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AFCON: As giants falter, smaller teams rise

January 27, 2024

The performances of teams such as Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea, who won their groups against top opponents, have excited fans during the AFCON. But is the level of the big teams also dropping?

Cape Verde players celebrate after beating Mozambique
Cape Verde players were delighted to have beaten Mozambique in their Group B matchImage: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

"There are no more small teams; all the countries are now well-prepared," Gernot Rohr, coach of Benin, told DW.

The 70-year-old German has had a pitch-side seat as a TV analyst at the Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast, where fans have been left astounded by the performances of countries such as Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea. They are among the smallest countries in Africa by population. But they are punching well above their weight.

Both teams won their groups against established teams and former champions Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt and Ghana. For avid African football observers, these results only confirm the work that the smaller countries are putting in.

"They are working in academies with good coaches and very young players. For me, it's not a surprise," Rohr said.

Emilio nsue celebrates his goal in the final round of group stage match with a high-10
Equatorial Guinea won their group ahead of Nigeria and hosts Ivory CoastImage: Ebenezer Amoakoh Photogod/Samuello Sports Images

Investing right

Expanding the Africa Cup of Nations from 16 to 24 teams has allowed many sides to show off their improvement on the continental stage. Even though there were no debutants at this year's tournament, the qualification of teams like Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, and Namibia to the knockout round shows that it was wise to expand the tournament in 2019.

Otherwise unheralded, these teams have brought excitement to neutrals with the way they have played and their passion. Despite having no big names in the European leagues, they have held up against more established countries.

"Natural talent is not enough," said Tahiru Fentuo, a Ghanaian football analyst. "These are countries that have invested in their football growth. They have taken their FIFA Football funds and used it well to prepare their national teams."

Mauritania won their first-ever AFCON game in a 1-0 victory against two-time champion Algeria. It was enough to see them through to the knockout round and eliminate Algeria, who won their last title just four years ago.

Mauritania players celebrate
Mauritania eliminated two time champion AlgeriaImage: Luc Gnago/REUTERS

Mauritania's football development history found itself in the spotlight soon after. The country had not won a competitive football match in almost two decades but turned things around in the last ten years to reach the knockout rounds at the AFCON. 

In 2021, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he was "impressed" and "proud" of the work done by the Mauritania Football Association in building a new stadium and technical center with the funds it received from the FIFA Forward program.

The investments are now paying off at the continental level.

End of a cycle for big teams

The tournament's biggest shocks have been the failure of Ghana, Algeria, and Tunisia to qualify from the group stages. The trio have won seven AFCON titles and regularly participate in the FIFA World Cup.

"Some of the great countries dropped a little bit in quality. You can see that with Algeria, with Ghana, for example, I think it's the end of a generation, and they have to renew their squad," said Rohr.

"Each country has its problems, so it is not easy to generalize. But the small countries are going forward, and some of the traditional big countries are going down or stopping in their evolution, so this is a little problem. But you have it all the time."

Gernot Rohr
Gernot Rohr: "I think it's the end of a generation"Image: Olumide Ogunfeyitimi/Shengolpixs/IMAGO

Ringing changes

All three teams have parted ways with their coaches since their exit from the tournament as fans have demanded changes. However, positive steps will only happen if federations create a sustainable pathway towards developing their football across all levels of the game, said Fentuo.

"Some of the bigger teams have gotten complacent. They have failed to invest, believing only talent is enough to keep them at the top."

Despite the struggles of some of the big teams at the AFCON, Morocco has progressed and is looking comfortable. After their historic 2022 World Cup semifinal achievement, many expect them to finish high at this tournament. 

"Bigger countries like Morocco, who had struggled for success at the highest level (in the past), are beginning to find success now that they have invested very heavily in infrastructure," said Fentuo. "I think this is ultimately the lesson. You must invest resources into talent identification and development from the grassroots level."

It is a lesson that the small countries have taken on board but which the traditional teams appear to have forgotten. And there might be further surprises as the tournament progresses.

This article was originally published on January 27, 2024, before Equatorial Guinea were eliminated by Guinea in the round of 16.

Edited by: Matt Pearson

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