AFCON review after one round - Shaping up for a shock winner?



With every team having played once at the Africa Cup of Nations, ESPN's Ed Dove reviews the big talking points -- and the stuff you might have missed -- from the tournament so far.

There are no small teams anymore

Already, in recent Nations Cups tournaments, we've seen some of the continent's lesser lights become more adept at thwarting the traditional heavyweights on neutral ground.

The likes of Madagascar and Comoros marked their debut tournaments with victories, while Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania have demonstrated that they can stymie opponents and take points at the high table. Even tiny Gambia reached the quarterfinals in 2021.

This year, there are no debutants - every side has prior experience of the Nations Cup - with only five qualifiers having never before won a game at the tournament before 2024.

That changed with Namibia dispatching perennial slow starters Tunisia for their first ever victory - enjoying more attempts on goal than their more illustrious opponents - while Cape Verde enjoyed more possession than Ghana as they extinguished the Black Stars 2-1.

Mauritania pushed Burkina Faso to the last - only losing to Bertrand Traoré's 96th- minute winner - and Mozambique led Egypt (despite falling behind in the second minute) before Mohamed Salah salvaged a 2-2 draw with a 97th-minute penalty.

Even Guinea-Bissau, who ultimately fell to a 2-0 defeat by the Ivory Coast in the opener, were inventive and offered a threat, their heads only dropping after the hosts added their second.

The lesser lights are shining brighter than before, with technical qualities and greater tactical nous helping the minnows express themselves like never before.

Egypt narrowly secured a 2-2 draw against less-fancied Mozambique in their AFCON opener thanks to a late Mohamed Salah equaliser. Visionhaus.Getty Images
Egypt narrowly secured a 2-2 draw against less-fancied Mozambique in their AFCON opener thanks to a late Mohamed Salah equaliser. Visionhaus.Getty Images

Draws, draws, and more draws

None of Egypt, Algeria or Tunisia got off to winning starts. Of the would-be giants, only Morocco, reigning champions Senegal and hosts Ivory Coast have looked imperious in their opening fixtures.

For the rest, there have been plenty of fragilities on show. Fallen giants of the West African game - Nigeria and Ghana - fell to poor results and appear to be on the brink of an implosion, while Tunisia were even less inspired than usual as they were stunned by Namibia.

Cameroon were outplayed by Guinea before the latter received a red card, with Rigobert Song's insistence of crosses into the box appearing ill-suited for the talent at his disposal, while Egypt's previous defensive resiliency deserted them as they conceded twice against Mozambique. For context, the Pharaohs only conceded twice during the entirety of the last AFCON.

Then there's 2019 champions Algeria, whose early control ebbed away, as the familiar self-doubt and resignation that haunted their disastrous 2022 campaign returned in droves as Angola equalised and then took the initiative.

With the big boys vulnerable, expect plenty more shock results and a few early big-name eliminations, as this fascinating AFCON unravels.

Has Mali's time finally come?

Forever the bridesmaids never the bride at the Nations Cup, Mali are surely Africa's biggest under achievers. They've never conquered the continent, and never qualified for the World Cup, despite reaching the AFCON semifinals on six occasions, and producing two African Footballer of the Year award winners.

Could this finally be their year? The venue for their first two matches - Korhogo - is just over 100km from the Malian border, and with a significant Malian diaspora population in the Cote d'Ivoire, their opener against South Africa felt like a home game.

Buoyed by the backing from the stands, and riding an early let-off as Percy Tau missed a penalty, Mali secured the win with two goals in six second-half minutes.

The euphoric scenes just after the hour mark could prove the catalyst for a strong campaign, and with a depth of talent in midfield, and options in attack, they appear well set for a deep run.
FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

No refereeing drama...yet

One of the biggest storylines of the last AFCON group stage was the refereeing display of Janny Sikazwe, who appeared to blow up before 90 minutes during Mali's victory over Tunisia.

By contrast, this time around, it's been a remarkably smooth opening round of games (touch wood!) for the continent's officials, who are making effective use of - and benefiting from - the presence of the Video Assistant Referee.

VAR got off to an infamous (disastrous) start on the African continent, when the 2019 CAF Champions League final was abandoned due to a faulty VAR system, with Wydad Casablanca walking off in protest. It was an ignominious moment for the continent's football, and a miserable episode in the final throes of then-CAF president Ahmad Ahmad's tenure.

Four and a half years later, it's a completely different story. The referees have been officiating with poise and authority, with VAR referrals proving to be a smooth and productive process.

The late Burkina Faso penalty was - correctly - given after VAR intervention, while Ethiopian official Bamlak Tessema was saved after he overturned his erroneous decision to award a penalty to the Democratic Republic of Congo, again following a video review.

VAR also spotted Ransford Konigsdorffer in an offside position and blocking the goalkeeper's view, duly ruling out Majeed Ashimeru's goal for Ghana against Cape Verde. Similarly, it also helped the referee spot François Kamano's red-card offence against Cameroon, having initially booked the Guinea player.

Considering the problems the Premier League - for example - have had in implementing VAR in the world's grandest league, this has been a significant - if under the radar - success story for CAF and the AFCON.

Ethiopian referee Bamlak Tessema's blushes were spared by VAR when his decision to give DR Congo a penalty was overturned. SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images
Ethiopian referee Bamlak Tessema's blushes were spared by VAR when his decision to give DR Congo a penalty was overturned. SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images

Goalkeepers take centre stage

As well as African referees being much maligned in AFCONs past, so the continent's stoppers have received a bad rap both on home soil and beyond.

During the opening round of fixtures, however, the number of eye-catching goalkeeping displays - and we don't mean Robert Kidiaba's bottom-shuffle celebration! - has been notable.

Equatorial Guinea's Jesús Owono - still only 22 - was outstanding at the last Nations Cup, and was named Man of the Match after his heroics in the National Thunder's 1-1 draw with Nigeria.

Coming up directly against Victor Osimhen - ranked eighth in last year's Balon d'Or - he pulled off several fine stops, notably reacting quickly to close down the angle and deny the Napoli frontman with a brave close-range block.

Guinea-Bissau's Ouparine Djoco, currently playing in the Belgian second tier, pulled off a sensational save to deny Ivorian midfielder Seko Fofana in the opener - touching his strike onto the bar - while both keepers made big interventions in Tunisia vs Namibia.

Obviously it hasn't all been plain-sailing - DR Congo No. 1 Lionel Mpasi had a moment to forget in their opener - but with all the focus on André Onana's controversial arrival at the tournament, Africa's other stoppers proved that deserve some of the attention as well.

Equatorial Guinea's goalkeeper Jesus Owono was excellent against Nigeria, holding the Super Eagles to a 1-1 draw. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images
Equatorial Guinea's goalkeeper Jesus Owono was excellent against Nigeria, holding the Super Eagles to a 1-1 draw. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images

The most sincere apology you'll read all year

Mauritania impressed as they opened their Group D campaign against Burkina Faso, with a 96th-minute penalty ultimately costing them a draw. Their performance was encouraging as Mauritania had the better of the exchanges against a Stallions side who had never before won their Nations Cup opener.

However, this made their eventual capitulation all the more heartbreaking, particularly for centreback Nouh El Abd, who fouled Issa Kaboré at the death to concede the spotkick.

The young defender took to his personal social media after the match to issue the most sincere apology you'll read all year.

"I apologise to everyone," the distraught 23-year-old began. "I apologise to my coaches, my teammates, and to the people of Mauritania.

"The pressure of the match and my enthusiasm to play, to provide the best for my team, was the reason for the mistake I made unintentionally, and I promise to always provide the best and to contribute to painting a smile on your faces in the future.

"I apologise to all of you."

El Abd will have the opportunity to redeem himself when the Mourabitounes aim for their first ever AFCON victory against Angola on Saturday.

Keywords: Ivory Coast AFCON Africa Cup of Nations

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