The latest of our AFCON 2023 preview articles looks at Group E, containing Tunisia, Mali, South African and Namibia. Can the Tunisian’s cause a shock and replicate their only Africa Cup of Nations success to date (2004)?
The Carthage Eagles go into this AFCON with one medium-term hope: to avoid Burkina Faso in the later rounds if possible. The north Africans have never beaten the Stallions, who have been responsible for some of their biggest heartbreaks.
But before the two teams might meet, Tunisia need to deal with what’s in front of them. They are consistent quarter-finalists, having been there in nine of the last 10 editions. This is their 16th consecutive qualification and their 21st AFCON appearance overall.
It has become common for Tunisian fans to see their team at the tournament, but there’s now a real thirst for another trophy since the 2004 title won on home soil. Will it be this year?
“The way the team is set, you know we will go past the group stage. Winning the whole tournament has perhaps come too soon,” says Salam Sidiki, a Tunisian journalist. “The football we are playing now is not at the AFCON-winning level and our coach does not have what it takes.”
Between 2017 and 2019, Tunisia played some uncharacteristically lovely football under coaches Henryk Kasperczak and Alain Giresse. Since then, they’ve reverted to the type of gritty, results-based football for which they are known.
Tunisia will miss the experience of veteran Wahbi Khazri, with the 32-year-old retiring from the national team in 2022. Hannibal Mejbri of Manchester United has opted out of the squad, saying he wants to sort out his future by playing minutes at club level.
Elias Saad, a decent forward at St Pauli, has been blacklisted by the Federation for attempting to pick and choose when to play.
Despite the absences of these players, Tunisia will likely be fine. They don’t call them the Uruguay of African sport for nothing. Despite a population of ‘just’ 12 million (small in the context of African countries), they are the most successful handball nation, are African champions in basketball, the reigning African volleyball champions and, of course, they have Ons Jabeur – the most visible African tennis player now, male or female.
Talented Team, Limited Coach?
This will be Jalel Kadri’s first AFCON. Widely derided in his home country, he was a surprise appointment.
As an assistant of former coach Mondher Kebaier, Kadri’s claim to fame came at the last tournament, where – after Kebaier was hit with COVID on the eve of a round of 16 meeting with Nigeria – he shocked everyone against the then in-form west Africans. It wasn’t a pretty performance, but it did the job.
The 52-year-old has not played professionally, but with a managerial career spanning 20 years, why is he not a popular choice?
“Tunisia typically does not shine when local coaches are in charge,” says football writer Oluwada Lotfi.
Indeed, critics have accused the Federation of finding cheap options, with Kadri among the lowest paid coaches in the last decade of Tunisian national team football.
How They’ll Play
As group favourites, they will look to attack in a 4-3-3. Expect Béchir Ben Saïd in goal, Wajdi Kechrida at right-back and Ali Maâloul (a legendary defender with more than 50 goals and many more assists) at left-back. Centre-backs could be Yassine Meriah and Montassar Talbi.
In midfield is the Bundesliga duo of Aïssa Laïdouni and Ellyes Skhiri in addition to Lecce’s Hamza Rafia. Upfront, there are many options. The domestic league duo of Haythem Jouini and Bassem Srarfi have earned a spot, but 33-year-old legend Youssef Msakni will is capable of a solid hour before being subbed.
Then there’s the team’s most technical player, FC Copenhagen’s Elias Achouri. A fearless dribbler, the French-born player is certainly one to look at to carry the team in future. So far in the Danish Superligaen this season, he’s tallied a league-high seven assists and only two players have been involved in more shots following a ball carry than him (19). Of players to have played at least 500 minutes in the competition, he’s among the top 10 most prolific dribblers with an average of 5.5 take-ons per 90 minutes in the Danish top flight.
Another to watch from the diaspora pool is recently debuted, Swiss-born Sayfallah Ltaief, who is an explosive and tricky midfielder.
With a balanced squad like this, it is no wonder that the coach Kadri has boldly predicted that “the minimum the public should expect is a semi-final finish.”
If he does not reach that target, he will be sacked.
Éric Chelle says he does not care if Mali win the tournament; he just wants them to be respected.
It is not an odd take from the former captain of the Eagles, who has now been in charge for about 18 months. Mali are respected on the continent for their prolific production line of talent, in addition to a burgeoning reputation in youth football. However, at senior level they have no trophy to show for it, nor have they made a single FIFA World Cup appearance.
Across their last eight AFCON appearances, the Eagles have crashed out in the group stages four times, and been knocked out in the last 16 in the last two. Embarrassingly, they exited the 2021 tournament after defeat to Equatorial Guinea. After five years in charge, Mohamed Magassouba was sacked.
Mali finished third in last year’s U17 World Cup after getting to the quarter-finals of the 2019 U20 World Cup as well. It has been just reward for a country with one of the most prolific youth development programs in West Africa. And yet, they simply cannot put in consistent AFCON performances.
Opta’s supercomputer AFCON predictions give the Eagles a 76% chance of getting into the last 16 and 39.4% chance of making the quarter-final at the time of writing.
Hopes of breezing past the group stage suffered a setback as injuries have distorted Mali’s plans. Top striker Ibrahima Koné will be sorely missed upfront after he twisted an ankle in a friendly against Uganda in October. Crystal Palace’s Cheick Doucouré will miss out after having surgery on an Achilles tendon injury while Atalanta forward El Bilal Touré has still not recovered from a thigh injury.
Also sidelined are Lens full-back Massadio Haïdara and former Southampton winger Moussa Djenepo, now at Standard Liege in Belgium.
Despite the Injuries They Remain a Decent Team
These injuries have raised expectations for Tottenham’s Yves Bissouma, who has established himself as a top Premier League midfielder with his passing and defensive abilities. Two consecutive Man of the Match performances in the first two matches of the season against Brentford and Manchester United did little to dim the 27-year-old’s hype.
Bissouma was born in Ivory Coast, moved to Mali at 13, and is seen as a poster boy of the rising African star. Like Morocco’s Nayef Aguerd (West Ham) who featured prominently in domestic African football before making a name in the world’s biggest league, Bissouma is an inspiration for many locally based players.
He has flourished under new Spurs manager Ange Postecoglou. Of players to play at least 800 minutes, Bissouma is among the top five midfielders for progressive ball carries per 90 in the Premier League this season, averaging 9.9 per 90 minutes, while only two midfielders have averaged more tackles in the competition this season than his 3.7 per 90.
He is part of a technical Mali midfield that includes Amadou Haidara, Aliou Dieng, Mohamed Camara, Lassana Coulibaly, Moussa Doumbia, and Adama Traoré of Hull City.
They also have the option of Boubacar Traoré as one of the many options in a talented midfield.
Mali’s best finish was at the 1972 Nations Cup, where they finished second largely due to some stout defending. The current team are also solid defensively, but although they were the second highest scorers in qualifying, finding goals will be an issue.
Their lack of an out-and-out striker means they will be quite reliant on the midfield, as they are expected to line up in a 4-3-3.
1996 is so far away now, and after that heady win in their debut campaign, Bafana Bafana are yet to shine in the subsequent nine AFCON tournaments.
This time, though, there is quiet confidence about South Africa.
More than half of the squad currently play for Mamelodi Sundowns, who have been the most dominant club in South African club football over the last decade – Sundowns have won eight out of the last 10 top-flight titles. In addition to that, they’ve made nine straight African Champions League group stage appearances – a joint-record with Al Ahly and Wydad Casablanca and recently won the inaugural African Football League.
The South African side are currently the top ranked club team in Africa based on the Opta Power Rankings:
All this success has led coach Hugo Broos to do the smart thing by moulding the team around his Sundowns stars, despite initially having his own style which required players from other teams.
“International football is about results, and there isn’t a long time to camp these players. If you’ve got players featuring at a high level already, why not adapt things around them?” Broos said recently.
It is now becoming normal to see five or six Sundowns players in the South African starting lineup.
Broos is most famous for masterminding Cameroon’s fifth AFCON title in 2019, and the Belgian immediately earned the respect of South African fans with a string of bold calls once he landed the job.
But one thing he has yet to solve is South Africa’s problems in front of goal.
Where Will the Goals Come From?
Broos has had to adapt the team’s traditional style of relying on wingers and second strikers. In his own words, he’s learnt to rely on “players who can use their physique and who can play with their backs to the goal”, especially in away games.
Sadly, the two players the team has relied on are both out. Scarcely had Lebo Mothiba picked up a patella injury with Strasbourg in December then more bad news rocked the squad.
Lyle Foster – who was the side’s top scorer in the qualifiers – and the medical team at his club, Burnley, wrote to the South African authorities, informing them that Foster has been suffering from mental health issues. The 23-year-old has played a prominent role for his club since the announcement, but he will not be at the AFCON.
Former South Africa captain Aaron Mokoena told local station Radio 2000: “The Premier League is a very high-pressure environment. How is he able to play there and not for the national team? If he doesn’t want to play for us, he should let us know.”
This means the Orlando Pirates duo of Zakhele Lepasa and Evidence Makgopa will look to take up the mantle. Lepasa leads all Orlando Pirates players expected goals per 90 (0.63) in the South African Premier Division this season – in fact, just two players in Lucas Ribeiro Costa (0.70) and Augustine Kwem (0.69) average a higher rate than him. Lepasa will need to replicate his domestic form on the international stage.
Themba Zwane, a veteran who has been included in the squad after he was initially overlooked by Broos, has not scored this season – registering just one assist in 648 minutes for the Sundowns – but remains a big influence for club and country. He’s good behind the main striker, running the channels and has an eye for a pass.
Broos has conceded that it had been a mistake to sideline the now 34-year-old Zwane when he took over in May 2021, explaining that he had been trying to prioritise younger players at the time.
How They’ll Line Up
It’ll likely be a 4-2-3-1, with Ronwen Williams in goal. The back four will be made up of Khuliso Mudau at right-back, a centre-back pairing of Mothobi Mvala and Siyanda Xulu, and Aubrey Modiba at left back.
The midfield diamond is the strongest area of the team, with Sphephelo Sithole – who left South Africa after playing in the 2015 U17 World Cup and has been abroad in Portugal ever since) and Teboho Mokoena, who can lay claim to being the best all-round midfielder in Africa. Zwane can operate right in front of these two, behind Percy Tau and Thapelo Morena.
Upfront will be Lepasa or Makgopa.
This will be South Africa’s 11th AFCON appearance, and with a history of crashing out at the group stages or quarter-finals, there’s finally belief that this squad should go further.
When Namibia beat Cameroon in a March 2023 AFCON qualifier, it is fair to say the southern African country went mad. A major newspaper, The Namibian Sun, went with the headline ‘Cameroon who? Bring on Brazil!’
With Kenya disqualified from Group C, this crucial win all but sealed qualification, such that a loss to Burundi in June did not really matter.
Under the guidance of coach Collin Benjamin, the Brave Warriors emerged from a challenging qualification group that included powerhouses Cameroon and Burundi.
The qualifying campaign showcased Namibia’s resilience, highlighted by a remarkable victory over Cameroon in Johannesburg and a commendable draw against the Indomitable Lions in Yaoundé. These pivotal moments secured the Brave Warriors’ second-place finish in the standings, with five points, just two behind group leaders Cameroon, and earned them the ticket to Côte d’Ivoire.
Namibia’s football journey is set for a historic chapter as the Brave Warriors gear up for their fourth appearance at the AFCON. Previous participation in 1998, 2008, and 2019 all saw eliminations in the group stages.
Despite the euphoria around qualification, there is an unspoken worry that this may be the last tournament for several senior players due to several factors, including repeated poor camping conditions, uncertain payments of bonuses and constantly haphazard transportation arrangements.
Joviita Kandjumbwa, a broadcaster, says “we should expect the players to do anything at this point to show their displeasure”. With a lack of a clear bonus structure in place as late as the New Year, boycotts can happen at any time.
For now, this team – most of who grew up together and are from a core which won Namibia’s first ever sub-regional COSAFA Cup title in 2015 – have a nation to make proud.
The Key Men
There undisputed star has been striker Peter Shalulile of Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa, recognized as one of the premier players on the continent. Shalulile, recently nominated in the top three of the Inter-Club Player of the Year, produced a stellar performance during the qualifiers.
He scored in every game, including back-to-back goals against Cameroon, positioning him as a player to watch at the upcoming tournament. He’s scored four and assisted two more in the South African top-flight so far this season. Oh, and he started his career in South Africa at left-back.
Apart from Shalulile’s offensive prowess, the experience brought by players such as Petrus Shitembi, Absalom Iimbondi, Marcell Papama, and others who participated in the previous AFCON, will be crucial for Namibia.
This blend of seasoned players and emerging talents creates a dynamic team capable of facing the challenges that lie ahead.
Namibia’s AFCON history has been marked by the pursuit of that elusive first win. With two draws and seven losses in their nine appearances, the Brave Warriors are determined to rewrite their narrative, particularly after a disappointing showing in the 2019 edition in Egypt, where they suffered defeats in all group stage matches.
Renowned for their disciplined defence and swift counter-attacks, Namibia bring a strategic play style to the tournament.
The team, led by the experience of coach Benjamin and captain Denzil Haoseb, aim to surprise onlookers as they navigate through a formidable group featuring COSAFA rivals South Africa, Tunisia, and Mali.
Been There, Done That
Benjamin knows Namibian football like the back of his hand. “I live it, I breathe it and hopefully, I will leave this earth proud of what I did for my country,” he told the state broadcaster following AFCON qualification, less than two years after taking the job in June 2022.
He was part of each of the three Namibian squads to qualify for all their AFCON appearances, and it is a key reason why his players trust him. Shitembi told One Africa TV: “He’s been there and done that. He understands what we need to do, so we listen to him.”
They should, especially when he has the record of being the only Namibian to have ever played in the UEFA Champions League for Hamburg.
A Compact Side
“Before we think of outplaying our opponents, we have to outplay our previous performances in the tournament. AFCON is our World Cup and our aim is to leave a mark,” Benjamin said after announcing his final squad.
Aware of their lack of technical proficiency compared to the continent’s big boys, Namibia make no tactical pretensions. They play to their strengths, usually sitting back and hitting on the counter.
Expect a 4-4-1-1, with Lloyd Kazapua in goal, Ananias Gebhardt and Denzil Haoseb in central defence and Riaan Hanamub at left-back. England-born Ryan Nyambe, a flying ful- back, is one of most cerebral players in the squad. The Derby County man can play both right and left-back positions well.
In midfield, Ngero Katua will play centrally, potentially with the most experienced member of the squad in Petrus Shitembi, while Deon Hotto and Absalom Iimbondi take the left and right wings respectively.
Destined for big things is Kosovo-based, 21-year-old wonderkid forward Prins Tjiueza. At his age, he wears the mythical 10 jersey and usually plays as a second striker for his country. Once Shalulile eventually leaves, there will be a lot of pressure on the youngster to deliver big-game performances.
“We as Namibians are a small country with a big heart, and if I am expected to make the country proud, that is what I will try hard to do all the time,” Tijueza told One Africa TV.
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