‘A different area’: How African football’s underdogs caused AFCON upsets | African Nations Cup

Abidjan, Ivory Coast – With the quarter-final stage of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) kicking off on Friday in Ivory Coast, none of the top five ranked teams in the December 2023 FIFA rankings will participate.

Defending champions Senegal, 2022 World Cup semi-finalists and tournament favorites Morocco, 2004 champions Tunisia, 2019 champions and 2019 champions Algeria, and seven-time Africa Cup of Nations kings Egypt were eliminated. Other top teams such as five-time champions Cameroon and four-time winners Ghana also exited the competition.

In a tournament that has become known for its frequent upsets, it is the unexpected progress of some of the continent’s lesser-known teams that grabs the headlines.

As it stands, four of the last eight have never won the competition, so the chances of a first-time champion are 50-50. Among those four yet to be crowned are underachievers Guinea and Mali, who despite having talented teams since the turn of the millennium have never managed to progress beyond the quarter-finals. But there are also Cape Verde and Angola, which have never reached the semi-finals before.

Some other results were incredible: Equatorial Guinea beat Ivory Coast 4-0, while Cape Verde beat Ghana 2-1.

“The results you see in the Africa Cup of Nations are impossible in the European Championship or Copa America,” former Nigerian striker Victor Ikpeba told Al Jazeera. “Imagine the Faroe Islands beating Germany, or England losing to San Marino. Venezuela beating Argentina or Brazil rarely happens, but in African football, it is possible.

In addition, this edition witnessed an unprecedented number of goals: with 105 goals scored before the quarter-finals, it has already surpassed the numbers scored in the previous two editions.

Nigerian Victor Osimhen, right, faces a challenge from Ivory Coast's Ousmane Diomandi
Nigerian Victor Osimhen, right, is challenged by Ivory Coast’s Ousmane Diomandi during an Africa Cup of Nations Group A football match between Ivory Coast and Nigeria at the Olympic Stadium in Epembe, Abidjan, Ivory Coast, January 18, 2024 (Sunday Alamba/AP Photo )

Rise to the challenge

The increase in goals was expected after the Africa Cup of Nations was upgraded to a 24-team tournament, starting from this edition. Some – including Ikpeba, the 1997 African Player of the Year – believe that this particular factor is responsible for the improved fortunes of historically modest countries in this year’s edition.

“The expansion of the Africa Cup of Nations from 16 to 24 teams has given the so-called small teams the opportunity to punch above their weight when they face some of the most successful countries on the continent,” he says.

“A lot of shocking results in the Africa Cup of Nations show that African countries are developing quickly and are not afraid of any team.”

What gives importance to this idea is the fact that the continent’s elite teams made great strides on the global stage in Qatar in 2022. For the first time ever, its five representatives won at least one match in the World Cup, and not only did two of them qualify for the knockout stages, but Morocco became the first African team to reach the semi-finals. The Atlas Lions have surprised more popular and top-ranked nations such as Belgium, Spain and Portugal along the way and thus enter the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations as favourites.

But even Morocco has declined since then, and was eliminated from the competition after losing 2-0 to South Africa, which is ranked 66th in the world, more than 50 places behind North Africa.

Industry insiders say this is an indication that rather than better players becoming weaker, it is smaller countries rising to the challenge.

“African football is a different area. Morocco’s Atlas Lions can roar loudly at the World Cup, but they can easily be tamed by a team ranked 60 places below them in Africa,” says Mimi Fawaz, a broadcast journalist and African football specialist. .

“There are noticeable changes happening within the continent. Some countries are putting their trust in local managers and are also working to fill the gaps due to improved facilities,” she adds.

Ghana coach Chris Hughton, left, gives directions to his players
Ghana coach Chris Hughton, left, gives directions to his players during the Africa Cup of Nations Group B soccer match between Egypt and Ghana in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, January 18, 2024 (Themba Hadebe/AP Photo)

Growth on and off the field

Directed investment in local sporting infrastructure has also been key to their new success, much of it underpinned by the FIFA Forward Programme. The program has been designed in an effort to provide 360-degree support and tailored to the football development of all FIFA Member Associations and is based on three principles: more investment, more influence and more oversight.

Between 2016 and 2022, $2.8 million in funding was provided to 211 federations, according to the latest FIFA Forward Report. These payments were based on compliance with the program regulations, as well as annual audits conducted by FIFA at the end of each financial year. Thanks to more funding, small countries have also been able to recruit more players from the diaspora.

One shining example of the initiative’s success is the Football Federation of Mauritania (FFRIM), with facilities in the capital, Nouakchott, where $11.1 million in FIFA Forward funds have been used to radically renovate and develop football infrastructure.

The Union Building is one of the many projects funded, as is the Sheikha Buwaidiya Stadium. Originally built in the 1960s, the stadium, with a capacity of 5,000, has undergone a major facelift, with a new synthetic playing surface being laid as well as off-field facilities such as the dressing rooms being refurbished.

The impact on the national team’s performance was clear: Mauritania qualified for three AFCON tournaments in a row, not only scoring its first AFCON goal from open play in this edition, but recording its first win and reaching the knockout rounds for the first time. time, eliminating Algeria in the process.

The Chinguetti Lions may not have been able to qualify for the quarter-finals, but Cape Verde did, playing some of the best football of the tournament. However, their success stems from similar roots.

In July 2022, the FIFA delegation completed a four-day visit to Cape Verde, during which it unveiled facilities such as new artificial pitches, a renovated academy and the headquarters of the Cape Verdean Football Federation (FCF), all funded by the same programme. .

“Countries like Mauritania and Cape Verde book a place in the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations, but some of their growth and successes are intentional and come from the ability of their associations to use FIFA funds forward to develop facilities and stadiums and improve local games.” Gilson Fernandes, Director of FIFA Member Associations – Africa, told Al Jazeera.

In the upcoming World Cup finals hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, the continent will have at least nine seats for the first time. The World Cup qualifying series kicked off in October, with teams such as Rwanda and Comoros sitting at the top of their qualifying groups after two matches.

If their performance – like that of the underdogs at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations – is anything to go by, a continental awakening could be underway, led by a change of the old guard. Football officials, like fans, appear to be excited by the entertaining football prospects that increased competition will bring.

“Successes on the field and growth off the field can only affect African teams, and the 2026 World Cup will give African countries the opportunity to show what they are capable of,” Fernandez expects.

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