Who are the underdogs who could shock the world?

UNDERDOG IN THE AFRICAN CUP OF NATIONS CONTEXT

The term underdog largely refers to the least likely team to achieve a certain feat. In as much as this is similarly true for Africa when it comes to the biennial AFCON tourney, there’s a small tweak to it. We have seen it over and over again. It’s fair to say that there may be underdogs on paper but when that whistle blows, nobody cares about the name of the nation or the names borne on the team shirts.

The holders of the AFCON gold were somehow minnows heading into the 2017 tournament, with the youngest squad and a few of their star players opting not to turn up for the Gabon finals. But against all odds, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon went all the way to the podium, eliminating Sadio Mane’s Senegal and denying record winners Egypt an eighth title in the final. How about Zambia’s 2012 title triumph or Burkina Faso’s dominating display and final appearance in 2015, who saw all that coming? Not many did.

In the same spirit, let’s be not be caught by surprise and practice a bit of forward thinking by exploring the position of a few other sides who hardly make the favorites conversation but are very much capable of becoming Africa’s top side when that final whistle is blown on the 22nd of July 2019.

Gilles Binya of Cameroon and Oussama Darragi of Tunisia in action during the Africa Cup of Nations Group D match between Cameroon and Tunisia from the Alto da Chela Stadium on January 21, 2010 in Lubango, Angola. ((Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images) / Getty Images)(Jan. 20, 2010 - Source: Gallo Images/Getty Images Europe)

Gilles Binya of Cameroon and Oussama Darragi of Tunisia in action during the Africa Cup of Nations Group D match between Cameroon and Tunisia from the Alto da Chela Stadium on January 21, 2010 in Lubango, Angola. ((Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images) / Getty Images)(Jan. 20, 2010 - Source: Gallo Images/Getty Images Europe)

CAMEROON

Overview

Hard as it may be to believe, the champions aren’t really favorites heading into the 2019 Egypt finals. They were underdogs in 2017 and won, but are still pretty much an average side in comparison to the likes of Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt and Ivory Coast. This assessment is not based on their flamboyant history that includes the most FIFA World Cup appearances by an African nation, being the second most successful team in AFCON history with 5 titles, only two behind Egypt; a 2000 Olympic gold medal win, the controversies of sleeveless shirts or heroism of the likes of the late Marc Vivien Foe. It’s solely based on form and theirs has not been among the most impressive.

Cameroon enter their first major tournament under the guidance of the celebrated Clarence Seerdorf. They could have benefited from a massive home advantage, if their 2019 hosting rights weren’t transferred to the Egyptians because of ill-preparedness and safety concerns prevailing in the Central African nation. The Indomitable Lions still managed to secure second place behind Morocco despite a far from convincing campaign in a group that also featured lowly ranked Comoros and Malawi. Most concerning, was their overall tally of 6 goals during the qualifiers, as many as those scored by Burundi’s Fiston Abdul Razak. That and more constitute the reasons why many aren’t vouching for Cameroon and their more pragmatic fans will surely be cautious not to raise their hopes up.

However, just because they are probably retaining most of the players that won the AFCON title in 2017, bringing with them the experience of winning as well as the opportunity to enter as a mid-tier team, it’s not impossible that the Indomitable Lions could slip under the radar and retain the championship. Even more, they arguably don’t have as much pressure as the likes of Egypt, Morocco or Ghana to win, seeing they have done their fans well in recent times. Further validating their chances, it helps to look at their most inform players and explore the possibility of them channeling the same energy to the rest of the squad.

The most in-form players

Quite honestly, they haven’t had a lot of exciting players in the just ended 2018/19 campaign, which is not a rare feature of underdogs. The 6 goals scored and 3 conceded in the AFCON qualifiers tells you why this is so. The 2017 final match-winner and FC Porto forward Vincent Aboubakar was injured for the majority of the season, Zambo Anguissa and his Fulham side were relegated from the Premier League while left-back Gaetan Bong survived the scare of relegation with his naïve Brighton & Hove Albion side. Veteran forward, Chopou Moting warmed PSG’s bench as his Ligue 1 side completed an average season. Only 23-year-old goalkeeper, Andre Onana had a somewhat spectacular season with Ajax who missed out on the Champions League final by a whisker. It’s not however a guarantee that Seerdorf will start the youngster ahead of the vastly experienced Carlos Kameni or Fabrice Ondoa.

Possible surprise stars

Three names stand out, the 23-year-old forward Christian Bassogog who plies his trade in the Chinese Super League, 25-year-old Marseille striker in Clinton N’jie and the 23-year-old Mainz 05 midfielder, Pierre Kunde.

Riyad Mahrez of Algeria holds off a challenge by Daniel Van Buyten of Belgium during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group H match between Belgium and Algeria at Estadio Mineirao on June 17, 2014 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (June 16, 2014 - Source: Jeff Gross/Getty Images South America)

Riyad Mahrez of Algeria holds off a challenge by Daniel Van Buyten of Belgium during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group H match between Belgium and Algeria at Estadio Mineirao on June 17, 2014 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

(June 16, 2014 - Source: Jeff Gross/Getty Images South America)

 ALGERIA

Overview

The Desert Foxes may be the side that have a lot of players with more to lose, but still remain as an underdog. The North Africans have played some of the most entertaining football on the continent over the years, which makes it hard to believe that they only have 1 AFCON title to show for it, which came in 1990. Most memorable to many, they made the continent proud by proving to be a hard nut to crack in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Round of 16, losing to eventual champions Germany in extra-time after a fiercely contested goalless 90 minutes.

They have been however perhaps the most disappointing on the continental stage in recent times, with their best finish being a 4th place finish in the AFCON finals since their triumph in 1990. The Fennecs usually dominate possession, blow teams away in the early stages but falter towards the finish line. Algerian fans have waited long enough and given the opportunity of being pitted against Senegal and lowly ranked Kenya and Tanzania in Group C of the finals, they have a chance to slip under the radar with ease towards the AFCON gold.

The most in-form players

Amongst the 24-finalists, arguably no team has better depth than the Desert Foxes. Even better, their top guys finished the 2018/19 in sizzling form, something we have seen over the years but hoping it would translate to some silverware this time around. Riyad Mahrez scored a magical goal in Manchester City’s Premier League title win against Brighton on final day while Yacine Brahimi continued to be the mastermind in FC Porto’s midfield, helping the Portuguese side to reach the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. Long-time servant and tricky winger, Sofiane Feghouli who is in the books of Galatasaray remains available, MLS based Saphir Taider has been decent and perhaps the man of the moment, Baghdad Bounedjah. The 27-year-old may not be a household name but his 3 goals during the qualifiers and 39 league goals in 22 outings for Qatar Stars League’s Al Sadd SC are a testimony that he will hurt goalkeepers and defenders alike.

Possible surprise stars

The 23-year-old highly rated defender, Youcef Atal who plays for Ligue 1’s OGC Nice is expected to increase his stock and 21-year-old Arsenal Academy Graduate and Empoli midfielder, Ismael Bennacer could find himself winning a major transfer deal if he remains consistent.

TUNISIA

Tunisia pose prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between Panama and Tunisia at Mordovia Arena on June 28, 2018 in Saransk, Russia.  (June 27, 2018 - Source: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

Tunisia pose prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between Panama and Tunisia at Mordovia Arena on June 28, 2018 in Saransk, Russia.

(June 27, 2018 - Source: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

Overview

If you consider Egypt to be favorites, Tunisia are pretty much in that fold even though they may be skipped in the conversations. The two North African nations made a show of their opponents in the qualifiers, winning pretty much all their matches against Niger and eSwatini, with less-respectful score-lines. Their only loses were against each other. The Carthage Eagles finished top of the group ahead of the hosting Pharaohs as the latter dropped points in a drawn match. Tunisia are one of the highly ranked teams in the tournament, sitting in 28th place on the FIFA rankings as of 4 April 2019. Even though they have one AFCON title to show for their consistence, they remain one of the most respected, least spoken of but dangerous opponent on the continent. Just one year ago at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, they bowed out with their heads held high in the group stages after succumbing to 2-1 and 5-2 losses to eventual 4th place and 3rd place finishers in England and Belgium respectively. They didn’t leave Russia without a win of their own as they saw off debutants Panama, 2-1 after falling behind in the first half. After failing to progress past the quarter-final stage in the AFCON finals since their triumph on home soil in 2004, fans of the Carthage Eagles are eager to see their consistent performers break the duck and win some deserved AFCON gold.

Wahbi Khazri of Tunisia celebrates with teammate Fakhreddine Ben Youssef after scoring his team's second goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between Panama and Tunisia at Mordovia Arena on June 28, 2018 in Saransk, Russia.  (June 27, 2018 - Source: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images Europe)

Wahbi Khazri of Tunisia celebrates with teammate Fakhreddine Ben Youssef after scoring his team's second goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between Panama and Tunisia at Mordovia Arena on June 28, 2018 in Saransk, Russia.

(June 27, 2018 - Source: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images Europe)

The most in-form players

Many are, but captain and the highest scoring Tunisian of this generation, Wahbi Khazri tops the list. The complete forward was in sumptuous form for St. Etienne as the Ligue 1 side narrowly missed out on the Champions League places. The 28-year-old carried forward his 2018 FIFA World Cup scoring form by banging in 13 leagues goals and 6 assists to help his French club to finish 4th. Many lovers of football will also be delighted to hear that the highly rated Youssef Mskani will likely appear for the Carthage Eagles and so will the diminutive and extremely talented attacker, 26-year-old Naiim Sliti

Possible surprise stars

If time and chance has its way, 24-year-old Montpellier midfielder, Ellyes Skhiri could finally enjoy a major breakout campaign and attract some coveted suitors. Another exciting youngster coming up the ranks is 23-year-old Dylan Bronn who plays for Belgian side, Genk. At that tender age, Bronn already had 10 caps to his name, his stock will only rise going forward.

Boosted by Tunisian club, Esperance de Tunis’ retaining of the CAF Champions League, coach Alain Giresse will generally be spoiled for choice and the North African nation will be on song to try and grab the AFCON gold that has been out of their grasp since 2004.

The Indomitable Lions still managed to secure second place behind Morocco despite a far from convincing campaign in a group that also featured lowly ranked Comoros and Malawi. Most concerning, was their overall tally of 6 goals during the qualifiers, as many as those scored by Burundi’s Fiston Abdul Razak.
— Dennis Takaendesa, FirstTouch Africa

SOUTH AFRICA

Overview

They haven’t had a lot go their way since 1996 when they clinched their first and only Africa Cup of Nations on home soil. Being one of the oldest African teams, having played their first match in 1924, South Africans could probably feel the wait for some consistent major tournament success has been longer than most. Since 2000, Bafana have either failed to qualify for AFCON finals or qualify but go as far as the quarter-finals, even when they hosted the tournament back in 2013.

In many ways, their football structure is more or less like that of England. They have the best football league on the continent, the Absa Premiership, and most of their players are home grown. Over the years, Bafana hasn’t had the best of talent come through their ranks, but their consistence and persistence in building the local league structures could pay dividends sooner rather than later. Just as England almost brought it home in the 2018 World Cup, boosted by efforts of the English Premier League.

Stuart Baxter’s men are in the so called group of death with favorites Ivory Coast, Morocco and Namibia but it’s pretty much non-fictitious that they can cause problems for any opponent. With a fascinating short pass attacking style of play, Bafana finished off the qualifiers as one of the five unbeaten teams, even shooting down the Super Eagles of Nigeria in their own backyard. They are one of the dark-horses and could once again feel the weight of AFCON glory.

South Africa's Sundowns striker Percy Tau vies with Tunisia's Esperance of Tunis defender Ali Machani (L) during the African Champions League (CAF) group stage football match on June 22, 2017 in olympic Rades Stadium near Tunis. / AFP PHOTO / SALAH HABIBI  (June 20, 2017 - Source: AFP)

South Africa's Sundowns striker Percy Tau vies with Tunisia's Esperance of Tunis defender Ali Machani (L) during the African Champions League (CAF) group stage football match on June 22, 2017 in olympic Rades Stadium near Tunis. / AFP PHOTO / SALAH HABIBI

(June 20, 2017 - Source: AFP)

The most in-form players

Arguably the best footballer on the continent right now is in their ranks. Percy Muzi Tau has been nothing short of a revelation for Bafana as he added to his accolade filled 2017/18 season with a stellar 2018/19 campaign in Belgium that saw him win the player of the season award, as he was on loan from Premier League side Brighton. The 2018/19 Absa Premiership Player of the season, Thembinkosi Lorch will be expected to partner with Tau upfront together with 23-year-old Ligue 1 based, Lebo Mothiba.

All of these bright and young stars combined with the experience of Hlompo Kekana and Thulani Hlatshwayo; Bafana presents a formidable force to challenge for the title.

Possible surprise stars

Two of the rising stars that are keeping people on their toes are 24-year-old forward Lebohang Maboe and 23-year-old midfielder in Aubrey Modiba, both of whom are currently plying their trade in the Absa Premiership. Should Stuart Baxter give them more chances, there’s no telling how further they could go.