AFCON 2021 Preview: Group F
Tunisia’s new-look Al Nusur could be a tournament problem despite being underrated, Mali’s Eagles are expected to be a very exciting prospect, second-timers Mauritania are building a long-term team and the Scorpions of Gambia will want to sting.
It must be frustrating being Mondher Kebaier.
First, knowing that you were only hired because all others were too expensive. And then, despite playing attractive football, and improving tactics from what previously pertained, the media is always asking for your head.
That’s the lot of the Tunisian coach since taking over just over two and a half years ago. Kebaier starts almost every press conference by imploring Tunisians to believe in the team, the project and keep the negative energy to the minimum.
Considering he qualified the Carthage Eagles for the AFCON with two games to spare, and at a canter – five wins and a draw – the aggro he faces is strange. But this is Tunisia, one of the traditional teams in African football (forget that they’re the smallest nation by population to have won the AFCON) and there’s always pressure.
Pundits are always surprised when the population of Tunisia is mentioned – it currently stands at 10 million – because the country’s sporting pedigree is huge. Producers of multiple champions in football, volleyball, and basketball, the north Africans are probably only second to Egypt in stature, all things considered.
Of the top nations at the AFCON, Kebaier’s probably one of the least paid. Not that he complains about being paid about $10,000 a month, but he does demand a lot of his players.
He’s lost just three times since his appointment in 2019.
The last loss came in the final of the Arab Cup against Algeria.
What We Learned from the Arab Cup
The favorites for last December’s competition were Morocco, hosts Qatar and Algeria. Typically, Tunisia snuck into the final, but a grave error meant the trophy did not return to Tunis. The loss was somehow made better as they pocketed a tidy runners-up compensation of $3 million.
With the AFCON now on the horizon, the second-place finish meant rewards for players who did well. Ferjani Sassi, a key member of the team over the years with more than 60 caps, did not impress and so was dropped from this squad. He’d been average during the Arab Cup.
Another stalwart, the defender Yassine Meriah, is out of contention due to a torn ACL.
The squad now is more mature than at the last AFCON, where French coach Alain Giresse presided over some truly dire football. Very unlike Tunisian football, which can be very conservative when naming tournament squads, this iteration has a rather large number of AFCON first timers.
The Trio to Watch
Midfielder Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane is one to watch. The 22-year-old is arguably one of the best Africa-based midfielders in the past year. Targeted by Monaco, Galatasaray and others, he’s just been named best player of the Tunisia top flight.
Hannibal Mejbri is a name you’ll hear a lot, and with good reason. He had a decent Arab Cup but plenty is expected of him. A player not afraid to take on opponents, Mejbri finds the good pass quite easily, is technically adept, and the 18-year-old is expected to start games at the tournament. He could be the Carthage Eagles’ creative hub.
Pairing him could be Ellyes Skhiri (who missed the November qualifiers due to injury but will surely start on his return) and Aïssa Laïdouni, a physically impressive player who could have played for Algeria but chose Tunisia.
The ever-present Wahbi Khazri, formerly for Sunderland but now at Saint Etienne, leads the core of battle-scarred players in the team. Khazri’s enjoying a good season in Ligue 1, with the forward being their top league goalscorer. The lack of real emerging talent means Tunisian national teams over the years have predicted frontlines.
Take for example Youssef Msakni, a 30-year-old player said to have been better than Lionel Messi in his teens. He seems to have been around for ever, and maybe he has. This is his seventh straight AFCON – the record is eight, held by Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan and Rigobert Song).
He still oozes class and is a very good finisher who can take on any opponent. So much was expected of him that he was transferred from Esperance as a 22-year-old to the defunct Lekhwiya for €13 million – an African record for selling a player.
Naïm Sliti has finally found his feet in Saudi Arabia, where he initially had problems settling. On a big pay-check and with performances to complement it, the 29-year-old has a great partnership with Khazri. But while Sliti is an erratic finisher (and skies his shots a lot!), Khazri is more clinical.
Ali Maaloul, 32, is having the time of his life at Al Ahly in Egypt. The left back, perhaps the best on the continent, just renewed his contract in a big-money deal on New Year’s Day. Opponents should look out for his charging runs forward, crosses and great link-up play. And he scores lots of goals, in addition to the being the designated penalty taker at his club. All he needs now is a great performance with the national to complete his legacy.
This attacking threat, when it clicks, can be potent. But that is what team coach Kebaier will hope happens. His biggest threat in this group will be another convocation of Eagles, but this time the ones from Mali.
Jean-Marc Guillou is probably not a name you know, but must know.
If his name does sound familiar, you probably know him from the French team that played in the 1978 World Cup. However, featuring at that high level isn’t what he’s even known for.
Guillou’s the man behind the golden generation of Ivory Coast – the Toure brothers, Didier Zokora, Aruna Dindane, Siaka Tiene, Boubacar Barry and the rest of them. He was the founder of the famed Asec Mimosas Academy that has gone on to produce even more players for top European clubs. As the top man at Asec, he oversaw the campaign where the club won the African Champions League in 1998 against Dynamos of Zimbabwe.
But he would leave the Ivory Caost after disagreements with Asec officials about control.
Hurt and heartbroken, he took his magic elsewhere around Africa.
In Mali, he started the JMG Academy. That was in 2006 and since then, his template has been an inspiration in many parts of the world.
A typical JMG player begins their career playing barefoot for a while, before being introduced to footwear. In the initial years, teams play without anyone in post, as the goalkeepers are taught ball control and spatial awareness.
Together with a Malian Football Federation that has been investing in youth for more than a decade, the country has slowly been dominating youth competitions. They may not have won a lot of trophies to show for all this work, but the quality of talent churned out year-on-year has been unmistakable. Adama Traore (Sherrif Tiraspol player who was part of the side which famously beat Real Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk – scoring against the latter – in this year’s Champions League), Yves Bissouma (Brighton), and Hamari Traoré (Rennes) are just a few.
This current squad of 24 has eight players from JMG. In fact, the academy has 15 players at this AFCON, featuring across six different teams.
Another Golden Generation?
It’s debatable if this team is stacked enough to warrant this tag. The previous golden generation that Seydou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra, Frédéric Kanouté ended their careers with a slew of top four finishes in the AFCON. Some have argued that they played at a time when other nations such as Egypt and Cameroon were just too strong. Great team, wrong time.
And that is where this team want to do better.
Technically and tactically sound, the Eagles did not concede in the World Cup qualifiers. They’ve lost just once since the last AFCON, and during the qualifiers for Cameroon they lost once as well. Opponents have found that this team is hard to beat.
Back home, fans are yearning for them to do well because the team has barely played in the country. Political instability and a lack of a CAF-approved stadium means that Mali have played all their qualifiers abroad, which makes their consistency even more commendable.
Could they be the ones to deliver the trophy, finally?
Going For It
The next three months are perhaps going to be the most crucial in Malian football history, for beyond the AFCON, the Eagles are two legs away from a famous first World Cup qualification. And that’s why this month’s competition is so important to the nation.
The coach, Mohamed Magassouba – despite not being paid for the better part of two years – is an unrepentant optimistic about the potential of this team. Appointed in 2017, ‘Maga’ has solid coaching credentials. He remains one of the youngest coaches to win to win a continental club competition, having led Motema Pembe in 1994 to the old CAF Cup Winners Cup at 36 years.
He’s also qualified DR Congo to the AFCON, in 1998 and 2002. Bizarrely, on both occasions he was replaced by the same man – Louis Watunda – shortly before the tournaments started. Maga has always felt hard done by this, and this fuels him to push his current charges to great things.
The thing about Mali’s squad that makes them dark horses for the tournament is how deep it is. Quality all over the pitch and on the bench – but it’s the midfield that’s got people talking.
The Key Men
Bissouma’s performances at Brighton – over the last two seasons, in particular – have been so impressive that a host of the ‘bigger’ Premier League clubs have expressed a keen interest in grabbing the central midfielder off the Seagulls.
He is an all-action midfielder, adept in possession but even better at winning it back off the opposition. Since the start of 2020-21, no player has made more tackles or interceptions than the Mali international in the Premier League (245) with only three players to have played 2000+ minutes averaging more than him on a per 90 basis (5.1). This style of play often comes at a price, however – Bissouma has been given 14 yellow cards in the Premier League since 2020-21, with only three players having received more.
He has been involved in more open play passing sequences both overall (2010) and ending in a shot (43) than any other Brighton player since the start of last season, while 16 of Brighton’s shots have come after Bissouma regained possession from the opposition to start a passing sequence – six more than any other teammate in this period.
After successive third place finishes at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2013, Mali have struggled to make an impact at the last three tournaments – exiting at the group stage in both 2015 and 2017 before a Last 16 exit to Ivory Coast in 2019. Bissouma was not part of the squad in any of these tournaments, with this being his first participation in the tournament – they’ll be hoping that his presence can take them further this time around.
Amadou Haidara of RB Leipzig is regarded among the top emerging talents in the Bundesliga. The holding midfielder is difficult to dispossess, and makes quick transitions into attack. His talent was held up early, making his senior debut for Mali while still a teenager.
Hamari Traoré is a solid right back with Rennes. A clean tackler, he’s got excellent passing skills, and can overlap when needed, although he’s not very proficient at it.
Aliou Diang, one of the best Africa-based midfielders. He’s been a key part of Al Ahly’s domination of continental club football in the last two years.
Ibrahim Koné, top scorer of Mali’s World Cup qualifiers so far with five, has been a revelation.
Only four players scored more goals than him across the Norwegian Eliteserien last season (11), with the striker converting one in five of his chances on goal.
Moussa Djenepo of Southampton is destined for a top club. Links up well from the wings and has an offensive mindset that has been key for the Eagles.
Eight years ago, they were ranked as the worst football country in the world (206). And here they are now at a second-successive AFCON.
To paint a picture of their rapid rise, consider that between 1995 and 2003, the Lions of Chinguetti played in just 33 competitive games, winning none. As recently as the early 2010s, they had barely any football structure.
A five-year development plan sent them on their way to big things, building a 10,000-capacity stadium along the way which housed a national selection of Under 12 to Under 17s. By the time the plan was ending, the former whipping boys were on the cusp on AFCON 2019, beating South Africa and Burkina Faso along the way.
They also twice qualified for the Championship of African Nations – a tournament reserved for players based in Africa only. This time, they’re back at the top table after finishing second in Group E, behind Morocco but ahead of Burundi and the Central African Republic.
To underline how far they’ve came, it is perhaps fitting that Mauritania will have the youngest player at this AFCON, 16 year-old Beyatt Lekweiry.
An Experienced Hand to Lead
French-born coach Didier Gomes da Rosa was drafted in by Mauritania in November after the surprise sacking of long-time incumbent Corentin Martins.
Da Rosa coached amateur sides in France before spending the last nine years in Africa where he has taken charge of clubs in Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Guinea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania.
A very experienced man, he is a sound tactician who has won the domestic league in Guinea, Rwanda, Tanzania Cameroon and Sudan in addition to reaching the semis of the Africa Confederation Cup with Coton Sport.
This is the 52-year-old’s first national team appointment and is widely seen the perfect fit for a team like Mauritania going through a new cycle and needing a step up in class. Those familiar with him will not be surprised at the inclusion of a teenager in the AFCON squad, because that’s just who Da Rosa is.
In fact, once he saw that Lekweiry had shone last year’s U-20 Arab Cup, there had been whispers about how impressed the coach was.
The Key Men
Defensive midfielder Khassa Camara was one of the first players from France with Mauritanian heritage to commit to the national team and help build their talent base.He debuted in 2013 when he was still at Troyes but now plays his club football in India.
He was the only player in Mauritania’s squad at the last AFCON who played for a team in the top flight of a European league.
Aboubakar Camara – formerly of Fulham – is now in Greece at Aris Thessaloniki. His nickname, AK 47, is the reason he chooses that number at every club he’s been to recently. Very bulky and physical striker, the 26-year-old scored the goal in Bangui that qualified the Lions of Chinguetti to Cameroon.
Adama Ba, who plays for Moroccan side RS Berkane. A tricky winger, he tends to make forays up front and has an eye for the pass, while cutting in often.
The defender Aly Abeid is a key player for them. Now 24, the full-back can also feature at center-half.
The captain of the side is Abdoul Ba. The two-metre-tall player is not a very good defender, but he does the basics. Very useful, as expected, on corners and set-pieces. He usually does not need to jump to head the ball and it is a weapon he employs often. Otherwise, he can be sluggish and easy to skin.
A Quirk of Fate Awaits
There was a collective groan in Nouakchott and other Mauritanian cities when the AFCON draw was done. What are the odds, they wondered, that Tunisia and Mali were in their group again?
Incidentally, the three sides faced off in the 2019 group stages. Mauritania drew Tunisia but lost to Mali. This time, their biggest hope of getting three points – it will be their first ever AFCON win – will be against fellow group ‘newbies’ The Gambia.
What’s in a Name
Why do some texts refer to this nation at ‘Gambia’ and others go ‘The Gambia’? Well, here’s a short story, per The Culture Trip:
A letter in The Gambia’s main archive, written by the then-prime minister Sir Dawda K Jawara in March 1963 and addressed to the Special Committee on the country’s name at the United Nations, revealed that in order to distinguish Gambia from a country which was becoming newly independent, namely Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), he wanted to add a definite article ‘The’ to its name. This development also helps because for many years mail bound for Gambia has mistakenly been sent to Zambia. Since then, ‘The Gambia’ is now officially the name of the country.
That’s sorted, then. But in many cases, even in football matches, Gambia is still used and accepted.
Small but Mighty
Meet the lowest-ranked team at this year’s competition. 150th in the world, the debutants are very aware that almost everyone else at the table expects them to flop.
Everything about this beautiful country seems to be small, after all they are the smallest country in mainland Africa, surrounded on all three sides by Senegal.
For such a small country, Gambia has a surprisingly large number of players in the diaspora. And it is from this pool that they’ve chosen generously to compete in Cameroon.
Italy takes the largest share of origins of players in the squad with six, including captain Omar Colley (Sampdoria).
“Each time, there is a surprise team – this time we hope it is The Gambia,” Colley told BBC Sport Africa.
“I am excited not only for being the captain, but for the fact we are the first generation to achieve qualification,” the 29-year-old said. “For us it’s not a small thing and we made history for The Gambia.”
Gambia shocked qualifying Group D by finish top, ahead of Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. Here are some of the key players who made that feat possible.
The Key Men
Musa Barrow, with five Serie A goals this season, is one of several Italy-based players in the squad.
Whilst not top of many key categories in Serie A since the start of last season, Barrow has quietly been going about his business and making an impact for Bologna.
His 13 non-penalty goals rank joint 19th of all players, 11 assists rank joint 13th, open play chances created rank joint 13th and non-penalty goal involvements (24) rank him joint 14th in the competition – not bad considering 374 outfielders have played at least 1000 minutes in the competition since the start of last season.
He scored a key goal in the qualifiers to help his country to their first finals. Having moved from West Africa to Atalanta while a teenager, he was later loaned to Bologna, before making the move permanent in July.
Ebrima Darboeplays for AS Roma and has a good reputation. Good with and without the ball, the hype around the midfielder is because he seems to think a second or two before those around him. He went to Italy as a refugee at age 14 after a six-month journey through the Libyan Desert. He was lucky to arrive alive in Sicily through the treacherous Mediterranean waters
Abdoulai Jallow, nicknamed Ablie, is a pint-sized midfielder with a good technical brain and can be tricky to mark.
Hassan Cisse is a key striker of the side. Top scorer in Gambia’s qualifiers, he got the winner against Angola – and Cisse’s also the all-time top scorer for the national team with 11 goals.
Demba Darboe is a Belarus-based striker who is the top scorer in the country’s top flight league with 19 goals, helping them to the title last season.