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Thrills and spills as AFCON 2023 enters quarterfinals

February 1, 2024

As Elephants rise and Lions fall, the AFCON's jungle proves no team is safe from the ambush of an upset. With the quarterfinals set, which team will be left standing in Africa's most unpredictable tournament?

Ivory Coast try to score past Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy
Defending champions Senegal were knocked out by hosts Ivory CoastImage: Themba Hadebe/AP/picture alliance

Football fans at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) have been treated to a thrilling rollercoaster of excitement, drama, and unexpected twists. The 34th edition of the tournament, currently being held in Ivory Coast, has witnessed electrifying atmospheres in the stands, with fans donning vibrant costumes and dancing tirelessly. To some, this is why AFCON is worth its weight in gold.

"AFCON is the most entertaining competition in the world," said football fan Isidore Nyuykighan following South Africa's shock defeat of Morocco. "The vibes, the intensity, the unpredictability, the chaos, the rivalries, and much more that just make the competition special."

On and off the pitch, there has been no shortage of drama.

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The Elephants rise from the ashes

One of the most dramatic storylines from the tournament involved the hosts, Ivory Coast.

Their dreams of success seemed extinguished as they were on the brink of elimination following an embarrassing 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea in their final group game.

French coach Jean-Louis Gasset was dismissed by the Ivorian Football Federation (FIF), which cited "unsatisfactory outcomes." Meanwhile, disappointed Ivory Coast fans expressed their frustration at the results by vandalizing commuter buses outside Alassane Ouattara Stadium.

"The coach failed to prepare the team well. All the Ivorian players lacked match fitness and kept conceding ground to their opponents," said Ivorian fan Mark Maina.

However, Morocco's 1-0 win over Zambia saw the tournament hosts sneak through by the skin of their teeth as the fourth-best, third-placed side in the group stages.

French coach, Jean-Louis Gasset
The Ivorian Football Federation has dismissed veteran French coach Jean-Louis Gasset, citing his inability to deliver.Image: Braima Darame/DW

Given a new lease of life under interim head coach Emerse Fae, Gasset's assistant, the Elephants produced a remarkable resurgence in the round of 16. 

"We wanted to show that what happened last week [against Equatorial Guinea] was an accident," Fae said, adding, "I asked my players to give everything, not to give up, and we did it."

Their win over reigning champions Senegal — 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw — not only propelled them into the quarterfinal but also generated a new wave of optimism in the country.

"Ivorians don't mess around, we won," exclaimed an Ivorian fan, Lydie Tagro, capturing the joy among supporters in Ivory Coast's largest city, Abidjan.

Ivory Coast players celebrate after defeating Senegal
Ivory Coast is euphoric after defeating favorites SenegalImage: Themba Hadebe/AP/picture alliance

Rankings smashed as underdogs roar

The ongoing AFCON has completely shaken up the FIFA rankings.

Morocco, the tournament's favorite and Africa's highest-ranked team made it through the group stage but, like Senegal, fell at the first hurdle in Round 16.

"We're very disappointed because we came with the ambition of winning it. Going out so early in the tournament wasn't expected, but this cup is difficult. Lots of surprises," said Morocco coach Walid Regragui.

The "Atlas Lions" are not the only African football powerhouses to have succumbed to the tournament's unpredictable nature. Despite a pre-game cow sacrifice, seven-time winners Egypt could not please the football gods and were knocked out by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), whose goalkeeper, Lionel Mpasi, stole the show when he converted the decisive penalty in the shootout.

Joining them in the quarterfinals is Cape Verde, the team ranked 73rd in the world, which saw off fellow dark horses Mauritania.

"You can see that it is not easy for the big football nations to win games either now," Cape Verde captain Ryan Mendes told Canal Plus Afrique. "We don't have the same status, but we do have love for our country as well as ability."

Supporters of DRC at the Amadou Gon Coulibaly Stadium in Ivory Coast.
Supporters of DR Congo, the underdogs who ousted Egypt, seven-time AFCON champions.Image: Themba Hadebe/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Quarterfinals promise more fireworks

The drama has been intense, matching the heavy humidity in Ivory Coast. As we enter the quarterfinals, which get underway on Friday, everyone is guessing what will happen next.

 "The surprise is Angola or Cape Verde going on to carry the Africa Cup of Nations," predicted a fan commenting on DW Africa, who gave his name as Mateo Kovacic Gban Jr.

Despite all the commotion, eight contenders remain, each with a unique story. Nigeria, led by Victor Osimhen's sharp instincts, will be up against Angola, the lowest-ranked remaining team. DR Congo, known for their expertise in penalties, will clash with Guinea, while Cape Verde, the underdogs who have surpassed all expectations, will take on a surprise package in South Africa.

"The North African teams are all eliminated, while all the teams that represented Africa at the World Cup in Qatar are also eliminated," commented a fan, Njakwe Mopao, on DW, adding, "Hugo Broos may do what he did with Cameroon in 2017 with South Africa this time around."

And then there's the hosts, Ivory Coast, fueled by their growing determination as they face off against Mali in an intense West African showdown.

"We really came through the back door, but we want to stay, so we'll work without making a fuss if possible. We'll concentrate on the quarterfinals, and we'll see what happens after," Fae said.

Three matches separate the sides from continental glory. If the action so far is anything to go by, the fierce competition will be complemented by a lack of predictability as players strive to make their mark in the annals of AFCON history.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu and James Thorogood