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FTF’s African Insider’s comprehensive guide to AFCON 2021

The 2021 African Cup of Nations has finally been greenlit after persevering through a civil war, multiple threats of postponement & an intensive media campaign from the European press. Despite all of this, a ball will be kicked at the Stade Olembe on the 9th of January 2022.

Another 2 years, another AFCON. Despite CAF deciding to move the tournament to the summer, a pre-agreed deal with Cameroon meant they could not fall back on a January tournament.

But a lot has changed since 2017. African internationals occupy key positions in almost every aspect of the European game- Metz will miss seven players, while Europeans make up the bulk of all non African-based players.

With numerous talents on such a big stage, this year’s edition will feature a wider array of both world-renowned footballers & young, up-and-coming talent.

Hugo Zoff at African Insider previews this tournament for First Time Finish.

Group A

Cameroon

Head Coach: Toni Conceição

We start with the hosts, Cameroon. Despite undergoing a noticeable decline since the start of the 2010s, a team devoid of many dual-nationals pulled off a surprise win with coach Hugo Broos in 2017.

Corruption in FECAFOOT had led to numerous big names outright quitting or rejecting the team, including a young Kylian Mbappé, who was told to pay the Cameroonian FA for a call-up!

Since the election of Samuel Eto’o last month however, things have very quickly taken a turn for the better. Over 10 dual-nationals have reprised their places after exile, and the squad looks very competitive for the tournament ahead.

As hosts, do not count them out.

Probable Starting XI (4-2-3-1): A. Onana, Fai, Ngadeu-Ngadjui, Onguene, Oyongo, Anguissa, J. Onana, Ngalameu, Neyou, Toko-Ekambi, Choupo-Moting

Key Player: Karl Toko-Ekambi will likely be the key player this tournament, with 2017’s player of the tournament Christian Bassogog more likely to come off the bench. Toko-Ekambi has 11 goals & 4 assists so far this season for Lyon, and is likely to transfer his red-hot form and confidence to an eager home crowd.

Young Star: Jean Onana at Bordeaux will be one to watch. The 21 year old midfielder is extremely versatile, having been deployed all over midfield by the Aquitanians in Ligue 1 this season. Despite having few caps for the Indomitable Lions, he will have a chance to shine in his homeland.

Burkina Faso

Head Coach: Kamou Malo

Burkina Faso was one of the nations represented at the CAF ExCo that voted for a cancellation of the tournament, prompting immediate distancing from the FBF and its delegate Sita Sangaré.

Nevertheless, Burkina Faso come to AFCON as a team of varied experience- the Stallions have chosen the seasoned African continentals of Erick Traoré & Issoufou Dayo, alongside youngsters such as Ismaïla Ouedraogo & Abdul Tapsoba.

They shouldn’t be taken lightly in all cases- A team that noticeably draws the majority of its talents from the North African leagues are acclimated to the in-betweens of African football, and that can be used to the Stallion’s advantage.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Koffi, E. Tapsoba, Dayo, S. Outtara, Kaboré, Ouedraogo, Bandé, Simporé, E. Traore, A. Tapsoba, B. Traore

Key Player: Edmond Tapsoba, despite only being 22, is easily the key player for Burkina Faso this tournament. The Leverkusen centre-back has established himself as one of the best in Germany since his move to the Bundesliga, and will likely reprise that role inside a well-stacked Burkinabé defence.

Young Star: Hard to say, but Standard Liege’s Abdoul Tapsoba certainly leads the pack. With 10 U23 players in the final squad, he is the brightest candle of them all. Has a prolific scoring record for the A and A’ team whilst only being 20 years of age.

Cape Verde

Head Coach: Bubista

With a population of only 556,000, you would be forgiven to think that this is Cape Verde’s first appearance at AFCON. They’ve appeared twice before, with their best outing a Quarter-Final under Lucio Antunes in 2013, while going unbeaten with three draws in the group stage in 2015.

The Blue Sharks have chosen an experienced squad, with 37-year-old Marco Soares one of the oldest outfield players selected this AFCON. Nevertheless, there are plenty of new faces, with recent dual-nationals such as Steve Furtado & Steven Fortes key captures by the FA.

The team will be facing an uphill battle this AFCON, but will try to make every single result count.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Vozinha, J. Fortes, Ponck, Diney, Stopira, R. Mendes, Rocha Santos, Monteiro, Garry Rodrigues, Djaniny, J. Tavares

Key Player: None other than Djaniny. A legend in both Mexico & Saudi Arabia, the striker will be leading the line for Cape Verde as a man who can do serious damage. With 11 years of international football experience, he still has many years left in him at only 30 years of age.

Young Star: Kenny Rocha Santos strikes me as one who will impress this AFCON. The 21yo has been a Ligue 2 regular over the past 2 seasons, and now plays most games for Oostende in the Jupiler Pro. A versatile player, who is deployed as a centre-midfielder on most occasions, but has found himself in attack under Bubista.

Ethiopia

Head Coach: Wubetu Abate

Ethiopia has not been in the best of places over the last two years, though football is one place where they continue to improve. A thriving domestic scene has followed with a lucrative TV deal with Supersport, and in less than three years they have gone from strength to strength.

The current national team is mostly homogenous, with all but two plying their trade in the Ethiopian Premier League. A surprising omission of Surafel Dagnachew, linked with Sheriff Tiraspol, though the rest of the squad seems to be in order. Mujib Kassim and Getaneh Kebede lead the line, whilst a young goalkeeper in Fasil Gerbremichael guards the sticks. Saint George’s investments have paid off, with five players in the team.

This AFCON, Ethiopia have come to unite a fractured nation & end a 60-year title drought- though both seem unlikely. All in all, a group with three potential spaces to go through means competition is rife.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): F. Gerbremichael, Hamid, Tamene, Baye, Yusef, Bekele, Panom, Yohannes, Kebedeh, Kassim, Nassir

Key Player: Getaneh Kebedeh is the main man for the Walia Ibex, being their all-time top goalscorer. After a brief spell in South Africa, he has re-established himself as one of the best strikers outside Africa’s top 6 leagues. If Ethiopia are to go through to the next stage, they will be counting on the goals to turn up.

Young Star: Abubeker Nassir. Remember the name. The 22 year old managed a mind-boggling 29 goals last season in Ethiopia, and has shown no sign of stopping. If he transfers that form to AFCON, we could be in for a formidable front three.

Group B

Guinea

Head Coach: Kaba Diawara

Guinean Football is in the midst of a transformation- the administration has undergone significant changes over the last few months, with veteran journalists & individuals in football such as Sega Diallo being appointed into key positions.

Domestically and abroad, there seems to be a healthy stream of talent- Horoya AC have sent three players to Cameroon, while Clermont Foot’s breakout star Mohamed Bayo is a very recent addition to the team. Leipzig’s 18-year-old from La Masia, Ilaïx Moriba, is also an uncapped addition.

The message of the Transitional President is clear- win the cup, or pay up. With clear goals, a newly-experienced captain in Naby Keïta, and a solid spine, expect Guinea to go deep into the competition.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-1-2): Moussa Camara, I. Sylla, A. Cissé, M.A Camara, P. Konaté, M. Sylla, A. Diawara, Moriba, N. Keïta, M. Bayo, S. Kabah

Key Player: Naby Keïta, the captain of the Syli, will lead his second AFCON campaign for his nation. The Liverpool midfielder is the West African nation’s superstar, and he will be the focal point between midfield and attack. If he’s fully fit, he will be an immense threat.

Young Star: Mohamed “Momo” Bayo of Clermont Foot was the revelation of the year in Ligue 2 last season, and has continued that form in Ligue 1. Since switching to Guinea he has been undroppable. His pace and critical skills will be very useful in a technical team such as Guinea.

Malawi

Head Coach: Mario Marinca

The team who started off as Nyasaland have only qualified for AFCON twice in their history; both were short trips that ended in the groups.

Head Coach, Meke Mwase, was expected to lead The Flames into Cameroon but decided to temporarily relieve himself from duties weeks before the competition. Mario Marinca is no stranger to Africa however, having served as director of football for Azam & as manager of Black Leopards in 2009.

The team may only have two players who play in Europe’s top flight, but make up for it with season professionals in South Africa & Tanzania. Gabadinho Mhango & Richard Mbulu are familiar faces to anyone on the south side of the continent.

Chimwemwe Idana at Nyasa Big Bullets has also made a profound impact in Sub-Saharan Africa, with many publications shortlisting him for a surprise interclub team of the year inclusion.

In all honesty, I do not expect them to do well. In a group with Guinea, Zimbabwe and Senegal, they will have to work hard to walk away with results.

Probable Starting XI (4-2-4): Khakhobwe, Chirwa, Mzava, Chembezi, C. Petro, Phiri Jr., Idana, P. Banda, Mhango, Schumacher, Mbulu

Key Player: Pirates man Gabadinho Mhango is a lethal finisher and often occupies the top of the scoring charts wherever he goes. With Malawi not likely to create many chances, he will be especially important to them.

Young Star: It’s not often that a player moves from a team in the Group Stages of the UEFA Champions League, to the Tanzanian Premier League. Yet that’s exactly what Peter Banda did when he swapped Tiraspol for Dar es Salam. The 21yo Simba winger has had to fill the €3M-sized hole left by Luis Miquissoné & Clatous Chama, and will surely step up at AFCON.

Senegal

Head Coach: Aliou Cissé

The ever-pretenders to Africa’s most coveted prize, Senegal have always been so near yet so far. Two golden generations in the space of 20 years, littered with Ballon d’Or nominees, yet no silverware nor t-shirt for it.

This year, Senegal are more well-equipped. The acquisitions of Fode-Ballo Touré, Abdou Diallo, Bouna Sarr and Nampalys Mendy have greatly improved an ageing defence, while new blood in the likes of Matar Sarr, Bamba Dieng and Pape Gueye have added a new dimension to their attack. A player reborn in Edouard Mendy at 29 gives Senegal an unprecedented bonus- a World Class goalkeeper.

Senegal are without 2019’s Young Player of the Tournament Krepin Diatta, and will also miss Ismaïla Sarr until the Quarter-Finals, should they reach it. Cissé’s team will rely on a strong base from defence through to attack, preferring low-scoring controlled results over a high-intensity goalfest.

Now, is this the year the Lions of Teranga finally do it?

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): E. Mendy, A. Diallo, F.B Touré, Koulibaly, P.A Cissé, B. Sarr, Kouyaté, Gueye, P.M Sarr, Mané, H. Diallo, Baldé

Star Player: Does this really need an answer? The man who scored 100 Premier League goals without taking a single penalty. The man who scored in a Champions League Final. The man who scored the fastest hattrick in English top-flight history. Yes, I’m talking about Sadio Mané.

Young Star: Marseille’s Bamba Dieng is the young pick for me. A player with limited minutes, straight out of the Senegalese League, and has four Ligue 1 goals this season. On more familiar turf in more familiar conditions, hopefully he can show the world- and not just fans of French football- that he is the real deal.

Zimbabwe

Head Coach: Norman Mapenza (de facto), None (ZIFA-statement)

By the time this is published, I have no idea if Zimbabwe will be at AFCON or not. FIFA makes it especially clear that domestic governmental interference is not allowed in sports, with the notable exceptions of finances, safety and other practical measures. In effect, everything but influence is tolerated.

After news of longstanding corruption in ZIFA, the Sports Minister- former Olympian Kirsty Coventry- gave control of the Zimbabwean FA to the Sports & Recreation commission, who say that they do not expect to give control back to a corrupt ZIFA until it is all ratted out. CAF will either go ahead with 23 teams, or one of Zambia, Botswana or South Africa will take Zimbabwe’s place, provided they can provide funding in a short space of time.

On the topic of football however, Zimbabwe were weakened at short-notice after the shock international retirement of Kaizer Chiefs’ superstar midfielder Khama Billiat, who carried the team through qualification.

19yo Bill Antonio of Dynamos Harare is a big talent who has received his first call up, as has Pasham Mutimbanyoka, of similar age at Platinum FC.

If Zimbabwe do make it to Douala, they will be a welcome addition to the competition. We will wait and see.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Mapisa, Mudimu, Hadebe, Zemura, Kadewere, Mahachi, Mhangla, Musona, Dube, Mutizwa

Star Player: Normally I would have said Khama Billiat, but now Lyon’s Tino Kadewere will have to fill his boots. The winger will be the main creative outlet for Zimbabwe on the right flank, despite his lack of minutes in Ligue 1 this season.

Young Star: Is 24 too old? Because Prince Dube certainly fits the bill. A player who is a very, very big fish in the pond that is Tanzania, the sole reason why Dube hasn’t been to Europe is due to “disrespectful” offers sent by clubs in Belgium, i.e ones that were less than the €1M Azam FC ask. Will definitely gain more suitors.

Group C

Comoros

Head Coach: Amir Abdou

When qualification for AFCON started almost three years ago, Comoros did not even have a press room. A ping-pong table, with three microphones, was the setup they used to talk to journalists after their surprise 0-0 draw with Egypt in November 2019.

Since then, the Coelacanths, much like their namesake, have managed to come from the dead and qualify for an impossible tournament. The pelagic nation have been drawn in a group of death, with Ghana, Morocco and Gabon all boasting teams that see anything but the knockouts as a failure. Amir Abdou, juggling club duties with FC Nouadhibou in Mauritania as well as the national team, has improved vastly as a manager since first taking the helm.

The squad is entirely composed of overseas players, however very few are playing at a high level- the vast majority are from the French semi-professional or amateur leagues. However, Comoros are not here to win by any means. The mere fact they have reached this far is a monumental achievement in itself.

They may well still reach the knockouts, and have a good contemporary record against Africa’s top ten- so some more giant killing may be lined up.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Ahamada, Ali Mohamed, Souahy, Youssouf, Alhadur, Bourhane, Bachirou, I. Mohamed, Y. M’Changama, Ben Nabouhane, Selemani

Star Player: El Fardou Ben Nabouhane, the prolific Red Star forward, is at the top of his game this season. The all-time top goalscorer for Comoros brings experience and confidence to a very inexperienced side, being the sole member of the team with regular UEFA Continental experience. He will set the tone for the rest.

Young Star: Yacine Bourhane, the Go Ahead Eagles midfielder. Comoros aren’t blessed with much talent, but that means that the few stars they have shine and stand out even further than the rest. With limited opportunities in the Eredivisie, an opportunity to show his strengths is needed and AFCON may provide it.

Gabon

Head Coach: Patrice Neveu

Gabon isn’t the best place for football at the moment by any means, and their reputation is unlikely to change for the better anytime soon. Years of allegations of abuse have finally been uncovered, and with this shocking news arriving just before AFCON, Fegafoot are unlikely to be given much sympathy by the media.

When it comes to the pitch, the selection is a youthful one. Only five outfield players are over the age of thirty, with many making their international tournament debuts in 2022. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang remains captain of the Gabon set-up despite his issues with Arsenal.

Gabon are not expected to win by any means this AFCON, but do have good players at their disposal in midfield and upfront. Expect a surprise.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-1-2): Mezui, Palun, Manga, Oyono, Obiang, Lemina, Poko, Biteghe, Kanga, Aubameyang, Allevinah

Star Player: Hard to say, either Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang or Guelor Kanga. I’ll go with Aubameyang on ability & reputation. He hasn’t had the best of patches for Arsenal this campaign, but form goes out the window in international tournaments. Gabon are going to need him.

Young Star: Eneme Ella at Brighton. An RB Salzburg academy graduate, Ella will be a very useful option for “Les Brasiliens” off the bench. He’s made his international debut before his senior debut too; though if he impresses at this AFCON, I see him being in Graham Potter’s plans soon enough.

Ghana

Head Coach: Milovan Rajevac

What a resurgence for Ghana. A team that has been under fire since their heroics in 2010 have come up with a genius plan- hire the coach that made it happen. There are plenty of newer faces however- only André Ayew & Jonathan Mensah remain of the infamous South Africa team.

A recent breakthrough in youth has given the team much-needed life for a declining selection- Kamaldeen Sulemana, Mohamed Kudus & Edmund Addo are the surprise breakout stars of 2021, and all happen to be Ghanaian.

The Black Stars have taken advantage of new regulations to call-up a well-balanced squad, and are up there- not as favourites, but as a dark horse who may well end up victorious.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Ati-Zigi, Baffour, Amartey, Mensah, Rahman, Partey, Kudus, Paintsil, J. Ayew, A. Ayew, Sulemana

Star Player: Kamaldeen Sulemana. The Stade Rennais player has been electric in Ligue 1, ranking among the best in the division since his €15M move from Nordsjælland in July 2021. Ghana are a talented side- they will not need to count on the fortunes of any one player.

Young Star: Abdul Fatawu Issahaku will be one to watch, even with limited opportunities, this AFCON. The 17yo has been immense for Dreams FC this season- media are even dubbing him the best player in Ghana! A wonderkid that has caught the eye of Leverkusen, Liverpool & Sporting CP.

Morocco

Head Coach: Vahid Halilhodžić

Fresh from Arab Cup disappointment, Morocco will have a second chance of international glory in Cameroon, with a wider selection of players.

Hakim Ziyech’s feud with the Royal Moroccan Federation have persisted- even so far that key members of management have publically dubbed him “lazy” on television. Nevertheless, the amount of talent Morocco has just means more opportunities for others. Barcelona’s surprise star, Abdessamad Ezzalzouli, was called-up, only to refuse to join over promises he may appear for Spain.

Morocco are one of the clear favourites for this tournament. Titles are won on defence, and the Atlas Lions have arguably the best in the competition.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Bounou, Hakimi, Benoun, Saiss, Masina, Amrabat, Chair, Fajr, El-Kaabi, En-Neysri, Munir

Star Player: Achraf Hakimi. The right-back has been the best in Africa for a while now, and is among the best in the world. The PSG player has gained plenty of Champions League experience, and is ready to lead a charge for the trophy in Cameroon. Hard to believe he’s only 23.

Young Star: Ryan Mmae. The Ferencvaros star was an unlikely pickup from the RMFF, but has more than proven his place in the squad after sporadic call-ups prior to his move to Hungary. He is a very useful attacking option for Halilhodzic, and may well score a few this tournament.

Group D

Egypt

Head Coach: Carlos Queiroz

The royalty of African football, Egypt have won the tournament a record-shattering 7 times. The Pharaohs are one of the lucky few national teams in Africa that can count on a very strong local scene, rather than those based in Europe. This trend has continued into 2022, with all but 5 players representing the Egyptian Premier League.

Egypt are blessed with talent- Mohamed Salah is considered one of the best players in world football, whilst the spine of the selection is built by an Al Ahly team that are, officially, the third best club in world football.

Queiroz comes into the competition with a huge weight of expectations- anything less than the Semi-Finals is a sackable offence. With such players at his command, there is no room for failure in the eyes of the Egyptian fans.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): El Shenawy, Tawfik, Hegazi, Ashraf, El Foutouh, Elneny, El Said, El Solia, Salah, Sherif, Sobhi

Star Player: Mohamed Salah. I don’t need to explain his accomplishments, as if you’re reading this you probably know why he’s been pointed to as Egypt’s star player. The mercurial winger has scored 150 goals since landing in England, and shows no sign of stopping. World Class.

Young Star: Mohamed Abdel Monem at Future FC. The 22-year-old had an immense breakout season for Smouha last year, with Al Ahly subsequently loaning him out once more. I see a player who reaches 100 caps with Egypt in him. A smart, technical defender who will form the heart of Egypt’s backline for years to come.

Guinea-Bissau

Head Coach: Baciro Candé

“Beware Guinea-Bissau” was the words of captain Jonas Mendes after being drawn in a group with Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan. “They will surprise you!”.

For a small country, Guinea-Bissau have called-up an impressive team, with regular starters in Ligue 1 and Primeira Liga among their ranks. Others, such as Fernandy Mendy, play in competitions such as the Scottish League One. Mendy is the first Alloa Athletic player to receive an international call-up since 1891! Porto FC’s Nanu & Al-Shoulla’s Piqueti are also noteworthy names in the squad.

However, they are consistent. It’s Guinea-Bissau’s 3rd AFCON in a row, which is impressive- South Africa & DR Congo couldn’t manage that. They say the third times’ a charm, so maybe we could see a surprise or two.

Probable Starting XI (5-4-1): J. Mendes, Nanu, Ucha, Sanganté, Simao Jr., Candé, Pele, Cassama, A. Semedo, S. Mané, Piqueti

Star Player: Piqueti. The scorer of the infamous AFCON goal back in 2017, the Al-Shoula man is still the best Guinea-Bissau have in terms of attacking power.

Young Star: 23yo Moreto Cassama at Reims is not only a key player, but a key prospect. The former Portugal youth prospect is all-but guaranteed to start every game this AFCON, and will impress. Those who watch French Football will be well-acquainted with the name.

Sudan

Head Coach: Burhan Tiye

Burhan Tiye to replace Hubert Velud was a very strange, and late appointment for Sudan right before an AFCON, with coverage of his position as manager even arousing suspicion from the Guardian, who otherwise have no interest in Sudanese football. Nevertheless, he is here to stay, and will have to shake off the notion he is a “puppet” to the international media.

A decade has passed since the Secretary Birds have tasted the soil of international events, but a very impressive qualification (that saw them ahead of South Africa) put end to any doubt that they are back.

A resurgent local scene, with both Al-Hilal and Al-Merreikh CAF Champions League regulars, has contributed to the increase in quality Sudan has seen over the years. An almost entirely-local 28 has contributed to this.

Sudan are not expected to venture deep into AFCON, but to simply have an “honourable demise”- go out, but not at an embarrassing scoreline.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Eshrein, Abdeen Maki, Karshoum, Nemer, M. Amin, Khedr, Mahjoub, Al Rashed, Raouf, Hamed, Abdelrahman

Star Player: Salah Nemer, the captain. The Al Merreikh defender has been a stalwart for the Martians in successive CAF Champions League campaigns, and will be the glue that holds this team together during their campaign.

Young Star: The Nyíregyháza forward Yasin Hamed. He hasn’t featured much this season in the Hungarian second division, but as one of the few Sudanese players in Europe representing the team, the Romanian-born 22yo will be a key asset for Tiye.

Nigeria

Head Coach: Jose Peseiro

The Super Eagles are the ever-present threat of AFCON, always have a somewhat good team and always in the mix to win.

However, they are their own worst enemy. Former manager Gernot Rohr was unpaid for over eight months, prior to reaching a severance agreement 4 weeks before the tournament. Former Venezuela manager Jose Peseiro has been given the job, with hopes he can salvage some team spirit & bring them to winning ways, despite the impossible job.

Over 200 million in Nigeria will be watching them, celebrating every goal and scrutinising every mistake. But with Osimhen, Dennis & Balogun out, AFCON glory may just be a little bit harder.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Akpeyi, Aina, Ajayi, Troost-Ekong, Collins, Ndidi, Aribo, Iwobi, Musa, Iheanacho, Chukwueze

Star Player: Wilfred Ndidi. The rock in defensive midfield can claim to be one of the best in the world. The Leicester man is an asset no other team has, and that will be an immense advantage for the Super Eagles.

Young Star: Samuel Chukwueze. He may be coming back from injury, but the 22yo is Nigeria’s most important man in attack. The Villareal man is the polar opposite of captain Ahmed Musa, and brings speed & technicality to the wing.

Group E

Algeria

Head Coach: Djamel Belmadi

The reigning champions, Algeria come into the African Cup of Nations 33 games unbeaten and champions of Arabia. The Desert Foxes are a force to be reckoned with in international football, and may well surpass Italy’s record set during Euro 2020.

A strong lineup, mostly unchanged from both 2019 & the 2021 Arab Cup, is key to any chances Algeria have of defending their trophy. Belmadi has also stayed at the helm, with the consistency of this team their biggest strength. Riyad Mahrez has been in good form as Manchester City’s top goalscorer this season, whilst Youcef Belaili is fresh from an immense campaign with the A’ team in Qatar.

Algeria are clear favourites for victory in Cameroon, and we may well see a repeat of 2019’s Final against Senegal. But trophies are won on more than just ability, and they will need to work hard if they want to taste success in Olembe come the 6th of February.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): M’Bolhi, Atal, Benlamri, Mandi, Bensebaini, Bennacer, Brahimi, Feghouli, Mahrez, Bounedjah, Belaili

Star Player: Riyad Mahrez. While Youcef Belaili was Algeria’s best player over the prior two international campaigns, Mahrez is key to the success of this team. His match-winning moments in 2019, such as the infamous freekick against Nigeria, is what the Desert Foxes need.

Young Star: Adem Zorgane. The son of a former Algeria international, the 22yo has racked up impressive performances since he was first called-up as a Paradou player earlier in 2021. A move to Charleroi in Belgium followed, and he has taken to Europe like a fish to water. Much like Bennacer the tournament prior, the Champions of Africa have another midfield starlet in their hands.

Equatorial Guinea

Head Coach: Juan Micha

Equatorial Guinea are no strangers to this competition. As hosts in 2015, they finished an impressive 4th place with a squad that many predicted would go out in the group stage. Now, after qualifying for the first time without being a host country, La Roja de África will aim to achieve similar success on a similarly limited player pool- the only way is up.

Sassuolo’s Pedro Obiang was unfortunately barred from football due to being diagnosed with bronchopulmonary disease, but the team will strive on without him- Santiago Eneme is an exciting prospect at Nantes, while captain of the 2015 team, Emilio Nsue, is also present despite being a free agent.

They’re unlikely to replicate the team or results of 2015, but Equatorial Guinea will still be an interesting selection to watch in Group E.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Owono, Akapo, Coco, Meséguer, Ndong, Machín, Eneme Bocari, Salvador, Josete, Nsue, Nlavo

Star Player: Emilio Nsue. The currently clubless right-sided defender plays as a striker for the national team, and has found success in it. At 32, this may be his last chance to participate in a major international tournament. Whether his fitness is there is another issue- 8 months without a club is sure to have a toll on his ability.

Young Star: Luis Nlavo at Braga. The former Cano Sport striker caught the eye of the Primeira Liga team during CHAN qualification, when he was called up as a 16-year-old. He made his debut for the national team in late 2021, and has impressed as an aerial threat late in the game. The youngster has 5 goals in 9 appearances this season, and Equatorial Guinea will surely use his ability to good use. Keep an eye out for the 6ft striker.

Ivory Coast

Head Coach: Patrice Beaumelle

Ivory Coast are a squad at a crossroads; since their win in 2015, the team hasn’t improved, nor worsened- they’ve remained stagnant. The team hasn’t changed significantly, with 20 of the 28 players selected having over 10 international caps.

However, in more than a year of uncertainty, consistency may be the recipe for success. A team with international experience and cohesiveness may be Patrice Beaumelle’s strength tactically.

Veteran goalkeeper Sylvain Gbouhou misses out due to testing positive for trimetazidine in Ethiopia, but the young Elezier Tapé and GladAfrica favourite Badra Sangare are there to deputise. Sebastien Haller, Odilon Koussounou and Willy Boly are new additions to the team, with Haller coming into this tournament as the in-form striker in Europe.

37-year-old Serey Dié & 34-year-old Max Gradel are the sole remnants of the infamous golden generation, while Karim Konaté, the 17-year-old Mimosas winger setting the continent alight, begins his journey in Africa.

The Elephants are outside favourites, and have both the quality and consistency to make it happen.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Tapé, Aurier, Koussounou, Bailly, Konan, Cornet, Sangare, Kessié, Gradel, Haller, Zaha

Star Player: Franck Kessié will be an integral player for Ivory Coast this tournament. Both young and experienced, the AC Milan midfielder has been impressive in Europe and Serie A, consistently, over the past few years. Supported by a strong selection of midfielders including Ibrahim Sangaré and Jean-Michel Seri, Kessié will have no problem starring in a talent-filled team.

Young Star: Who is Karim Konaté? is the question. “The most in-form teenager in Africa” would be the answer. Karim Konaté has exploded this season with ASEC Mimosas, and the 17yo scores goals for breakfast. At the time of writing, he’s scored over 20 goals in all competitions. If you haven’t heard about him now, you will after AFCON.

Sierra Leone

Head Coach: John Keister

It’s been 26 years since Sierra Leone last played an international competition, and a lot has changed since then. Only 10 players in the team were born when that happened.

The Leone Stars have been placed in a hard group, with the three other teams having reached the final four of AFCON within the last three editions. A group of death, if you will. However, the FA has been active in their recruitment of dual nationals- Steven Caulker, the former Liverpool defender (and striker!) is chief among these.

Kei Kamara & Mohamed Buya Turay are both excellent strikers, with 37 year old Kamara a legend in United States soccer. Turay was similarly a goal scoring machine in Sweden, and recently merited a move to China.

There clearly must be enough talent in the country though, as John Keister has received death threats for leaving out what fans perceive to be important players. An unfortunate event, but shows signs that the team is more than capable to prove they belong at the highest level.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): M.N Kamara, Bangura, S. Caulker, Kakay, Wright, Kwame, Kallon, Medo, J. Kamara, K. Kamara, Turay

Star Player: Kei Kamara. The all-time top scoring African in MLS with 130 goals (and 5th of all-time), the 37yo has waited a lifetime for the opportunity to represent his nation on one of the biggest stages in football. He may have lost his speed, but Kamara is still a lethal striker.

Young Star: Between the sticks, Mohamed Nbalie Kamara stars at 22 years of age. The East End Lions’ goalkeeper has an even younger deputy born in 2004, with an average age of 23 across the whole goalkeeping department.

Group F

Gambia

Head Coach: Tom Saintfiet

For a tiny country, Gambia has a huge amount of talent. Looking at their squad, you would be surprised to see this is their first ever international tournament.

The whole team, save for a few players, are locally-born and exported to Europe, a rarity amongst African sides, who often see their locally formed players end up in the PSL or North Africa. Gambia has had a project that is years in the making, which has finally paid off.

They are by no means in contention to win the tournament, but punch significantly above the weight expected. Players such as Ebrima & Omar Colley are Serie A regulars, whilst those in lesser-followed leagues such as Modou Barrow have still managed to form a reputation in AFC.

Mahdi Camara is an unfortunate miss for Gambia, with the St. Ettiene captain still holding out for a France call-up. Nevertheless, the team has more than enough talent to push through the group.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Jobe, Janko, O. Colley, Jagne, Touray, Marreh, Modou Barrow, E. Darboe, E. Colley, Musa Barrow, Ceesay

Star Player/Young Star: Musa Barrow. Dubbed “the next Kaka” when Italian agents first saw him play in the local league, the 23yo will be the talisman for Gambia. The Bologna forward has a high ceiling, and doubles up as both our Star Player, and Young Star.

Mali

Head Coach: Mohamed Magassouba

Mali are dark horses, and enter this tournament as a team that will take the most advantage of a perfect storm. The team benefits from a huge swath of former youth talent, with the majority of the team prior winners or runners-up at various U17 iterations of the World Cup & AFCON.

While possessing a respectable attack & defence, their real strength lies in midfield; 2-time African champion Aliou Dieng, three Salzburg projects in Mohamed Camara, Diadie Samassekou and Amadou Haidara, and Brighton’s star player Yves Bissouma, among others. Fitting all five into the same team is a “nice problem” for Magassouba to have.

Question also remains on who starts in goal. Both Ibrahim Mounkouro at TP Mazembe, and Djigui Diarra at Young Africans can lay claim to being number one. Another fun fact is Adama Traoré- there are two in the team, with the third, more famous one, opting for Spain despite a call-up earlier this year.

Mali have the quality to step atop that podium on 9th February, as do many others. It’s all down to how well they play, and how hard they work.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-2-1): Mounkouro, H. Traoré, Kouyaté, Fofana, M. Haidara, Bissouma, Dieng, A. Haidara, Adama M. Traoré, Djenepo, Koné

Star Player: Brighton’s Yves Bissouma is Mali’s midfield hope. In a star-studded midfield such as Mali’s, it can be hard to stand out. Bissouma has gone from strength to strength under Graham Potter in the Premier League, and will continue to do so with Mali.

Young Star: Only 24, and Aliou Dieng has already won everything of note in Africa. The Al Ahly defensive midfielder has been touted as the best player in Africa, which makes him an asset-and-a-half for a team that is mostly entering the uncharted territory that is football in West Africa. Expect him to become the record transfer out of the continent very soon.

Mauritania

Head Coach: Didier Gomes da Rosa

As an arabic-speaking country, Mauritania have taken advantage of it to the fullest; by getting the best possible pre-tournament in the form of the FIFA Arab Cup.

Former Simba man Da Rosa has an experience with subverting expectations, managing to take the Tanzanian team to the CAF Champions League knockouts, whilst also topping their group. Mauritania is the ultimate underdog in that regard, and he thrives under those expectations.

The squad has hardly changed since the Aran Cup, with only three french-based players joining since, giving them the advantage of a “pre-season” Gambia and Mali have been denied- though one Tunisia have merited from.

With the four-best third-placed teams going through, it’s a race to the finish between them and Gambia to lap it up.

Probable Starting XI (4-5-1): B. Diop, Sy, A. Ba, S. Karamoko, Abeid, Yali, G. Fofana, A. Mahmoud, K. Camara, Ethmane, A. Kamara

Star Player: Aly Abeid of Valenciennes. Heavily missed during the Arab Cup, the Saudi-born left back brings order to the backline, and scarce European or African experience; something that has hindered the team for some time.

Young Star: Who to go for other than Beyatt Lekweiry? The 16yo (born in 2005) is the youngest player called up to the tournament, and should hopefully make an appearance. Not much is known about him, so it will be a genuine surprise to all but those who follow Mauritanian football.

Tunisia

Head Coach: Mondher Kebaier

Tunisia is a footballing anomaly, much like Uruguay. Not a country doing better than those of contemporary population, but one that outcompetes, or is on par, with those who have 5-100x times their population.

The tradition continues yet again, with another strong showing for a team coming off the FIFA Arab Cup as finalists. Fourteen return from the tournament with silver in their mouths, wanting a taste of gold.

The Carthaginians prefer to sit back and slowly get results under Kebaier- death by papercuts, if you will. This style of football, while not exciting by any means, gets results, and will be something even Algeria will be wary of in case of a potential rematch.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Ben Mustapha, Drager, Bronn, Rekik, Maaloul, Ben Romdhane, Skhiri, Mejbri, Laidouni, Khazri, Msakni

Star Player: Mohamed Ben Romdhane. Recently crowned the Tunisian player of the year, the 22yo midfielder has excelled for both Esperance and his country in 2021. Despite his age, he is an accomplished carrier of the ball and will be able to create chances from midfield; an asset any team, club or country, craves. He is the “wavy lines meme”, to explain it briefly.

Young Star: Hannibal Mejbri certainly isn’t the most famous Carthaginian to hold the name, but he did manage to cross the Alps- he’s with Manchester United in the Premier League. A breakout star of the Arab cup, the attacking midfielder has relished his early international switch.

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