From 21:00 (West African Standard Time) on Saturday January 13th 2024, the 34th edition of the Confederation of Football (CAF) sanctioned Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) will kick-off in Abidjan, the capital of Côte D’ivoire.
The opening match will see the hosts, the Elephants of Cote D’ivoire take on the Wild Dogs of Guinea Bissau. Thenceforth, the 24 national teams that qualified for the biennial continental competition will battle it out to qualify for the grand finale scheduled for the same time and space on the 11th of February, 2024.
Subdivided into six groups of four teams each, the first three match days culminating on the the 24th of January, will produce qualifiers for a round of 16 to be played out between the 27th to the 30th of January. In turn, the quarter finals are scheduled for the 2nd and 3rd of February while the semis will come up on the 7th ahead of that much-anticipated final.
From a competition of 16 teams, participants have since been increased to 24 after the 2016 contest.
Like fanned out this time around, Group A includes host country Cote D’ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Nigeria with Group B made up of Cape Verde, Egypt, Ghana and Mozambique.
Cameroun, Gambia, Guinea and defending champions Senegal are in Group C while Group D is made up of Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Mali, Namibia, South Africa and Tunisia will slug it out in Group E while the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Tanzania and Zambia bring up the rear in Group F.
The competition this time around promises to be more intense. What with its ultimate prize money having been increased in the last edition from the meagre $4.5million prize money that had dogged the competition with disdain to, a cool $5million. The runners-up will get a whopping $2.75m for losing, semi- and quarter- finalists will head home from Abidjan with $2.2m and $1.275m respectively.
The competition, also known as the African Cup of Nations, debuted in 1957 with some four nations in attendance. It has since been held every two years since its 1968 edition. In 2013 it was changed to odd numbered years so it doesn’t interfere with the FIFA World Cup.
However, the competition is still belaboured with intercontinental problems. Like the forced absence from club duty of African players who mostly ply their trade in Europe while the tournament lasts. This has seen some clubs think twice before engaging them in contracts; and, or some players having to make tough choices between club and country.
A condition that has seen some players of African descent opting to play for their European ancestors instead. Making some pundits wonder why it has in no way made CAF to consider fixing the tournament differently. Never mind that they have instituted another tournament for the locals.
Funnily, this has often come between some teams living up to their fantabulous nicknames. Yes, from their foundation, virtually all the national teams in Africa have had to cope with monikers. So much that their inevitable clash on occasion have led to superlatives and regional differentiations being incorporated for disparity.
Three-time winners The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, for instance, had to cope with the adjectival prefix to theirs because the continent boasts other lions, let alone felines. Like The Atlas Lions of Morocco – the first African team to make the semis in the World Cup. And The Teranga Lions of Senegal – the defending champions.
Yet many other teams have wings and can fly like no other bird than the eagle. They include the national teams of Nigeria, Tunisia and Mali. While the Malians are yet ordinary Eagles, the Nigerians, perhaps for their peculiar achievements on the field, have since had Super affixed to theirs. The Tunisians, on their own, are differentiated with their Carthegenian provenance.
Other four-footed national teams include the Lycaons (Wild Dogs) of Guinea Bissau who have everything to prove when they take on Cote D’ivoire in the opening match. To imagine wild dogs duelling elephants for size is part of the mouthwatering spices the tourney advertises.
Of course there are also the Desert Foxes of Algeria who inevitably are among the teams to beat in the competition on account of their past records. Winning as hosts in the 1990 edition and 2019 in Egypt.
Interestingly, perhaps for its size, many teams have gone for the elephant. These include those of Guinea and hosts Cote D’ivoire.
Animals reminiscent of Africa’s jungles apart, some teams acquired their names from the continent’s also-abiding aquatic splendour. There are the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde, for instance. Absolutely tyros record wise, their exploits ever since May see them turning some applecarts in this fourth attempt.
This leaves us with the few teams who have taken to names unrelated to animalis. Paramount here are the Pharaohs of Egypt. Perhaps this partly explains why they are the most successful team of the tournament. With the name from their African past, they have won it for a record seven times!
Well another sake of theirs in this regard, the Black Stars of Ghana have not fared worse in their three former triumphs. Only this time around they have had to cope with an ignominious first-round exit in the last edition. Hopefully, they’ll make amends in this dispensation.