TSG dropped their AFCON primer earlier this week. Now a look at the groups and teams.
Matt Acconciamessa breaks down AFCON 2013
The Africa Cup of Nations rarely disappoints. From upsets and spectacular goals to captivating storylines and riveting finals, the continental showdown has proven itself to be a source of great entertainment in recent years.
The 2013 edition should be no different, with South Africa playing host to its third major tournament in four years and its first Africa Cup of Nations (from here on out abbreviated as AFCON) since their stunning 1995 triumph on home soil (that other, and arguably more important, post-Apartheid sporting success). Matches will be played in Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Nelspruit, and – a place near and dear to the hearts of American soccer fans – Rustenburg.
With the likes of Cameroon, Senegal, and Egypt home watching, this year’s field features several surprise qualifiers and a pretty wide open race to the final (along with a distinct lack of sweatpant-clad coaches). Here’s a rundown of who’s who in the 16-team field:
How they got here: As hosts, Bafana Bafana earned an automatic berth. Without AFCON qualifiers on their calendar, South Africa put together a so-so 2012, scoring just 10 goals in 12 games. After a run of six draws to start the year, they alternated wins and losses, with respectable 1-0 losses against Brazil, Poland, and Zambia.
Who to watch for: Siphiwe Tshabalala. The wonderfully-named Kaizer Chiefs midfielder has been the subject of some transfer rumors this month and could play himself into a new gig with a good showing. If South Africa’s attack is to avoid the kind of dry spells that plagued it last year, they’ll need the World Cup veteran to add some life in the middle and out wide.
How they’ll finish: Bafana Bafana should have enough to make through a manageable Group A, but with question marks at both ends of the field, an early exit from the knockout rounds seems likely. With that being said, home field advantage and a favorable quarterfinal draw could mean a deeper run.
How they got here: The Cinderella story of qualification, Cape Verde pulled off a shocking 3-2 aggregate win over Cameroon to earn their first trip to a major international tournament. Recent results also include a narrow loss to Ghana and a goalless draw with Nigeria in the run up to this tournament.
Who to watch for: Heldon Ramos. The 24 year old Maritimo hit the gorgeous curling free kick from 25 yards out that sealed Cape Verde’s unlikely qualifying triumph over Samuel Eto’o and company. A regular at the club level, he’ll likely play a prominent role in the center of the park for the island minnows.
How they’ll finish: Cape Verde’s nice story likely won’t stretch beyond the group stage, but qualifying in and of itself was a huge triumph (with their emotional celebrations last October testifying to that). Nevertheless, they’ve proven themselves stubborn and opportunistic – don’t be surprised if they steal a result that shakes up the Group A table.
How they got here: The 2010 AFCON hosts survived a scare in qualifying, overturning a two goal deficit to squeak past Zimbabwe for their fifth consecutive tournament berth.
Who to watch for: Manucho Gonçalves. The Real Valladolid winger has performed well this season, with 6 goals and 3 assists in 13 appearances. A focal point of the Angola attack, Manucho is also coming off a successful AFCON 2012 in which he was the joint top scorer.
How they’ll finish: With South Africa buoyed by home support and a decent Morocco side in their group, Angola will be on the outside looking in by the time the quarterfinals roll around.
How they got here: Morocco earned a spot in the 2013 field with a 4-2 aggregate win over Mozambique. The Lions of Atlas have struggled with consistency over the past 12 months, looking every bit the part of a middle of the road team in a very competitive confederation.
Who to watch for: Mehdi Benatia. If Morocco are to advance to the quarterfinals and beyond, they’ll need to tighten up a defense that leaked goals in competitive matches last year. The big Udinese defender will likely bear a good deal of that burden.
How they’ll finish: With a good deal of raw talent in their ranks, Morocco are capable of catching lightning in a bottle and making a deep run. But the question of which Morocco will show up on any given match day is disconcerting, and has me believing that they will go no further than the quarterfinals.
How they got here: Ghana took care of business with a comfortable 3-0 aggregate win over Malawi. They’re riding a five match winning streak into South Africa, as they look to get over the hump and win their first AFCON title since 1982.
Who to watch for: Asamoah Gyan. Off the grid in the UAE, the former Sunderland striker and breakout 2010 World Cup performer is scoring goals at will in the Middle East while cashing some very nice paychecks. Still just 27 years old, Gyan is a front-runner for the Golden Boot and could carry Ghana deep into the knockout rounds.
How they’ll finish: Much like Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana have come up short time and time again in recent AFCON tournaments despite heaps of talent. After a rocky first half of 2012, the Black Stars seem to be hitting their stride at the right time and are a good bet to reach the final.
How they got here: The Leopards had a pretty easy path to South Africa, blowing past Seychelles before earning a comfortable 5-2 aggregate win over 2012 co-hosts Equatorial Guinea.
Who to watch for: Muteba Kidiaba. One of several TP Mazembe players in the squad, Kidiaba has wracked up some big game experience over the last couple of years thanks to his club’s back-to-back Champions League titles and Club World Cup campaigns. At 36 years old, the season keeper may be playing in his last international tournament, and his team’s success will require strong play between the posts.
How they’ll finish: It’s hard to peg the DRC – they’ll benefit from familiarity, with a significant portion of the squad coming from TP Mazembe, but they’ll face an uphill battle in trying to topple the likes of Mali and Ghana, not to mention an upstart Niger side. More likely than not, they’ll find themselves in the bottom two of Group B.
How they got here: Mali comfortably brushed aside Botswana in their qualifying tie, earning a 7-1 aggregate victory.
Who to watch for: Cheick Diabate. The 24 year-old Bordeaux striker finished tied atop the scoring charts at last year’s tournament, guiding Mali to a third place finish. At 6-4, the athletic target man presents a significant match-up challenge for opposing back lines.
How they’ll finish: Mali possess a ton of talent, led by the likes of Seydou Keita, Mohamed Sissoko, and Mahamadou Diarra. Add in a stable of young up-and-comers like Diabate, recent tournament experience, and a manageable group, and Mali could very well be a smart pick as this tournament’s Zambia – rallying around an emotional storyline (civil war at home) to upset some of the big boys en route to a title. At the least, a return to the semifinals seems well within reach.
How they got here: After making their AFCON debut in 2012, Niger booked a return ticket last fall by earning a dramatic 2-1 aggregate win over Guinea. Apart from a win over Togo and a draw against Burkina Faso, however, Niger has looked every bit the part of a fringe mid-tier team, struggling to get results over the past 12 months.
Who to watch for: Ouwo Moussa Maazou. The 24 year-old nomad has plied his trade with 10 different clubs to date, with five different loans during a three year stint with CSKA Moscow. He was tabbed by some to be a breakout young star of last year’s tournament, but never got going offensively as Niger scored just a single goal in three matches. If Niger is to improve upon its three loss showing, Maazou will need to find his legs early on.
How they’ll finish: The smart money is on Niger to finish at the bottom of their group once again.
How they got here: After a thrilling triumph in Gabon last year, Zambia nearly found themselves on the outside looking in this time around. Herve Renard’s men managed to avoid that fate, though, with a heart-stopping win over Uganda in 20 penalty shootout, earning a chance to defend their title and handing Uganda another brutal defeat in a recent history filled with tantalizing agony.
Who to watch for: Emmanuel Mayuka. The 22-year old forward wowed at last year’s tournament, walking away with the Golden Boot after several riveting displays. His stellar form with club and country led to a move to Southampton last summer, with whom he has made just seven appearances this season. Alongside Christopher Katongo, he’ll provide the spark for the Chipolopolo attack.
How they’ll finish: Zambia possess talent and have a trophy to their name, but they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent since their triumph, with wins over Ghana and South Africa overshadowed by losses to Sudan, Tanzania, Malawi, and Angola. They should have enough to reach the quarterfinals, but a repeat of 2012 seems unlikely.
Who to watch for: Vincent Enyeama. Playing in his seventh major international tournament, the Maccabi Tel Aviv keeper is capable of turning results with his performance between the posts. Nigeria’s defense has been far from air-tight in recent months, so Enyeama may be called upon for some heroics throughout the group stage.
How they’ll finish: Nigeria have some holes in their roster, but ultimately can put together one of the stronger XIs in the field. However, a shaky defense and temperamental offense make for a bad combination in tournament play, so the Super Eagles could be three-and-out in South Africa.
How they got here: Burkina Faso knocked off up-and-comers Central African Republic in a tight tie thanks a 96th minute winner from Lorient striker Alain Traore. The Donovan-esque buzzer-beater earned Burkina Faso their third straight tournament berth.
Who to watch for: Alain Traore. The aforementioned striker is a key cog in the Burkina Faso attack and has performed respectably in limited minutes with Lorient, scoring 6 goals in 13 appearances.
How they’ll finish: Burkina Faso should improve upon their winless showing in 2012, but passage to the quarterfinals will elude them.
How they got here: The Walya Antelopes will be making their first AFCON appearance since 1982 thanks in large part to the away goals rule. After advancing past Benin (1-1 aggregate) in the first round, Ethiopia progressed past Sudan (5-5 aggregate) to earn their spot in the field.
Who to watch for: Fuad Ibrahim. Remember him? The 21 year-old former US-17 and U-20 dropped off the radar for a bit after stints with FC Dallas and Toronto FC, resurfacing in the NASL last year before switching his sporting allegiance over to his country of birth. He has earned two caps to date, scoring one goal. With some tournament minutes and a few decent performances, Ibrahim could kick start a career that has stalled in recent years.
How they’ll finish: Ethiopia could finish anywhere from first to fourth in Group C. Thanks in part to a high degree of familiarity (17 of their 23 players come from two Ethiopian clubs), the east Africans have earned positive results against a number of solid opponents, losing just once in nine full international matches over the past year. Following in the path of Equatorial Guinea last year, Ethiopia look capable of surprising a few teams and nipping a top two spot in Group C.
How they got here: The Elephants qualified with relative ease, beating Senegal 6-2 on aggregate. Cote d’Ivoire haven’t lost a single match in regulation since November 2010, an astonishing span of 23 matches. They didn’t concede a single goal during the 2012 tournament and look poised to keep that train rolling.
Who to watch for: Didier Drogba. Approaching 100 caps and fresh off a long-awaited Champions League title, Drogba has a rèsumè that most players would envy. But one huge hole remains: an AFCON crown. At 34, Drogba may only have two more shots, as Cote d’Ivoire’s golden generation gets long in the tooth. Will Didi deliver, or will it be disappointment for the fifth straight time?
How they’ll finish: It’ll finally happen – Drogba and his compatriots will do what they could do in ’06, ’08, ’10, or ’12 and win the country’s first AFCON title since 1992.
How they got here: Tunisia managed to eek past Sierra Leone on away goals to earn their 11th straight AFCON berth.
Who to watch for: Oussama Darragi. The attacking midfielder is playing in his third straight AFCON on the heels of success at the club level in 2011 and 2012. Playing time has been hard to come by for the 25 year old since moving to Switzerland in the summer, however; it will be interesting to see if he shows any ill effects of that lack of playing time as he looks to pull the strings for the Tunisian attack.
How they got here: Algeria took out Gambia and Libya en route to South Africa, returning to the tournament after missing out on the 2012 edition.
Who to watch for: Djamel Mesbah. With no Madjid Bougherra in the squad, defense is a question for Algeria heading into arguably the toughest group of the tournament. Mesbah has made a name for himself in Serie A over the past four years, and his play on the left side of the Algeria back line will go a long way in determining how well the Desert Warriors are able to both defend and attack.
How they’ll finish: Algeria will likely duke it out with fellow north Africans Tunisia for second place in Group D. If they manage to reach the quarterfinals, anything beyond would be quite surprising.
How they got here: Togo got past Kenya and Gabon to return to the AFCON for the first time since the tragic bus attack in Angola in 2010.
Just really like this Adebayor clip.
Who to watch for: Emmanuel Adebayor. Who else? After a will-he/wont-he mini-saga illustrated the bizarre disconnects that exist within the Togo FA, the Tottenham striker is indeed set to take part in his first tournament since his brief retirement from international play. With his coach and FA officials at odds, Adebayor’s status is filled with uncertainty. But if he does see the field, he’ll be worth keeping an eye on.
How they’ll finish: Togo seem to be in a state of disarray on and off the field. In a strong group, a spot in the top two will be out of their reach.
All matches will be aired on ESPN3, kicking off this Saturday and finishing on February 10.