As the balls came out and the fates of the teams at next year’s Cup of Nations were revealed, it was impossible not to be underwhelmed
In the days and hours leading up to the draw for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (which will take place in 2022, mind), it was possible to synthesize a frisson of expectation.
Delay, after all, only whets the appetite.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns over the preparedness of Cameroon and a late change in timing putting the kibosh on any notion of the tournament staying on schedule, fans all over the continent were reduced to twiddling their thumbs and earning their bragging rights on the internet.
The draw, therefore, represented a clear chink of sunlight peeping through the grey.
Then the balls came out of the bowls, and reality hit with a dull, uncaring thud.
The 2021 edition will be only the second time 24 teams have ever graced the Afcon. As a format, it is still somewhat novel, and as such retains its sense of inherent wonkiness. Simply put, it is a nightmare logistically – there is the possibility that, days after playing their final group matches, a number of teams will be unaware whether they are staying or leaving – and mathematically.
Sporting integrity suffers as well.
Four from six third-place teams will progress on the basis of goal difference, but in employing this means of elimination, important context is lost.
In 2019, Kenya and DR Congo both finished with three points, but the East Africans were eliminated despite the fact they faced a tougher group (they finished behind the two teams that would go on to contest the Final) was responsible for their weaker goal difference; by contrast, the Leopards had much more manageable opposition in Uganda and Egypt to contend with.
Also, tacking on 20 matches just to eliminate eight teams does little for the spectacle, and more egregiously robs the Group Stage of any real jeopardy.
The very idea of a “Group of Death” is moot—it would take far too much for any of the top sides, further insulated by rankings-based pot allocations, to fail to emerge from their respective groups.
In 2019, Benin emerged from Group F (and then proceeded to reach the Quarter-finals) despite failing to win a single match. The bar really is that low.
And so it is that we are saddled with six groups that, while rich in narrative, are short on intrigue.
Beyond the meeting of the teams from Pots 1 and 2, there is not a lot to look forward to in terms of on-field competition.
Algeria and Ivory Coast is probably the tie of the Group Stage, as they rematch their quarter-final classic from two years ago.
Baghdad Bounedjah’s haunting dolour was the key image of a tense match, but since then Les Fennecs have come on in absolute bounds, taking a second title and putting together an unbeaten run that now stands at 27 matches.
They are once again the team to beat, bidding to retain the Afcon – a feat last achieved by fierce rivals Egypt in 2010.
The Pharaohs of course trounced Algeria in an ill-tempered semi-final en route; those were headier times for the seven-time champions under Hassan Shehata.
These days, they are a more modest outfit both in terms of their talent and results, as indicated by their presence in Pot 2. Nigeria’s Super Eagles will fancy their chances of emerging with their plumage intact in Group D, and may even find that exorcising their recent poor record against Egypt in competitive fixtures may be precisely the sort of statement that marks them out as contenders, having fallen at the semi-final stage in 2019.
That really is the function of much of the Group Stage: suggesting strength for the knockouts.
The only group where this may not hold is Group C, where Ghana’s recent crisis of confidence and identity may very well see them fall victim to the Comoros fairytale and the Gabon Bouanga-Aubameyang double act.
Coach CK Akonnor is a man under fire back home, and is trying to midwife a shift in generations while at it. There is a sense his only options are to surrender to either uncertainty or banality, and so his best bet given the format may well be to start cautiously and slowly introduce the more exciting elements as progress is secured.
Host Cameroon, Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia should all come through top of their respective logs, as should the aforementioned Algeria and Nigeria.
As far as dark horses go, Gabon will fancy their chances on debut: there is a crop attacking talent, flavoured in Italy, that is conducive to overwhelming a staid Mauritania and surprising a talented Mali side that is nevertheless constrained by coach Mohamed Magassouba.
Cape Verde have proved they have the beating of Cameroon already this year, and on their day are about as pleasant to experience as a kidney stone.
They are, however, a different proposition away from their stronghold in Praia, less impressive and not as inclined to seek to impose themselves.
If they can though, they could find Group A quite forgiving: Burkina Faso are not the force they were between 2013 and 2017, and Ethiopia are really only here because Niger picked the final matchday of qualifying to keep their first away clean sheet since 2015 at Madagascar.
At the end of the day though, for all that there are some arguments to be made for the format and the effects it can have on the growth of some of the continent’s smaller teams, Cape Verde against Ethiopia will not capture the imagination of very many viewers.
Neither, for that matter, will Sudan vs Guinea Bissau. It instead just feels like we are getting another round of qualifying, but this time without the usual home and away format. It may well do wonders for African football in the long run – and that is itself a dubious claim still – but it will do little for attention spans.