by Seun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 15th 2015)
Itʼs that time again when Africaʼs best meet to contest which team is the continentʼs best. Of course, my first statement on AFCON 2015 must be that the defending champions will not be at the championship. How come?
It is hard for anyone to understand what happened and how it happened, but the reality is that the national team that won the 2013 African football championship undefeated, that qualified for the 2014 World Cup as one of 5 African countries, and one that boasts one of the best records out of Africa in all global football competitions, will not be at the 2015 World Cup because it failed to qualify. That’s how come!
The last time Nigeria was not at the championship it was by default – for political reasons. The military government of Nigeria of then dictator Sani Abacha resented criticism from Africaʼs icon and our continentʼs modern hero Nelson Mandela. Abacha deliberately chose not to send the Super Eagles to the championship. That was in 1996.
The boycott backfired spectacularly. The most significant effect of Nigeria’s withdrawal that year was that the path to victory was paved for South Africa, a country fresh from the shadows of apartheid, to win their first and, to date, only African Cup of Nations championship. And Nigeria was banned from the 1998 edition as well – that will have taught the South Africans!
We canʼt blame a boycott this time. So, as Africa prepares for the football party, for many South Africans, the prospect of winning again, some 19 years after, particularly in the absence of their bogey team, Nigeria, becomes a realistic challenge! After all the Bafana Bafana have recently been playing football with uncommon determination and confidence, and have posted some very decent results, including their sterling performance against Nigeria in their last qualifying match for this edition of the African Cup of Nations. That surely ranks amongst one their best performances that I have seen since 1996.
From January 17th 16 African countries will congregate in Equatorial Guinea and a lot of eyes will be trained on the Bafana Bafana as they attempt to win their second Nations Cup. A look at the road they have to travel indicates that it will be very rough and tough. They are nestled in the same group with two of the current best football countries in Africa – Ghana and Algeria. For South Africa it may be easier to climb Mount Everest without a guide than to emerge unscathed from that group.
Back to Nigeria briefly!
In two years, the Super Eagles have plummeted from the highest peak of African football, to the lower rungs. In the course of that tragic situation, Stephen Keshi the most successful indigenous coach in the history of the Nigerian football has fallen from grace to grass with scandalous defeats and performances that once looked remote, but have become a reality for Nigeria.
So dispirited have most followers of Nigerian football become that there is little interest in the championship. Having said that the 2015 championship will still commence this weekend and the Oracle will still peer into the crystal ball for what the immediate future holds for each of the countries.
Group A – Equatorial Guinea, Congo, Burkina Faso and Gabon
This is a very unpredictable and a relatively cheap group in terms of the antecedents of the countries. The only reason that Equatorial Guinea will emerge from this group is because, as hosts, they will ride on the back of home support to struggle and emerge.
Congo will fight hard but will fade out in the second round. Burkina Faso, through hard work and endless running had their best chance of winning the championship two years ago when they went as far as the finals before being knocked out by the fire-power of Nigeria. Since then, they seem to have lost some of the fire that made their performance very refreshing and exciting the last time.
Gabon has never been such a great football country in Africa as to give any one of the serious contenders any sweat. Their only hope rests with Pierre Aubameyang. From previous records the striker in devastating form for Borussia Dortmund FC may not replicate that form in the championship. One man does not make a forest.
Group B – Zambia, DR Congo, Tunisia and Cape Verde
Zambia in 2015 are not the same team that dazzled everyone only two championships ago. I donʼt expect them to recreate the magic they provided when last they were in Equatorial Guinea – great memories aside. 2012 was their time. It was fitting that they won the Cup of Nations for the first time in Gabon – the scene of the worst disaster in Zambian and African football, but this is not Gabon and a lot has changed in three years.
DR Congo have invested a lot in their domestic football, an investment that is yet to fully reflect in the national team. They remain dark horses even though the great coach Claude le Roy has left. Tunisia, as usual will play well, defeat the weak African teams, but falter against the West Africans. With none in this group they may succeed and emerge from the group.
Cape Verde are the hardest to predict. I do not really know what to make of this team. Two years ago we saw them display some of the most entertaining and brilliant individual football at AFCON 2013. In 2015, Africa should be ready to dance and celebrate some delightful football again.
Group C – Ghana, Senegal, Algeria, South Africa.
What a group! This, indeed, is the Dream Group, not the Group of Death. The group includes Ghana and Algeria two of Africa’s current strongest teams. Algeria, put up Africa’s best showing at the 2014 World Cup. They appear to still be in great shape. On paper they may actually be favoured to win the championship, but against Ghana and South Africa they have equally formidable opposition.
Without question this is the group that will attract the greatest attention. I do not see Senegal emerging from this group. Ghana have the experience and maturity. Algeria have a good young team in great form. South Africa are riding on fresh enthusiasm and adrenalin. Separating them will be a huge challenge.
Group D – Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali and Cameroon
Three West African teams come against the only team from Central Africa in the group.
In qualification, Cameroon look very exciting with several new and younger players replacing Samuel Etoʼo and some other aged players. They will emerge from here.
The other three West African teams will slug it out. I think that even without the recently retired Ivorian great Didier Drogba, they still have the leadership of Africaʼs best player Yaya Touré. Coached by recent AFCON winner Hervé Renard, Côte d’Ivoire will justify their placement as the highest ranked African team – they will stop Mali and Guinea from joining Cameroon.
Finally, on to my crystal ball. As I gaze into it, I see that it is misty and murky – there appears to be snow on it! Nevertheless, summoning the spirit of Tiresias, I see the following happening. I will be placing a bet as usual. Blind Tiresias has inner sight – the best seer ever. He saw that coming.
I am putting my money not on Algeria that looks to have the best team, or Côte d’Ivoire that appears to have the most mature team and superstar players, or even Ghana that may have the most complete team, but on Cameroon. New, immature, no Samuel Etoʼo, and in a relatively difficult group, Cubs or not and in the absence of Nigeria, Iʼm still backing the Indomitable Lions.
Let AFCON 2015 begin!