The time is almost upon us for the 2023 AFCON competition — and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The Africa Cup of Nations is the jewel in the African footballing crown, and experts are divided as to who the outright favourite is in the Ivory Coast this time round. The tournament is set to begin at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in the capital Abidjan, with the opening match between the hosts and Guinea-Bissau, making only their fourth appearance in the competition.
Africa has produced so many top players over the last decade, many of whom play for top clubs in the elite leagues of Europe, so neutral football fans and bettors alike can look forward to some high-quality exciting matches, and probably a few surprises along the way — big tournaments always produce compelling underdog stories, such as Morocco’s dream run to the semi-final at the World Cup in Qatar last year. The North African team will be looking to build on that momentum at AFCON. Let’s have a preview of the action, which kicks off on 13th January.
Question marks hang over the Ivory Coast — it can go either way for host nations, sometimes the pressure of national expectation hangs heavy and leads to nervy, hesitant displays, whereas other times it can inspire heroics and glory. They certainly have a strong squad, and many pundits expect them to go far in the tournament.
Senegal lifted the trophy last time around and will be looking to win back-to-back titles. But this will have to come against stern competition from the other big hitters on the continent, especially Egypt, who they pipped at the post in Cameroon last time out. Egypt is the most successful team in AFCON history, lifting the trophy a record seven times, and with Mo Salah — arguably the greatest African footballer of all time — still at the peak of his powers as a talismanic force, you’d be forgiven for favouring the Pharaohs at AFCON 2023.
We mentioned Morocco, whose heroic run in Qatar saw them become the first African team to reach a World Cup semi-final, defeating 2010 champions Spain and highly rated Portugal en route to a loss in the last four to France. The Atlas Lions will be flying high and riding a wave of confidence, and are tipped by many to lift their first AFCON trophy since 1976. South Africa may have been in decline since hosting the World Cup in 2010, but it has been tipped by many experts as a team on the up-and-up, with a generation of new players and could well inspire a flurry of bets from one of many top betting sites in South Africa.
Other sides you can never write off include Nigeria, one of the most successful teams in African football history, with several impressive showings at the World Cup, and three AFCON titles to their name. The Super Eagles also boast among their ranks Victor Osimhen — the 24-year-old Napoli striker crowned the 2023 African Footballer of the Year at the Confederation of African Football (Caf) awards ceremony in Marrakesh, and is likely to be a key figure in their campaign.
Algeria is another nation that is in form and has great players who can dictate and change the course of matches such as former Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez. Algeria won the title in 2019, and has been a strong force in African football for several years, so they’re one to keep an eye on. Ghana and Cameroon are probably slight outsiders, but have both performed well at previous AFCON tournaments, as well as on the World Cup stage, notably with Ghana’s heartbreaking and controversial loss to Uruguay in the quarter-finals in South Africa 2010.
Filling the Stadiums
It can be difficult for many Africans from less developed nations to make the long journey across the continent to support their side, plus the expenses involved in accommodation, food, and tickets for matches. This has, in the past, led to sparse attendances at matches that don’t feature the host nation, and an almost empty 60,000-seat stadium is a bit of a buzzkill for a major tournament.
But in an effort to keep the stadiums full and buzzing, free tickets will be offered to ‘volunteers’, as well as being made available to children from the nation who may never have been to a major sporting event. There is an air of optimism over the event as a whole, with the Ivory Coast in recovery from civil wars that greatly destabilised the region between 2002 and 2011.
AFCON 2023 kicks off in less than a month, and should be exciting viewing for partisan supporters and casual observers alike. Full stadiums, competitive heavyweight rivals, and determined underdogs make a recipe for a great tournament.