Heavyweights were demystified, and a surety is that at least three teams ranked outside the top 10 will be in the quarterfinals.
The 36 games in the group phase came to a close on Wednesday, 25 January, and it was a season of heavyweight knockdowns, a host in qualification jeopardy, another black day in Ghana’s football history, and the malaise of the North African teams.
The 36 group encounters produced 89 goals, and there were no scoreless results until the last group phase games. An average of 2.47 goals per game is an excellent output, considering the heat and low humidity in Cote d’Ivoire.
The group phase resulted in five coaches losing or resigning their jobs. The most high-profile were the coaches of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire; Chris Hughton and Jean-Louis Gasset were dismissed, while Tam Sainfiet, Djamel Belmadi, and Jalel Kadri of The Gambia, Algeria, and Tunisia, respectively, resigned from their posts.
The fixtures for the round of 16 are also mouth-watering, and the excitement levels will continue to rise as the teams are whittled down.
Heavyweights are knocked out
Five-time winners Ghana collapsed at the last minute against Mozambique and crashed out. The highest margin of defeat honour went to the hosts, Cote d’Ivoire and Namibia, while former champions, Algeria and Tunisia, had the ignominy of finishing bottom of their groups.
Of all the famed No. 9s at the tournament, it is 34-year-old Emiliano Nsue from Equatorial Guinea who leads the scorers’ chart with five goals. Nsue, who is registered as a midfielder and sometimes plays as a right-back for Spanish third-division side CF Intercity, also scored the first hat-trick in the tournament since Soufiane Alloudi against Namibia in 2008.
North Africans feel heat
Four North African teams came to the 2023 AFCON, and all are in the top five African teams, but two fell abysmally at the group stage, while the Pharaohs of Egypt (5) went through to the round of 16 with three points, garnered from three draws.
Effectively, what has taken the Egyptians through is Mohamed Salah’s 97th-minute penalty against Mozambique on Matchday 1.
Algeria (4), the 2019 champions, came last in Group D with two points, and they were beaten by the 22nd-ranked Mauritania, the first-ever AFCON tournament win for the islanders. Tunisia (3) also came last in their group, losing to Namibia (27) on Matchday 1.
Morocco (1) are still the firm favourites and have confirmed their status with two wins and a draw in Group E. Hakim Ziyech is the unlikely toast of Cote d’Ivoire because he scored the only goal of the game against Zambia, which instigated the Elephants’ qualification to the round of 16.
Minnows are having their day in sun
Who would have bet on both Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde as group winners? Who would have thought that the likes of Mauritania and Namibia, best known for holidays, would upset the apple cart and send the horses scampering? AFCON 2023 has been littered with exciting and surprising moments, and the prayer is for it to continue into the more cautious knockout rounds.
Round of 16 fixtures
Nigeria (6) vs. Cameroon (7)
Namibia (27) vs. Angola (28)
Mali (6) vs. Burkina Faso (10)
Senegal (2) vs. Cote d’Ivoire (8)
Morocco (1) vs. South Africa (12)