The supporters of African giants like Cameroon, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire among others, whose national teams haven’t gotten off to emphatic starts may just now be missing the “big-name” absentees from their AFCON squad; speculating about what could have been if they were present.
By Destiny Chibuzor
The atmosphere at the AFCON 2023 has been hyped since hosts, Côte d’Ivoire, kicked off the tournament and had the ball in the net just four minutes in. A major concern for fans of the AFCON before its commencement was whether to expect thrill, seeing as in recent years, African football has not quite been earmarked by panache, flair and (positive) drama. Such concerns surely are abated now as this edition is already shaping up to be an eventful congregation.
Seko Fofana’s superb goal was only a tone-setter and since then, Abidjan has been host to some terrific displays that would make the rounds long after the AFCON is concluded. Senegalese starlet, Lamine Camara, netted a ridiculous goal for his brace and Senegal’s third in their matchday one fixture against the Gambia. Equatorial Guinea’s Emilio Nsue was on fire against Guinea Bissau in the second group A matchday two fixture, netting a hat-trick in 61 minutes to inspire his side to win a six-goal thriller. Cabo Verde skipper, Bebé, caught the eye after thumping a freekick past Mozambique’s Hernâni Siluane from more than 20 yards out. This was minutes after his first attempt at a similarly ridiculous strike from even farther out came off the woodwork.
While these players and a host of others have brought joy to their respective supporters with goals, dribbles and combinations, fans whose teams have suffered some blows and endured letdowns surely do not glow the same. The supporters of African giants like Cameroon, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire among others, whose national teams haven’t gotten off to emphatic starts may just now be missing the “big-name” absentees from their 2023 AFCON squad; speculating about what could have been if they were present. We take an inventory of some headliners who are absent in this edition of the Nations Cup.
The former Crystal Palace player was one of the most exciting wingers to watch during his time in the English Premier League and over a few editions of the AFCON, particularly in 2019 where the Ivorian brought a hint of that magic to the party with the Elephants. Wilfried Zaha’s decision to play for Côte d’Ivoire in 2017 came, following a futile wait for a steady shirt in the Three Lions squad and an eventual fallout with the manager, Gareth Southgate. Although the winger grew up in England, having moved from Cote d’Ivoire at just age four, his lack of favour with the England national team and the persuasion of Cote d’Ivoire legend, Didier Drogba, informed his return to roots. He currently plies his trade with Türkish football side Galatasaray and is expected to be seen in the Ivorian ranks this winter.
Côte d’Ivoire manager, Jean-Louis Gasset, opted to pass on the winger and his reasons for doing so have been received with a pinch of salt by some of the countrymen. Coach Gasset omitted Zaha from his call up stating that there is a surplus of attacking options available to the Elephants on the wing. However, after three games played, with Côte d’Ivoire sitting in third place in Group A on three points and with a minus-three goal deficit, question marks are starting to pop up. Seko Fofana has been the Elephant’s most agile player in attack despite being a midfielder. In the game against Nigeria, while Fofana and Frank Kessie were a lot to handle for the Super Eagles midfield, the flanks were mostly quiet. Similarly, against Equatorial Guinea, where the Elephants were handed a humiliating four-nil defeat – the flanks were fruitless.
The loss to Equatorial Guinea means the Ivorian faithful must get their knees dirty in supplication for their Elephants to squeeze through on the “Best Loser policy”. In the words of football journalist, Alasdair Howorth, “Zaha splits opinions”. While some fans do not think about his absence as a bad move and are just hopeful of a historic AFCON for their nation, others would have liked to see him line up in orange for the AFCON gala – Zaha has seven goals and three assists in 23 outings for his club side, Galatasaray, this season.
As Cameroon continues to struggle to stamp their feet on the ground and put up a display befitting of serial champions of the AFCON, one can only wish Brentford star, Bryan Mbeumo, were available for this edition of the Nations Cup. Following a 1-1 draw in their opening game against a red-carded Guinea and a proper drubbing on matchday two at the hands of the Teranga Lions of Senegal, the chances of Cameroon making the playoffs were bleak. Their seeming inability to gel in the attacking department makes the absence of such a personality like Mbeumo most evident.
Tragedy struck for Brentford in the English Premier League and the Cameroon National Team when in the 40th minute of the EPL Matchday 15 clash between Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion, Bryan Mbeumo was subbed off with an ankle problem. Mbeumo’s injury was determined to require surgery with about four months of recovery, effectively ruling him out for the AFCON 2024. The forward had been in top form, filling in as Brentford’s talisman in the absence of captain Ivan Toney; he had scored seven goals and assisted four. A form that would have earned him a spot on the Cameroon squad for certain.
The Brentford man only just made his Cameroon debut in 2022 and is yet to star in the real sense for the African giants. However, given his quality and form before injury, he surely would have been an exciting pair of boots to see on the AFCON stage. The Cameroon squad seems bereft in attack, especially with their special weapon Vincent Aboubakar out of the squad due to injury and Karl Toko-Ekambi struggling to bring the heat. Mbeumo’s presence could have abated some worries for coach Rigobert Song. Cameroon managed to squeeze through to the playoffs after a thrilling encounter with the Gambia which ended three goals to two in favour of the Indomitable Lions. Cameroon has Gambian defender, James Lopez to thank, as well as centre-back Christopher Wooh for their 87th and 91st-minute goals to complete the comeback.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting
Another big name to miss out on a call-up for this edition of the Nations Cup is Bayern Munich’s backup striker, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Choupo-Moting, who made his Cameroon debut in 2010, has featured steadily for the Indomitable Lions since 2019. He made coach Song’s call-up for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, having impressed in qualifying. His sudden fall from the pecking order raised eyebrows and invited queries, to which the Cameroonian gaffer had this to say: “Choupo Moting is a very good player. But my staff and I want the continuity of recent times. He is an important player, but we had to make a choice in line with what we have been doing for some time now.”
It would seem the experienced forward was dropped as a result of his absence from Cameroon’s last few games before the squad announcement. A bold move by coach Song who is well aware that a failure to produce attacking returns with his choice pick of less celebrated stars might come back to bite. Choupo-Moting has 4 goals in all competitions for Bayern Munich this season, having had minutes in 21 games.
Cameroon is yet missing another headliner in the person of their team Captain, Vincent Aboubakar. The former Al Nassr player had been originally named in the squad to represent Cameroon at this edition of the African Cup but was forced to withdraw following an injury he picked up on Friday the 12th of January. His injury is a major blow to Cameroon as Aboubakar’s absence could alter the preferred pattern of play for the Indomitables.
The skipper ended last season (2022-23) with 13 league goals for Türkish outfit Besiktas and has so far managed five goal contributions in 12 league games this season. Aboubakar looked set to attempt another historic display at this edition of the AFCON with Cameroon and possibly attempt to clinch the gold from Senegal, who had won it on Cameroon’s turf. Those dreams might have to wait or may well be dead as the skipper looks doubtful of making a return to the squad before the tournament is over, at least for Cameroon.
Aboubakar was part of the Cameroon squad that coveted the AFCON gold in 2017. He went on to make the 2021 stage his as he turned up for his side when called upon. Consequently, most Cameroon faithful reposed in him their hopes for glory at this year’s tournament and it would seem that with him, said hope is gone. Cameroon has struggled to settle into the contest so far and does not have many more opportunities to give it a go. They face off with the Super Eagles of Nigeria in their round of 16 playoff game.
The Super Eagles of Nigeria is a squad famous for its vast array of attacking talents. This strength is one that had opposition fans worried in the build-up to the AFCON 2024. While the defensive wing of the Nigerian national team is not held in particularly high esteem, the attack is a beast to fear when they play as a unit. Most prominent of the attacking machinery is Napoli’s Victor Osimhen and CAF Men’s Best Player 2023. However, the next name on the list of threats is the fast-rising Victor Boniface — Bayer Leverkusen’s talisman.
Victor Boniface, who has been superb this season, achieving the German Bundesliga Rookie of the Month award for four months running since August, was tipped to be a key influence on Nigeria’s performances and a huge success at the AFCON this season, and perhaps he would have been if not for an injury picked up in training with the Nigeria squad. Boniface had been named by the Portuguese manager in his final shortlist for the Nations Cup and had flown out from Germany to convene with the team. However, the striker returned to Germany ahead of schedule following injury, to get checked and treated. He is expected to be out of action until April.
Boniface has 24 goal contributions in 23 appearances for his club this season in all competitions. His compatriot, Victor Osimhen, has managed 10 goal contributions in total for Serie A outfit Napoli in 18 games. Osimhen had a rough start to life in Naples this season and since hasn’t gotten back to his best with the team, as such, many Boniface supporters were hopeful of seeing him shine as the Super Eagles star man this AFCON. Especially given Victor Osimhen’s dullness in front of goal so far and failure to convert a myriad of chances, Boniface is the name on Nigerian hearts who are disappointed with the situation.
There are speculations about some of the names on this list, that their absence from the AFCON this season may well mean that their last presence was their last dance. The likes of Choupo-Moting and Aboubakar, who both are over thirty, can only hope for healthy years ahead if they’ll have even a remote chance of featuring for the Indomitable Lions again. Zaha’s Côte d’Ivoire future is up in the air now, and while he isn’t yet the profile to be cancelled out by age, chances of a return are bleak, especially under manager Jean-Louis, and with the likes of Simon Adingra, Amad Diallo and David Datro Fofana maturing finely. While two years is a long time and a lot can happen before then, Cameroon’s Mbeumo and Nigeria’s Victor Boniface are expected to make their returns to the AFCON in the 2025/26 edition.
Destiny Chibuzor is a writer with an interest in sports, poetry and lifestyle. More than any recreational endeavour aside from music, he loves football and has played as a goalkeeper unprofessionally for a decade. He’s also a football commentator and shares his thoughts on the X app @De_Scribbler.