AFCON 2021 Preview: Group A
And here we go again. A host nation of lions that has the quality to actually win, a resurgent stable of horses, a herd of Ibex, and a shiver of sharks. As animal kingdoms go, the first group of AFCON 2021 is a motley mix. In reality, there are two distinct races being run: the expected top two finishers, and the stragglers.
Ever heard of Franglais?
It is a thing unique to Cameroon; words and sentences composed by mixing English (anglais) and French (français). Sort of like a creole or pidgin, spoken across the country. It may be a small detail, but the use of franglais in large groups creates a sense of kinship.
You’ll hear a lot of franglais in the camp of the Indomitable Lions, a team made up of players from the French- and English-speaking parts of the country.
“There are so many indigenous languages in Cameroon and because we have two official languages, too, it is Franglais that sometimes makes it easier for everyone to communicate in camp,” said Geremi Njitap in a 2017 interview.
For the world, this AFCON may just be a month-long festival of football, but for a lot of players and staff in this team, it means much more.
A Mission to Unite
It’s no secret that there’s an undercurrent of division beneath the surface in Cameroon, which many have been quick to highlight as a reason the AFCON should not happen. These stem from deep-rooted historical angst on many complex issues.
Within the Lions squad, however, is a fierce determination to use this tournament as a unifier; to push a message of togetherness. To that end, it’s been wonderful to see the squad is representative of the nation’s diversity, featuring at least one player with direct links from each of Cameroon’s ten regions.
From the Littoral region, known for producing a lot of famous Cameroonian stars, are about six players in this team – headlined by André Onana. Vincent Aboubakar is from the north, Clinton Njie from south and Frank Zambo Anguissa is from the Central.
How Far Can Cameroon Go?
When Cameroon hosted the AFCON in 1972, it was an eight-team affair of two groups. Playing abroad, especially in Europe, was a rarity – which is why Joseph Yegba-Maya was a huge star attraction.
Playing for Valenciennes at the time, the forward had torched French football during a prolific spell with Marseille. But his clout could not lead the Indomitable Lions to win on home soil, as Cameroon had to settle for third.
Here they go again, with Yaoundé and Douala – the two host cities – once more chosen to be venues for what is now an expanded showpiece. There are now three more cities hosting this expanded, 24-team showpiece, and unlike in the ’70s, playing in Europe is norm rather than the exception.
The Indomitable Lions finished top of Group F ahead of Cape Verde, Rwanda, and Mozambique and there’s a quiet confidence that this team could go far. More importantly, the six games presented António Conceição da Silva Oliveira with an opportunity to assess his team in a competitive environment.
A Qualification Process Far from Smooth
Cameroon didn’t have to finish in the top two to qualify like everyone else. As host nation, their spot at the tournament was already secured, but there was a need to send the right message across.
Despite winning the 2017 AFCON, the Indomitable Lions fell short in the subsequent edition in Egypt, dropping off in the round of 16.
A bleak performance against Nigeria marked the end of Clarence Seedorf’s reign as head coach – suffice to say it had not been a successful experiment. Two consecutive goalless draws against Tunisia and Cape Verde meant that life under new head coach Toni Conceição had also started on a slower note than expected.
The game against Cape Verde was the opener of their AFCON qualifiers but an uninspiring performance at home showed how far off Cameroon were from climbing back to the pinnacle of African football.
The five-time AFCON champions eventually clawed back to finish top of the group after winning three games and drawing another. An issue of concern at that point was the lack of goals with Cameroon scoring just eight in six qualifying games – outscoring only eight of the other 23 qualified teams.
In fact, in Conceição’s first four games as Cameroon coach, they managed to score just one goal. But there were reasons to optimistic for Cameroonians, as in those four games, the team kept four clean sheets. Over time, the team has maintained that compactness at the back as the goalscoring record has improved.
In the World Cup qualifiers, Cameroon averaged two goals per game whilst conceding just three goals in six games. They ended the World Cup qualifiers on a strong note winning their last four games including a nerve-racking final day win over rivals Ivory Coast.
The Reality About Hosts
The term ‘host and win’ is one of football’s deep-rooted ideologies which makes almost every host country a favourite to win a tournament. Recent history suggests that it is becoming less common for hosts to dominate the AFCON.
In the early years, host countries won the AFCON three times in its first eight editions. Since 2000, however, just two host countries have managed that feat – Tunisia (2004) and Egypt (2006).
The intervening 13 years have seen hosts falter, with four of the last seven eliminated at the quarter-final stage.
In 2019, Egypt – who have hosted the AFCON the most times (5) – were eliminated in the round of 16 stage by South Africa.
Since 1982, the host country of the AFCON has won just five of the 19 editions, with none of the seven hosts across the last six tournaments doing so.
Add to the fact that modern football teams and players (many of who will be at this tournament) are exposed enough to withstand the most hostile host crowds, and one understands why Cameroon winning a sixth title is by no means a foregone conclusion.
But how will home support figure this time round? CAF has said in a statement: “Supporters may only enter stadiums to attend the 52 TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations matches in Cameroon if they are fully vaccinated and are able to show a negative PCR test result that is no older than 72 hours or a negative antigen test result no older than 24 hours.”
As a result, there will be a different feel to fan culture this AFCON with the requirements needed to attend games.
Cameroon Can Rely on Experience Upfront
That Hugo Broos led an inexperienced Cameroon side to their fifth AFCON title in 2017 remains one of the biggest fairytale stories in the competition’s history.
Eight players withdrew from the squad before their campaign started, while other players were dropped due to Broos’ stern disciplinary measures in camp. Let’s just say as pre-tournament harmonies go, Cameroon had no right to win that tournament.
But for most, the tournament in Gabon will be remembered for that volley by Aboubakar that sent the trophy to Cameroon for the first time in 15 years.
A lot has happened since that final. Aboubakar missed out on the 2019 AFCON due to injury.
His return to the national team has seen him take his place up front with Cameroon once again relying on the target man for goals. Now Saudi-based, Aboubakar was the country’s top scorer in the qualifiers for the AFCON, scoring three.
An added fillip for the 29-year-old is that he’s captaining the Lions on home soil, not to mention that he’s in good form. Aboubakar has been involved in nine goals in 14 appearances for Al-Nassr, scoring six goals and providing three assists.
Only four players in the Saudi Pro League this season have been involved in more goals than the marksman.
Aboubakar has maintained his level from when he finished as the joint-fifth top scorer in the Turkish Super Lig with 15 goals in the 2020-21 season.
So far this season, he is averaging similar shot conversion rates compared to his last season at Besiktas. This is impressive, particularly because the bulky forward has been on the end of poorer quality chances, shown by a significant fall in his expected goals per 90 ratio.
Cameroon will be hoping the Al-Nassr forward maintains this level of efficiency in the AFCON, as he partners familiar names from the 2017 victory in Clinton Njie, Christian Bassogog, and Karl Toko-Ekambi.
The Unlikely Hero Returns
Conceição will be hoping Bassogog can repeat the form that saw him win tournament best player in 2017. The Shanghai Shenhua player will, once more, need to force the issue after playing fewer than 200 minutes in the qualifiers.
Bassogog, who plays in the Chinese Super League, is yet to play a full game under Conceição. But as is typical of the opportunistic winger, Bassogog scored a brace after being introduced halfway through the second half against Malawi.
Apart from his goals, an ability to create chances could be a tool Conceição exploits. In the 2017 AFCON, the winger either attempted (15) or created (14) of 29 of Cameroon’s shots, with only Benjamin Moukandjo being involved in more (31).
Moukandjo himself is not included in this current squad, suggesting Bassogog may need to be given more game time simply because he’s one of the most creative players in the setup.
Whether he starts or not, the 26-year-old’s presence allows the Lions more width going forward. His directness sees him complete a lot of dribbles, from which he is able to attract fouls in dangerous areas. Best of all, he is still a very underrated player.
In 2017, Bassogog was a thorn in the flesh of tournament defences, completing 14 take-ons, with only Burkina Faso’s Bertrand Traoré (16) having more.
A Solid Team
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who opted to stay with German club Schalke 04 in 2017, now plays for Bayern Munich and has accepted the invitation to feature. His quality is needed, as is the luck he seems to bring to teams he plays for.
In the middle of the park, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa will be expected to play a pivotal role for the Indomitable Lions.
Since joining on loan from Fulham in September 2021, Anguissa has become a key player for Napoli in Serie A. Excellent at breaking up opposition possession, he has averaged more tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes than any other Napoli player in the competition in 2021-22.
Cameroon will be thrilled to have André Onana back in goal. In a must-win World Cup qualifier against Ivory Coast, the Ajax goalkeeper proved his worth once again, making crucial saves.
Before his suspension due to alleged doping, only three keepers in the Dutch Eredivisie had prevented more goals from being conceded based on Opta’s expected goals on target data. Onana, across the past two seasons (2019-20 and 2020-21), has prevented 10 goals from being conceded with his saves.
Aboubakar, Bassogog, Anguissa and Onana are all expected to use their experience to help Cameroon navigate its way out of Group A.
‘Host and win’? We will see…
A Credible Threat to the Hosts
What were you doing at age 12? A skinny Bertrand Traoré was beginning his national team career, representing his country at the Under 17 World Cup in 2009. He also scored.
In September 2011, Traoré, now 15, made his senior national team debut. A year later, his AFCON debut. At 17, he got his first senior international goal.
Now, in 2022, at the grand old age of 26, this Burkinabé team is built around him. And they are not half bad. Following a failure to qualify for the 2019 tournament, the country’s FA went back to basics, returning to a long-proven, but briefly abandoned, programme of harnessing players at grassroots level.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a bias toward selecting physically imposing players for the Stallions, which saw teams led by names such as the country’s all-time scorer, the now-retired Moumouni Dagano, Saïdou Panandétiguiri, AFCON 2013 finalist Charles Kabore and latterly, the cult figure that is Arisitide Bancé as well as teammate Préjuce Nakoulma. Big, tall, but nimble-footed, too.
In recent years, however, technique has mattered more, offering pathways to players in the ilk of Jonathan Pitroipa and Traoré – wiry, twinkle-toed devils with a glint in the eye.
The change in approach and a continued emphasis on youth has resulted in this compact side, who were so good in World Cup qualifying that – with a team shorn of key players – they still nearly pipped Algeria to a playoff spot.
The Opta AFCON tournament predictor gives Cameroon an 48.3% chance of finishing first in the group and a 88.4% chance of qualification for the knockout stages, whilst Burkina Faso, who topped their qualification group, have been given a 79.1% of joining the hosts in the last 16.
The Stallions, who are making their 12th appearance at the AFCON, are widely expected to advance out of the group stages back home.
Every once a while, an AFCON comes around with an unfancied team playing good football inspired by a native coach.
In 2013, it was Cape Verde under air-traffic-controller-by-day-and-national-team-coach-in-spare-time Lúcio Antunes, who took his debuting team to the quarters. In 2010, it was Malawi, under the cerebral Kinna Phiri, that the Flames shocked Algeria – who had secured World Cup qualification – by three goals without answer.
This time, it’s Kamou Malo, a former national team player who has learned the ropes of coaching from the ground up. Not a man with a huge reputation in his playing days, the 58-year-old likes to build compact teams that press from the front. It is how he’s led Burkina Premier League side RC Kadiogo to back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017.
Throughout Africa, it is rather common to hear that national team players have no regard for native coaches – with notable exceptions such as DR Congo’s former coach Florent Ibenge, the great Hassan Shehata (who led Egypt to a consecutive AFCON treble), Badou Zaki (who was the people’s choice for 2004 AFCON best coach after leading unfancied Morocco to the final) and the late Stephen Keshi (nicknamed the Big Boss because, well, the clue is in the name).
Although he’s coached almost exclusively in Burkina Faso, Kamou’s fatherly style has endeared him to this crop of players with heavy European influences. Eighteen of his 28-man team are based on the Old Continent, with several others based elsewhere outside the country. In order to further strengthen the collective mental resolve of the team, Kamou lobbied for the hiring of a team psychologist, something not common in those neck of the football woods.
The Men for the Job
Personnel-wise, the Stallions will be pleased to have Traoré fit again after missing two months due to injury. A lack of match fitness, however, might mean Malo will have to look at other options in the team such as Edmond Tapsoba, Herve Koffi, Gustavo Sangare, and Issa Kabore for inspiration.
Keep an eye out for Koffi (Charleroi, Belgium), a ‘keeper who has garnered some experience on loan moves in Portugal, France and Belgium since leaving the famed Ivorian side Asec Mimosas to Lille in 2017.
Tapsoba in particular has been impressive for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga in recent times. The centre back is one of the most adept defenders at carrying the ball out of defence and progressing the ball up field. Since 2020-21, only one player has averaged more ball carries per 90 minutes than Tapsoba (24.3), while Bayern’s Alphonso Davies is the only player to average more progressive ball carries per 90 than the Burkina Faso international (13.5).
Tapsoba could be a key asset in Burkina Faso’s build-up play at the AFCON.
A bit of trivia: Patrick Malo, a utility defender, is a part of the squad. The Morocco-based player is the coach’s son and can play all across the back four, although his strength is at centre back.
The Traoré Question
Long thought to be the next big thing of Burkinabé football, the Aston Villa man is yet to truly set the world, or his country, alight. At best, he’s a good player for them, but certainly not in the reliable fashion of Jonathan Pitroipa or Moumouni Dagano – the two whose performances for the Stallions it was thought he’d eclipse.
This has been in keeping with his club career, too. History will ask whether his association with Chelsea, famous for loaning so many talented players and not giving them a footing, was the best option. The Blues loaned him to Vitesse (where he scored 16 goals in 42 games) and Ajax (nine in 24). It was clear the youngster had goals in him, and eventually Chelsea cashed in when they let him go to Lyon.
There, he got a credible 21 goals in 87 games before moving to the Premier League. At 26, when will the 30-goal-a-season Bertrand emerge? Maybe he is just a very good player rather than the generational talent that was expected.
Whatever the case may be, he’ll be central to the Stallions’ fortunes in the land of the Lions.
Island Bliss, again?
Under the new format of the AFCON, the best four out of six third-placed teams qualify to the round of 16. Based on the Opta tournament projections, Cape Verde are given a 66.2% chance of qualification from the group stages whilst Ethiopia has a 40.3% chance.
Just 15 years ago, Cape Verde never featured in any serious conversation about African football. The turning point for the erstwhile minnows was in 2009 when Portuguese coach João de Deus introduced several players from European leagues into the national team setup.
Despite missing out on the 2010 AFCON, the signs of improvement were clear and it took just three years for them to qualify for their very first AFCON, stunning Cameroon in the process. Since then, this – getting players from the diaspora or dual nationals – has been the tried and tested model for the nation with a population of 560,000.
In their maiden AFCON tournament in 2013, the Blue Sharks qualified to the last eight after remaining unbeaten in a group with South Africa, Morocco, and Angola. The islanders outshot Ghana in the quarter finals and were unlucky to be knocked out after a spirited performance. Following that tournament, Cape Verde broke into the top 30 of the FIFA rankings for the very first time.
In 2015, Cape Verde once again went unbeaten in the group stages playing three consecutive draws against Tunisia, DR Congo, and Zambia. Unfortunately, they were eliminated this time on goal difference. Since then, they’ve gone off the boil, as they continued to drop in the FIFA rankings.
However, 2021 has served as a year of return. They beat Cameroon 3-1 in the AFCON qualifiers and only finished one point behind the hosts. Cape Verde also conceded just three goals in the qualifiers and had the joint third best defence.
The AFCON returnees also pushed Nigeria in the World Cup qualifiers, finishing second.
Pedro Leitão Brito’s men have lost just two games – against Nigeria and Senegal – in 2021 so far.
Undoubtedly, a player to watch for the Blue Sharks will be Ryan Mendes, the country’s most capped player ever with 55 since making his debut at age 20. He was part of the previous two AFCON squads and this year, captained the team during World Cup qualifying.
Mendes, now 31, knows how to keep teams purring. Since the start of the 2020-21 season, he has been one of the leading creative players in the UAE Pro League.
11 of his 12 of his assists have come from open play, plus he’s been the best player for dribbles attempted and successful dribbles.
Recently signed to Olympiakos from Saudi side Al Ittihad, 30-year-old winger Garry Rodrigues is one of the team’s best players. His primary assets are passing in short spaces, taking long rangers, switching play and cutting inside. However, defensively, he does not offer much and is fond of making rash tackles.
Coach Going Back to Basics
Pedro Brito Leitao, known as Bubista, played 14 years for Cape Verde as a defender, captaining the national team, while playing club football in Angola and Spain, before moving on to a coaching career.
He worked at local clubs Mindelense, Academica Mindelo, Sporting Praia and Batuque, winning regional and national championships. He was appointed coach in January 2020, taking over from Rui Aguas.
Unbeaten in their last two against Cameroon, Bubista will look to replicate the Sharks’ maiden performances, posing a credible threat to Burkina Faso and the hosts.
Welcome back, Walias
It’s been nine years since the AFCON saw them.
As good as it is to have them back, Ethiopia’s problem of generally playing poorly away from home still persists – and it’s been an issue even in qualifying. Average teams usually go a bit defensive when travelling, not Ethiopia.
Wubetu Abate, coach of the side, is continuing the tradition of fast, possessive, football that’s good on the eye. But if the Walia Ibex want to go far, some pragmatism will be necessary. As has become the norm for national teams from the horn of Africa, this team is heavily composed of players from the domestic league. Only one player, Shimelis Bekele of El Gouna in Egypt, features outside the country.
The Man Abate
Abate won the domestic league in 2011 with Ethiopia, leveraging on that to coach in neighbouring Sudan. He then returned to Ethiopia and had stints at Hawassa City, Fasil Kenema and Sebeta City.
Ethiopia have not won the AFCON since 1962, and in all likelihood, they won’t win this one, but they’d give it a right go, possibly have some howlers at the back, but be great fun to watch.
Abate will aim, mainly, to beat Cape Verde and then scrape some draws against Cameroon and Burkina Faso.
Look Out For…
The flavour of the month in Ethiopia is Abubeker Nassir. At once a quick, skillful winger who is comfortable upfront, the 21-year-old is an exciting prospect and tipped to make a jump to a team outside Ethiopia sooner than later.
What he lacks in international exposure, Nassir makes up for with intuitive finishing. He completed last season as top scorer in the domestic league with his club Ethiopian Coffee.
Getaneh Kebede is one of those few players in this country to have ventured abroad, notably at Bidvest Wits and University of Pretoria in the South African top flight between 2013 to 2016. The national team captain is the team’s most reliable finisher, and his 32 goals from 61 caps is testament.
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