph; shirts which would be banned at the subsequent summer World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Two years later, the Indomitable Lions’ one-piece effort would cause them further issues, prompting the initial deduction of six points from their AFCON qualifying campaign. The 2017 crop are more conventional in style, yet nonetheless notable for some standout visual quirks. Among the highlights, PUMA’s designs for the upcoming tournament incorporate triangular trim patterning while placing added emphasis on the upper back of the jerseys; with the new Ivory Coast home shirt carrying crossed elephant tusks to reflect their nickname and Ghana’s first choice equivalent opting for a sky full of (black) stars for the very same reason.
Known as “L’Homme d’Asmara” (the ‘Man of Asmara’, his home region), striker Laurent Pokou was one of the AFCON competition’s first true superstars. The expanded 1968 finals in Ethiopia saw Pokou score six times, including a brace in the opening win over Algeria, another in the semi-final with Ghana and the goal that secured his native Ivory Coast’s third-placed finish, which came at the expense of the hosts. Two years later, Pokou continued where he left off, scoring twice against Ghana on the Sudan tournament’s opening day. His greatest act however would come against the Ethiopians, as Pokou netted an all-time record of five goals in one AFCON game. Overall, Pokou would tally 14 goals in AFCON competition, setting a record that would stand almost 40 years, until Samuel Eto’o surpassed it in 2008.
Manager Mike Smith holds the unique distinction of being the only British-born coach to win an African Cup of Nations, having led Egypt to a hugely-popular success on home soil in 1986. Smith’s Egyptian side had stumbled in their group stage opener, falling 1-0 to Senegal, before recovering to beat both the Ivory Coast and Mozambique, each by a 2-0 scoreline. The subsequent semi-final in Cairo proved a knife-edge affair, with 95,000 spectators seeing the current Egypian Minister of State of Sports, Taher Abou Zeid, score the game’s only goal. Returning to the same stadium days later, hosts Egypt would be held to a stalemate with Cameroon, yet would hold their nerve and win the final’s decisive penalty shoot-out. History accomplished, Smith would return to the UK two years later and would even have another crack at international glory as Wales boss during the transitional years of 1994 and 1995.
Former Olympic gold medalists and three-time AFCON champions, Nigeria are among the highest of high-profile absentees from the 2017 African Cup of Nations. The absence of the Super Eagles brings with it a dollop of controversy, as the withdrawal of Chad from their qualifying group meant only the outright winners stood the chance to progress. Nigeria had opened their campaign with a 2-0 victory against Chad, but soon found themselves in a head-to-head sprint with divisional rivals Egypt, who would snatch a last-gasp draw in Kaduna before winning 1-0 at home in Alexandria. As a result, Nigeria were ruled out of contention for the second successive tournament; depriving African spectators the chance to see stars such as Manchester City fledgling Kelechi Iheanacho and Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel.
A veritable feast of televised football, the 2017 African Cup of Nations will be shown live in the United Kingdom on ITV1, with the terrestrial, commercial channel carrying all the thrills and spills, direct from Gabon. Never to be outdone, the rest of the European market will be served by British Eurosport, with the notable exception of France, where home broadcaster Canal+ will carry the competition. Across the pond meanwhile, stateside supporters can keep up-to-date with the ongoing AFCON action on the Univision and Telemundo platforms, with the tournament set to be showcased in major markets across all six inhabited continents.
In his role as manager of Tunisia, Poland’s former World Cup and Olympic medalist Henryk Kaspercza will aim to replicate the success of Frenchman Roger Lemerre this January; Lemerre having previously guided the Tunisians to glory in 2004, becoming the last coach from outside the confederation to win the AFCON championship. Carrying a weighty club CV, including spells in charge of Saint-Etienne, Montpellier and Wisla Krakow, Kasperczak has already enjoyed multiple bites at the AFCON cherry, managing Ivory Coast to a third-placed finish in 1994 and steering current charges Tunisia to runners-up spot two years later. Enjoying two added stints with Mali and another at the helm of Morocco, an ill-fated 2008 AFCON campaign saw the then-Senegal coach resign mid-tournament, yet Kaspercza is back for the 2017 edition and will be among the most experienced figures in the competition.
From one in March to eight more in June and a final six in September, a total of 15 nations have battled their way to join hosts Gabon at the 2017 AFCON finals. Storming to victory in each of their first four fixtures, Morocco were first past the post, although their eventual record of 16 points from six qualifiers would later be matched by both Algeria and Mali (the latter of whom wrapped up their campaign with a trio of heavy wins). The greatest goal difference in qualifying belonged to Algeria, who netted 17 times in three home fixtures en route to a +20 finish. Points-wise however, no one side were able to touch Senegal, who swept all before them to clinch their full quota of 18 qualifying points. In a sign of the African game’s ever-competitive nature, only Djibouti completed qualifying without a point to their name; with their one single goal coming in an 8-1 humbling at the hands (or feet) of Tunisia.
In an added incentive for the competing sides this January, the winners of 2017’s African Cup of Nations will qualify for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup; lining up alongside World Cup hosts Russia, current World champions Germany, new European champions Portugal, Copa America winners Chile, CONCACAF Cup kings Mexico, OFC Nations Cup holders New Zealand and Asian Cup winners Australia. The tournament, as has become standard, will serve as a dress rehearsal for the ensuing World Cup, while 2017’s African representatives will look to surpass Cameroon’s landmark runners-up finish in France in 2003. The 2017 Confederations Cup kicks off in June and will be the tenth in the competition’s 25-year history.
The only team to advance through qualifying with a 100% winning record intact, the 2002 World Cup quarter-finalists Senegal have been tipped by their own Saido Mane as potential winners of the 2017 AFCON trophy. Following his move from Southampton to Liverpool this past summer, Mane is now Africa’s most expensive footballer; dragging the weight of his £34 million price tag all the way to Gabon. Senegal’s World Cup heroics over a decade ago had been preceded by unprecedented success in the African Cup of Nations and a run all the way to the final. Bringing new Premier League pedigree to the proceedings, Everton’s Idrissa Gueye, Palace’s Pape N’Diaye Souare, West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyaté and Stoke’s Mame Biram Diouf are now poised to propel their efforts to get back there once again.
Affectionately known as ‘The Teacher’, Hassan Shehata remains a revered figure in the tournament’s history; standing tall as the only coach to win three successive AFCON titles. A marquee forward in his playing days, the Teacher’s first African Cup of Nations at the helm of his native Egypt was defined by a pivotal moment at the semi-final stage. Replacing Premier League-bound Mido with forward Amr Zaki from former club Zamalek, Shehata’s actions prompted an explosive reaction from the future Tottenham Hotspur star. However, the decision proved justified, as Zaki scored the vital goal that sent the Egyptians to the 2006 final. Under the Teacher’s guidance, Egypt would clinch the AFCON trophy in 2006, 2008 and 2010, helping the Pharoahs climb as high as 9th in the FIFA World Ranking pyramid.
2017 sees Uganda finally return to an AFCON finals. after the longest absence of all the nations involved this January. The Cranes last qualified for the African Cup of Nations in 1978, making their way all the way to the final, before falling 2-0 to hosts Ghana in Accra. Fast-forwarding to the current campaign, it was Standard Liège striker Farouk Miya who grabbed the vital touch as Uganda beat Comoros by a single goal in September, ending their perceived jinx of 38 years without an appearance in the tournament’s latter stages. With their achievement ecstatically-received by their supporters, any further success for Uganda in Gabon will be decades in the making, with Werder Bremen’s Melvyn Lorenzen and Colarado Rapids forward Michael Azira among their key hopes for escaping out of the group stage.
AFCON 2017 will be staged across five venues, spread over four different locations. Among them, Gabon’s northwest capital of Libreville will play host to a number of key matches, with fixtures scheduled for both the Stade Omar Bongo (named after Gabon’s former long-standing President) and the Stade d’Angondjé (which had previously hosted the emotional 2012 final between Zambia and the Ivory Coast). Another 2012 tournament venue, the 22,000-capacity Stade de Franceville, will also play host to AFCON football, while a pair of new stadiums will prise open their gates, in the northern town of Oyem and the seaport city of Port-Gentil.
The parallel Africa Women Cup of Nations has already competed the draw for its finals, set for this coming November and December. Having won nine of the 11 previous tournaments, Nigeria will be seen as favourites to take Group B, with second level seeds Ghana appearing their biggest threat. Tournament hosts Cameroon meanwhile will be expected to advance, from a group also containing South Africa, Zimbabwe and Egypt. Should top seeds Nigeria and Cameroon progress unscathed, any meeting in the knockout stages would serve as a rematch of the 2014 final, which Nigeria won by two goals to nil at Namibia’s Sam Nujoma Stadium.
Xakana and Xulu
The excitingly-named Nkosiyabo Xakana of Cape Town and Siyanda Xulu of Kaizer Chiefs will be left in the cold this coming January, with their native land of South Africa another side sidelined from the upcoming African soccer soiree. Failing to experience the level of lasting improvement one might expect from a former World Cup host nation, the lads from the land of the vuvuzela were able to blow their own horns in 2013; reaching an African Nations Cup quarter-final as the tournament made its way to South African soil. However, their penalty shootout-out exit at the hands of Mali interspersed a failure to qualify in 2012, as well as a winless group stage showing in 2015. While their support remains reasonably strong, Bufana Bufana will regrettably have to wait for their next attempt at African Cup of Nations success.
With the crop of African players in England’s Premier League now at an eye-opening high of almost 10%, discussion and dissension over African player availability is poised to rear its head again this winter, with marquee Everton signing Yannick Bolasie among those to be affected. In addition to those already referenced, stars like Crystal Palace’s Bakary Sako (Mali), Watford’s Nordin Amrabat (Morocco) and Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia) are also likely to be absent from the EPL landscape this winter; a headache for a managers across the top division, with Burnley the only club without an African player in their first team midst. Bolasie himself has turned heads since his £28 million move to Goodison Park and Toffees fans, while ruing his absence, are nonetheless likely to be entertained by the 27-year old’s international exploits. Furthermore, a successful campaign in the colours of Congo could provide the confidence boost that fuels Bolasie’s firepower, ahead of his Everton return.
Finally, while surprisingly never featuring during the heyday of characters Bruce Grobbelaar and Peter Ndlovu, Zimbabwe will compete at their third African Cup of Nations this January; albeit their first in more than a decade. Zimbabwe qualified for the 2017 gathering as group winners, solidifying their spot in June and rendering their final day defeat in Guinea on 4th September effectively meaningless. Among the Zimbabwean squad set to head north to Gabon, defender Lawrence Mhlanga plays his football for Chicken Inn FC; one of the nation’s leading club sides, who take their unusual name from a Zimbabwean fast food company. AC
- El Arabi Hillel Soudani by Andrew Couldridge, Action Images
- Asamoah Gyan by John Sibley, Action Images
- Roger Milla by Action Images
- Mohamed Eleny by Action Images
- Wilfried Bony by Jed Leicester, Action Images
- Cameroon by Rudy L’Homme, Action Images
- Cameraman by John Sibley, Action Images
- Henryk Kaspercza by Steven Paston, Action Images
- Senegal by Rudy L’Homme, Action Images
- Hassan Shehata by Keith Williams, Action Images
- Yannick Bolasie by Action Images