In case you don’t know, the African Cup of Nations, the continental tournament for Africa, is going on right now. This year’s tournament has been very exciting and is definitely showing the rise of African football on the world stage. The hosting of the tournament this year by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea places the tournament at almost the central point on the African continent. Even the qualification round was exciting. First, there is the notable lack of several of the usual major footballing countries in the tournament. Of the six countries from Africa that competed in the 2010 World Cup, only Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire qualified for the 2012 ACN. Nigeria came in second in their group to Guinea, Cameroon finished behind Senegal in their group, and Algeria finished third in their group behind Morocco and, shockingly, the Central African Republic.
However, the biggest shock of all in the qualifying round came in group G. For a group containing South Africa, Egypt, Sierra Leone, and Niger, the obvious choice for which team will come out on top is either Egypt and South Africa. However, that was turned on its head in October of 2010 when Niger scored an amazing 1-0 win over Egypt in Niamey. Egypt seemingly never recovered from that loss and ended up with only one win in their qualifying campaign and coming last in the group. However, the real shock was Niger. Between October of 2008 and June of 2010, Niger played no international football matches and really returned to international football with the qualifying campaign. Defying all expectations, Niger not only beat Egypt but also South Africa in September of 2011 and topped group G, sending Niger to their first international tournament ever. Meanwhile, Egypt have been left wondering what went wrong as they sit out the African Cup of Nations for the first time since its inception.
However, Niger was not the only overachiever in the qualifying round. The Central African Republic, who in August of 2010 were sitting at a paltry 202nd place in the FIFA world ranking, and who had sat out of international football for a year and a half longer than Niger, finished above Algeria at second in group D. While their road to the African Cup of Nations ended there, the Central African Republic did draw Morocco in both matches the two teams played, and defeated Algeria 2-0 in Bangui. This year’s tournament also features the debut appearances of Botswana and co-host Equatorial Guinea, as well as the first matches played by Libya since the end of Muammar Qaddafi’s rule.
The tournament itself has also been a host of many surprises thus far. Senegal, who in 2002 became the second African team to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup, was knocked out in the group stage after defeats to Zambia, Libya, and Equatorial Guinea. Angola and Morocco were also eliminated in the group stages. Meanwhile, co-host Gabon has won all their group stage matches. The star of Gabon’s victories has been striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored a goal in each of Gabon’s matches against Niger, Tunisia, and Morocco. Aubameyang is young at 22 and currently plays for French top flight club AS Saint-Étienne.
The quarterfinal matches are in just a few days time and look to be good ones. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the two major footballing nations on the continent left in the competition, face off against Tunisia and Equatorial Guinea, respectively. Tunisia is a tough team that most recently won the 2011 African Nations Championship, beating Algeria in the semifinals and Angola in the final match. However, Ghana has been performing very well the past few years and they are my favorites to win the tournament. Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinea is a relative minnow in African football, but as co-host they have done extremely well in the group stage and are proving to be a lively team.
The other two matches in the quarterfinals are Gabon vs. Mali and Zambia vs. Sudan. Gabon won all three of their group stage matches and, as co-host, have the home field advantage as the game is being played in Libreville, Gabon’s capital city. If Gabon win their match, they will reach the highest they have ever achieved in the African Cup of Nations. Gabon has only reached the quarterfinals once before in 1996. Zambia is also likely to win against Sudan, but they still have a long way to go if they want to reach the finals. Zambia has reached the finals twice before, but the winner of the Zambia-Sudan match will face off against either Ghana or Tunisia in the semifinals. Whatever happens, the tournament is going to continue to be exciting, especially for the smaller nations.