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Will AFCON 2023 be the most competitive yet?

Ali Farhat
January 12, 2024

The Africa Cup of Nations 2023 has no real favorite, a lot of contenders and a lot of committed stars. It's shaping up to be full of surprises for soccer fans.

Fans at a welcome party during the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations
In football-mad Ivory Coast, excitement has reached fever pitch ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations kickoff on SaturdayImage: Hino Wilfried Ashley Gnaoue/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

Despite being an old soccer tournament — held for the first time 67 years ago — the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is still one of the most difficult competitions to predict.

In 37 editions, 15 countries have lifted the trophy. Virtually every continental powerhouse has at least won it once and some smaller countries have also been able to go all the way, like Zambia in 2012.

In recent years, AFCON has favored big teams like Algeria or Senegal. However, history has shown that anything can happen during the tournament.

Just ask Didier Drogba, considered by many to be one of Africa's best players. He ultimately never managed to lift the trophy despite being part of Ivory Coast's so-called golden generation — with the likes of Yaya Toure and Gervinho, among others, in their ranks.

Former Ivorian footballer Didier Drogba shows the paper slip of Ivory Coast during the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2024 official draw
Ivory Coast's success is a top priority for its leaders who hope to showcase how far the West African nation has comeImage: Wikus de Wet/AFP/Getty Images

Senegalese star Sadio Mane said AFCON 2023 is even more difficult to predict.

"This competition will be one of the strongest since I started playing in it because all the big countries are here and they all have their targets," the former Bayern Munich forward told the Confederation of African Football portal cafonline.com.

No clear favorites

Mane is perhaps trying to diffuse the pressure, since reigning AFCON champions Senegal are one of the most awaited teams this year — but that doesn't mean he's not onto something.

For the first time in years, Ivory Coast is not the overwhelming favorite.

Senegal is, of course, one to watch, "because it's a team which may not look as attractive as the others, football-wise, but they are a team that is used to going far in competitions and doing what is necessary to get through the rounds," explained Ibrahima Traore, a former German Bundesliga player and ex-captain of the Guinean national team.

But the Lions are not boxing alone in their category. Other nations also have some arguments to present. 

Nigeria's Victor Osimhen wins player of the year during the 2023 CAF Awards
Nigeria are blessed with a tremendous attack — but will it be enough to win such a dense tournament?Image: Nour Aknajja/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

Morocco will want to show that their incredible run during the 2022 FIFA World Cup — in which they finished fourth — was not a lucky one.

Egypt can count on a solid group of players from Al Ahly and Zamalek, two of the biggest clubs on the continent, and will try to bring Mohamed Salah his first AFCON win.

Algeria, winners of AFCON 2019, will try to make up for their surprise exit in the first round in Cameroon in 2021.

Nigeria, who have not won in 11 years, also have a good shot.

Led by Victor Osimhen, recently crowned as African Footballer of the Year, the Super Eagles are blessed with a tremendous attack — Boniface, Lookman, Chukweze and Iheanacho — however, it might not be enough in such a dense tournament.

The Nigerian team is still "struggling a bit," according to Jay-Jay Okocha, the former Eintracht Frankfurt player. "We are not consistent enough," he told DW.

Other teams that look like they can achieve something at this AFCON include Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Tunisia and — of course — host nation Ivory Coast.

Will home soil be an advantage for Ivory Coast?

On a continent where disparities are big between the nations — climate, quality of the infrastructure and quality of the pitch, for example — playing at home has been an advantage for a long time.

But playing on home soil is no longer a guarantee of success.

The last team that lifted the continental trophy at home was Egypt, in 2006. No team has managed to play a final in front of its own crowd since then.

Despite the home advantage, the Elephants are not seen as favorites, as Idriss Diallo, president of the Ivorian Football Federation confessed.

"We're building a new team. If you see our team now, I think 30% are very young, it's their first competition," Diallo told the magazine FourFourTwo. "But we will try to bring a very good squad to be ready."

Ivory Coast is working quite well. As the host team, the Elephants didn't have to go through the qualifications.

In 2023, Ivory Coast lost only one out of nine games and just concluded its preparation for the AFCON with an impressive 5-1 win against Sierra Leone.

"We wanted to be in AFCON conditions, we wanted to suffer from the work, the heat and see how the group reacted to the effort," coach Jean-Louis Gasset told reporters. "And everything was extremely positive."

Ivory Coast might not have a golden generation this time, but the Elephants will count on the massive support of an orange wave across the country.

Stars who are happy to be part of it

Since this tournament has no clear favorite, there are plenty of stars who are going to do everything to help their team reach their target.

Nigeria's Victor Osimhen, Egypt's Mohamed Salah, Senegal's Sadio Mane, Ghana's Mohammed Kudus or Guinea's Serhou Guirassy all play in the most competitive leagues in Europe and around the world.

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But even if they have played and lived abroad for years — and some of them have already won some prestigious titles, such as the Champions League — winning the AFCON is still their ultimate goal.

When Sadio Mane lifted the trophy two years ago, he told the BBC it was the "best day" of his life.

"I won the Champions League and some [other] trophies but this is the special one for me. This is more important for me," he said.

Edited by: Keith Walker