That the likes of Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana and Algeria won’t be participating in the quarter finals of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations is a specter that many people did not anticipate. Not your favorite football analyst, the federations or the fans of the aforementioned countries. The biggest, perhaps, of all them, as elucidated in the previous article, was the defending champions bowing out of the group stage with just a measly point to their name. As for the Black Stars of Ghana, Milovan Rajevac has since been relieved of his duties as head coach after three or four months.

As we settled for the round of 16 action, it became apparent that the usual perceived underdogs didn’t go to Cameroon just to make up numbers. They had a plan to upset the status quo and defy all odds to make it to the next round. For some, it was the wherewithal that was missing but the spirit was intact. Comoros had two of their goalkeepers out due to Covid-19 and their first-choice goalkeeper, Salim Ben Boina was injured. And with clear CAF guidelines at the start of the tournament, an outfield player had to be in between the posts for the game. To complicate issues further, head coach Amir Abdou had also contracted Covid and Comoros weren’t playing their peers in their debut knock-out appearance, they were facing the hosts, five-time winners and perennial giants, Cameroon.

They say when it rains, it pours. With just seven minutes into the game, experienced team captain, Nadjim Abdou was sent off for a studs-up challenge on Moumi Ngamaleu. With a famished bench and a clear lack of options, one would have expected that Cameroon would reign terror on the minnows. Vincent Aboubakar and Karl Toko Ekambi have been scoring for fun. Well, the duo did score but the indomitable Lions’ performance was so subpar with the stand-in goalkeeper, Chaker Alhadhur, normally a fullback, putting in a gallant display.

Cameroon might have won the game but the The Coelacanths won our hearts. How good was Youssouf M’changama’s free kick? Absolutely sensational. It could have been the outright contender for Goal of Tournament hadn’t Malawian striker Gabadinho Mhango sent a rocket of a shot from almost 40 yards out against Morocco.

Talking of Morocco, it would be fair to say that they are the only team remaining in the competition who are playing like champions-elect. From fluid passing to the wizardry of Sofiane Boufal, to the marauding runs and pinpoint freekicks of Achraf Hakimi, the Atlas Lions are in business. Not even falling behind Malawi so early in the game disrupted Vahid Halilhodzic charges. But hey, didn’t we say the same about Nigeria after that spectacular group stage run? Only for the Super Eagles to be undone by a Youssef Msakni strike right after half time that goalkeeper Maduka Okoye really got a lot of stick for. That’s the thing about knockout football, it doesn’t matter how good you were in the group stage. Now Tunisia, who only registered one win in the group stage, are through to the quarter finals at the expense of the mighty Nigeria.

Weren’t the Ghanaians happy at that result? Peak shithousery!

Ivory Coast’s story is one of pure heart break. A team that always has a steady pool of stars who ply their trade in elite leagues. The team and fans alike were looking at winning this tournament as a way of redeeming themselves after missing out on a shot to represent Africa at the World Cup in Qatar. They showed promising signs in the group stage but bowed out after Eric Bailly saw his penalty saved. Now this is a deep hole that Patrice Beaumelle has to dig himself out of. Should the country’s FA retain him, there won’t be compromises with the next edition of the AFCON. After all, they will be the hosts.

Mali have always been touted as the tournament’s dark horses from the days of Seydou Keita and Frederic Kanoute. There is no denying that there is immense talent in that Malian squad but the best they have always conjured in recent years are semifinal appearances. This year, coach Mohamed Magassouba will have to watch the rest of the competition on television. The script is the same, another minnow, Equatorial Guinea, took them all the way to the roulette version of football to register another upset in African football. So, the talents that are Yves Bissouma, Moussa Djenepo, Amadou Haidara, Ibrahima Konate and the rest, will have to wait for next year’s edition to have another go. The image of Magassouba sitting alone on the bench after elimination was more proof of how heart wrenching football can be.

Perhaps the only matchup that went as expected was Senegal versus Cape Verde. But that wasn’t before some contentious decisions from the centre referee, Lahlou Benbraham who sent off two Cape Verdeans. Senegal might be the only team yet to concede at this tournament but they are also yet to put in a convincing performance that can warrant a team that wants to win its maiden title.

So far, the tournament’s message has been predict winners at your own peril. It’s anyone’s game. We are now down to eight teams and my gut tells me that the surprises aren’t over. Imagine the scenes if debutants Gambia(who have been beyond splendid) knocked out the hosts Cameroon, or if Equatorial Guinea could see off the Lions of Teranga. I can see that smirk on your face silently saying that can’t happen. Well, this is football and football is a respecter of no persons. These are the kind of stories we are here for. And African football, is the gift that keeps giving.

Last 8, here we come!


Saturday 29th January

Gambia vs Cameroon 7PM

Burkina Faso vs Tunisia 10PM

Sunday 30th January

Egypt vs Morocco 6PM

Senegal vs Equatorial Guinea 10PM

(All times are in EAT)

By Ariel Okall



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