One of the fascinations of Africa’s flagship football competition, the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is the metaphorical gathering of the top animals in the African Kingdom.
Biennially (never mind the distortions brought by Covid-19), the best footballing exports of the continent to all parts of the world gather under the umbrella of their national flags, spiced with amusing appellations.
The 34th edition of the tournament will see the assemblage of twenty-four (24) familiar foes come toe-to-toe as the world stand still for the best of African football. Familiar in the sense that there will be no debuting country in this edition.
Group A will be the cynosure of all eyes as two of the last five winners of the competition face each other in a battle of supremacy. The Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire, hosting the tournament exactly forty (40) years after it last did, have the attention of Nigeria’s Super Eagles – the team they dethroned in 2015 – in Group A.
Both West African countries who can be regarded as African football powerhouses considering the enormous amount of talents they churn out yearly, will be joined by another West African country Guinea-Bissau and 2015 hosts Equatorial Guinea in a Wild, Thunderous group.
For the sake of this article, let us look at each opponent of the Super Eagles; what they truly are and what they portend for Nigeria’s bid towards a fourth continental crown.
1. Côte d’Ivoire National team
Nickname: The Elephants
AFCON height: Winners in 1992 and 2015
Head Coach: Jean-Louis Gasset
Key Players: Serge Aurier, Franck Kessie, Sebastian Haller
The Elephants are planning on hosting to win the tournament but they know they will have their work cut out against some of the continent’s illustrious sides starting from the group stage where they are pit against Nigeria’s Super Eagles.
The Ivorians’ last AFCON meeting with Nigeria did not end well for the Boys in Orange – a quarter final defeat to Stephen Keshi’s boys in Rustenburg which meant that one of Africa’s most feared strikers Didier Drogba ended his international career without an AFCON title.
Like Drogba then, this tournament is expected to be an international swansong for some of the famous Elephants including captain Serge Aurier and Max Gradel, both of whom are the surviving members of the 2015 triumphant side.
Nigeria have a good history of facing host nations in the group stage of AFCON having advanced from the group in each of their three previous group meetings with the hosts in 1990, 1992 and 2002. Considering the possibility of up to three teams advancing from a group, it looks like a sure bet once again.
Having caused some muted uproar with the exclusion of Wilfred Zaha and Bournemouth’s Hamed Traore, Septuagenarian coach Jean-Louis Gasset will be hoping his blend of young and experienced stars can deliver the goods for the host nation.
Gasset’s squad looks well stacked with quality in all departments and it is expected that they will be galvanized by a vociferous home crowd in their matches. Côte d’Ivoire will play all their group games at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Ebimpe, Abidjan. They face Nigeria on January 18.
2. Guinea Bissau
Nickname: The Djurtus (Wild Dogs)
AFCON height: Fourth consecutive appearance
Head Coach: Baciro Candé
Key Players: Jonas Mendes, Mama Balde, Fali Candé
After decades of being an abject minnow in African Football, Guinea-Bissau emerged like a dog starved of its rightful meal in a deserted desert to claim their place among Africa’s elites in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations staged in Gabon.
Ever since, the Wild Dogs have now maintained their place among Africa’s finest national teams and thus will be attending a fourth AFCON tournament in succession with Baciro Candé leading the side once again.
The small West African country with a population of just over two million people have now started rubbing shoulders with the big guns in Africa which has made them open a vista of seeming rivalry between them and Nigeria’s Super Eagles.
In Abidjan, Guinea-Bissau will be facing Nigeria for the fourth time in twenty-four (24) months. Although they have lost two of the three previous meetings, their famous 1-0 win in Abuja less than a year ago will forever remain in the hearts of Bissau-Guineans and will give them reasons to dream in 2024.
In AFCON 2023, Candé will be joining a prestigious list of African coaches to have been to four Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, let alone doing it successively. Only Frenchman Claude Le Roy who did from 1986 to 1992 and Senegalese legend Aliou Cisse who will be managing the Teranga Lions for a fourth consecutive time in Côte d’Ivoire share the same record with Candé.
He will be relying on his goalkeeper and captain Jonas Mendes – the only member of the 2017 inaugural set in the Class of 2024 – as well as France based stars Fali Candé and Mama Balde in Abidjan. Seven other players that featured in Cameroon are in Baciro Candé’s final 25-man squad.
They face hosts Cote d’Ivoire in the competition’s opener on Saturday, January 13, 2024 and just like in Cameroon, they will face Nigeria in their final group game, on January 22,2024.
3. Equatorial Guinea
Nickname: Nzalang Nacional (National Thunder)
AFCON height: 4th in 2015
Head Coach: Juan Michá
Key Players: Emilio Nsue, Saul Coco, Jesus Owono
The National Thunder as the Equatorial Guinea national team are called are featuring in consecutive AFCON tournaments for the first time ever. This is being made possible by the ingenuity of head coach Juan Michá, an indigenous trainer who seems to be the Messiah promised to take the Nzalang to unfathomed heights.
The task before them in January is nothing simpler than it was in Cameroon two years ago as they will face Côte d’Ivoire for a second successive time in the group stage, adding to that Nigeria and an emerging Guinea-Bissau side. Their record against Nigeria is nothing to boast of as they have lost all three international fixtures against the Super Eagles. Shuaibu Amodu’s Eagles beat them home and away en route to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup while Salisu Yusuf’s wards beat them 3-1 at the African Nations Championship in Morocco in 2018.
Michá has taken with him to Abidjan, eighteen (18) out of the squad he took to Cameroon two years ago and the 48-year old will be banking on the togetherness of his team, an important factor which has seen them embark on a nine-match unbeaten run, including an enviable Win 5, Drew 2 record in 2023. The Super Eagles must pay attention when they face these Africanized Thunder on Sunday, January 14, 2024 in their opening game.
Under Michá’s tutelage at the last AFCON, the Thunder struck twice against “bigger” footballing nations as Equatorial Guinea claimed the scalp of defending Champions Algeria during the group stage and Mali in the round of 16 before succumbing to eventual winners Senegal at the quarter final stage.
Team’s captain and record goalscorer Emilio Nsue is still as reliable as ever and will lead from the war front in Abidjan while Las Palmas defender Saul Coco remains a solid rock at the rear, shielding Deportivo Alaves goalkeeper Jesus Owono. Therein lies Michá’s key armoury as the Thunder seeks to strike in AFCON for a second consecutive time.