The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations truly is the gift that keeps on giving. 40-yard screamers, goalkeeping howlers, the hosts sacking their manager halfway through the tournament – we’ve had the lot.
It has undoubtedly been one of the most entertaining tournaments in recent history, but it might just be the most open, too.
The pre-tournament favourites? Gone. The reigning champions? Already out. The record-winners? Knocked out on penalties. Highest-ranked team on the continent? Fallen in the last round.
We’ve also lost the top-scorer in the competition (Emilio Nsue), the highest-scoring nation (Equatorial Guinea), the two best African players (Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane) and the only team that won all their group games (Senegal).
There have been 33 AFCONs over the years – 25 of them (75.7 per cent) have been won by teams no longer in the current competition. It’s one of the oldest cliches in football, but genuinely anyone could go all the way this year.
Ahead of the competition, the favourites had been pretty plain to see.
Nobody has lifted more AFCON titles than Egypt’s seven, Morocco had just reached the World Cup semi-finals, Senegal were the reigning champions and Algeria, led by Riyad Mahrez and Said Benrahma, had only lost once since November 2022.
Fast-forward two-and-a-half weeks, and they’re nowhere to be seen. In the place of the usual suspects we instead find thoroughly entertaining yet no less deserving underdogs in Angola, Guinea, Cape Verde and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Who would have foreseen a tournament in which Sofyan Amrabat is already on his way back to Old Trafford, while Bebe is spear-heading Cape Verde’s bid for a historic title?
It’s almost unprecedented how many of the big boys are gone already, with former champions Tunisia, Algeria and Ghana of course not even making it out the groups.
In fact, if you were to take previous form, calibre and pre-tournament expectation into account, you could probably only point to Nigeria as the side that are living up to their billing, which is exceptional given we’re at the quarter-finals.
Angola, the lowest-ranked team still in the competition (117th), are arguably the form side with three wins and a draw, while Cape Verde are running similar numbers and scoring only one goal fewer.
Even top-scorers Equatorial Guinea couldn’t keep to the script. The National Thunder were looking the easiest on the eye, had scored more goals than anyone else (nine) in the group stage, and were unbeaten before meeting a Guinea side that had only scored twice.
Of course, in this tournament of formless surprises we should have foreseen the 1-0 victory for Guinea, secured with a dramatic 98th-minute winner after Nsue’s missed penalty. Nobody is safe.
Take the flip-side as further testament to how open AFCON is this year. Democratic Republic of Congo have not won a single game (four draws) in 90 minutes, and have scored only three goals, not exactly winning over the neutrals with their displays.
But who cares about any of that? Certainly not Democratic Republic of Congo — they are now in the last-eight at the expense of undefeated record-winners Egypt. That about sums it up.
The point is — and prepare for another agonising cliché — form is going straight out the window. You cannot call a single game of the tournament, and that is why we are loving it so much.
Even the games themselves have largely been end-to-end thrillers. We’ve already had 105 goals, three more than the record at an entire tournament in 2019 and there are still seven games to go!
There have been at least four goals in 11 games, and five or more in three, while we’ve only seen three 0-0 draws, which mercifully came on one bland January day, And then there are some of the historic shock wins we’ve been treated to along the way in this tournament that feels older than two-and-a-half weeks.
Cape Verde came out on top in a group featuring Ghana and Egypt, and Equatorial Guinea beat Nigeria and Ivory Coast to top spot. Although they finished bottom of Group B, Mozambique also earned 2-2 draws with both Ghana and Egypt as they gave an excellent account of themselves.
Mauritania — ranked 207th in the world in 2011 – pulled off a monumental upset to record a first-ever win at AFCON against Algeria, and Namibia got their own maiden three points in a 1-0 victory over Tunisia.
In fact, only Senegal managed to win all three of their games, Sadio Mane and Co looking eerily likely to retain their title this year before falling to Ivory Coast in a tournament in which anyone really can beat everyone.
Of course, an open competition breeds drama, which we have had no shortage of, but it also makes for a far better competition from a neutral point of view, with gripping encounters that can turn on a dime and unlikely new heroes lurking round every corner.
Cape Verde have passed every test put in front of them – including that fiendish group they were placed in, while Mali have quietly gone about their business, and are unbeaten in four matches with two wins and only two conceded in the process.
South Africa, too, were good value for their victory over Morocco and have been equally as mean at the back as Mali — the only team to beat them so far.
Democratic Republic of Congo, will feel they can beat anyone after seeing off the record winners, while their opponents Guinea in the quarter-finals didn’t even need Naby Keita or Serhou Guirassy to start the game to see off top-scorers Equatorial Guinea.
Then there’s Angola, who might the biggest underdogs of the lot now; ranked 117th in the world, they come up against three-time champions Nigeria, but can call on the red-hot Fredy and Gedson Dala who have eight contributions between them.
Even now, with just seven games left, you would be forgiven for backing Nigeria and Ivory Coast to go all the way.
It’s no discredit to the other five contenders, but through a combination of superior squads, tournament heritage and the latter’s host status, the two sides have surely assumed the recently accursed role of ‘favourite’.
Sure, it would perhaps seem the safer decision, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned so far at AFCON 2023, it’s that there is no such thing. — Daily Mail.