The African Cup of Nations is on once again! With the scheduling change for the tournament from even years to odd years, the African tournament is now down to the semifinals tomorrow and the final and third place matches later this week. Two big players, Ghana and Nigeria, and two surprise contenders, Burkina Faso and Mali, will vie for the championship. However, the final four nations have come from an exciting tournament in the past weeks.
With only a year between the last tournament and this one, the qualifying format was rather different this time around. There were two rounds of qualifying. The first round had pairs of teams drawn from those countries that did not qualify for the 2012 African Cup of Nations, and the 14 teams that qualified from the first round would join the teams that participated in the 2012 tournament in the second round. The second round again had teams paired off for home and away legs, and the fifteen teams that advanced from there would qualify for the final tournament, along with hosts South Africa.
The qualifying round for the 2013 African Cup of Nations already began on a thrilling note. Continental heavyweights Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria, and Egypt had all failed to qualify for the 2012 tournament so started in the first round of the 2013 qualifying. Nigeria, Algeria, and Cameroon all defeated their opponents to move to the second qualifying round. However, Egypt was defeated by the Central African Republic 4-3, marking the second time Egypt failed to qualify for the tournament. The second round of qualifying brought further surprise upsets. Cape Verde dealt a shocking 3-2 defeat to Cameroon to advance the island nation to its first ever continental tournament. Additionally, Ethiopia defeated Sudan on away goals to qualify for their first tournament since 1982 and Niger defeated Guinea to qualify for their second consecutive tournament after returning to international football in 2010 from a two year hiatus.
The group stage saw more smaller nations perform well, but had few upsets for the major nations still remaining in the tournament. In group A, Cape Verde managed a goalless draw against South Africa, a second draw against Morocco, and a last-minute defeat of Angola to come second to South Africa and advance to the quarterfinal. Group B saw no surprises with Ghana and Mali advancing ahead of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Group C started out promising for Ethiopia with a draw to defending champions Zambia, but a 4-0 defeat by Burkina Faso left the Ethiopians last in the group. Zambia’s hopes were also dashed by two more draws, leaving Burkina Faso to top the group and Nigeria to also advance. Lastly, group D was by far the group of death for the tournament. With Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, and Tunisia in the group, which teams would advance was fairly up in the air. Ultimately, Algeria fell to Tunisia and Togo putting them at the bottom of the group, while Cote d’Ivoire topped the group and Togo claimed second to advance to the quarterfinals.
The quarterfinals saw South Africa face Mali, Cote d’Ivoire face Nigeria, Burkina Faso face Togo, and Ghana face Cape Verde. Mali eked out a 1-1 draw at the end of extra time, and upset South Africa 3-1 in the penalty shootout to eliminate the hosts. In a battle between two of the best countries on the continent, Nigeria beat Cote d’Ivoire 2-1. Burkina Faso and Togo went goalless after 90 minutes, but a goal by Jonathan Pitroipa in the 105th minute put Burkina Faso through in extra time. And Cape Verde’s amazing run came to a sad but predictable end with a 2-0 defeat by Ghana. Now the stage is set for the semifinals. Ghana is likely to advance to the finals and would be my favorite for the tournament, but whether they will face Nigeria or Mali in the final is a more open ended question.