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AFCON 2023: The Differential Teams That Made History

AFCON 2023: The Differential Teams That Made History

Ronwen Williams - Afrocritik

Cape Verde, Angola, Mauritania, and South Africa have been at the centre of performances that generated surprise among commentators and the general football-loving public. We take a look at their historic run-ins in the competition.

By Destiny Chibuzor

The AFCON 2023 has seen so much drama and has been the central focus of the media coverage on football for the past few weeks. Much of the conversation about who would win the trophy before its commencement highlighted household names like Egypt, Cameroon, Ghana and the title holders, Senegal — all of which have 17 AFCON titles between them —  amongst others as favourites to impress. These four teams have now been eliminated in unexpected circumstances, sparking increased excitement amongst fans.

The tournament has been so eventful that it has been dubbed as the best AFCON championship ever. This rave is owed to the quality and doggedness of relative underdogs at the tournament. Cape Verde, Angola, Mauritania, and South Africa have been at the centre of performances that generated surprise among commentators and the general football-loving public. We take a look at their historic run-ins in the competition.

Mauritania

Mauritania celebrates first-ever AFCON win - Afrocritik
Mauritania celebrates first-ever AFCON win

Mauritania had the least success of all the differentials in terms of how far they went in the tournament. Still, they achieved one of the most historic feats by their standards. Mauritania first participated in the AFCON in 2019, where they qualified for the Nations Cup but crashed out in the group stage after failing to secure a win, with one loss in their opening game and two draws. They managed just one goal from the penalty spot and conceded four, exiting the games on two points, with a goal difference of minus three. In 2022, they qualified for their second AFCON, and just like the season before, failed to make it out of the group, this time with zero points and a negative seven-goal difference having lost all their games and scored no goals.

Interestingly, their performance at this year’s AFCON showed all the signs of another group-stage exit as they lost their first two games 1-nil and 3-2 to Burkina Faso and Angola respectively. However, in what has been described by CAF as “by far the most shocking result” of the tournament, Mauritania beat the Desert Foxes of Algeria 1-nil to secure their record-first win at the AFCON and simultaneously a qualification for the playoffs; their first-ever.

Mauritania’s football improvement in the past decade – from their qualification for their record-first competition in 2014 to becoming a knockout contender at the AFCON 2023 – comes as no surprise. Mauritania is a beneficiary of the FIFA football development initiative, the FIFA Forward Programme, which aims at providing football development aid to all of the FIFA member associations as needed, to ultimately improve the quality of global football. The Mauritanian Football Association (FFRIM) is a testament to the success of the initiative. In its capital, Nouakchott, about $11.1m in FIFA Forward funds have been used to radically revamp and develop football infrastructure. The dividend of such investments has been revealed in their historic achievement at the AFCON.

Unfortunately for Mauritania, their run was halted by a late penalty converted by Cape Verdean captain, Ryan Mendes, in their round of 16 tie. Mauritania’s achievement of scoring their first-ever open-play goal at the AFCON, getting their first AFCON win and making the round of 16 for the first time will be some comfort as they head home. Whatever dreams the Al Murabitun has of going all the way and clinching the AFCON gold will have to wait till the next edition, if they can manage a fourth consecutive qualification.

Angola

Angola Players Celebrating win Against Burkina Faso - Afrocritik
Angola players celebrating win against Burkina Faso

The Palancas Negras of Angola were not just a differential surprise package this year, but an exciting team to watch. Angola, who last featured on the AFCON stage in 2019, came into this edition on a run of five consecutive draws and a total of seven draws from their last 10 games, with two losses and just one win. Most of the games were against non-top teams and the only impressive scoreline was a nil-nil draw against DR Congo — ranked 62nd in the FIFA Men’s Ranking. As such, the fine performances they managed at the AFCON were unprecedented.

In their first game of the tournament, Angola continued their streak of draws, holding Algeria to a 1-1 draw to share the points. This was perhaps an early indication of readiness to muster the differentia to qualify comfortably from the group. Algeria is ranked 30th in the FIFA International Men’s Football Rankings, as such, 117th place Angola holding them to a draw was an unexpected tonic. They got to winning ways from game-week two, beating Mauritania 3-2 and later Burkina Faso 2-0 to top the group on seven points. 

Their most dominant display was against Namibia in their first-ever AFCON round of 16 tie, where they kept a clean sheet and scored four goals to make it through to the quarter-final feeling confident. The Super Eagles of Nigeria would eventually pour water on their smoking-hot form, handing them their first loss of the competition and a ticket home with a 1-nil victory in regulation time. Regardless of the loss, the Palancas Negras had left their footprint in the sand indelibly, and have unlocked a new height for themselves in African Football.

Angola has played in nine AFCON tournaments — 1996, 1998, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2019 & 2023 (2024) — and until this year, had never won more than one game at any edition. Interestingly, while Angola had previously qualified for the quarter-finals of the Nations Cup twice (in 2008 and 2010), they never won a knockout game; the AFCON was expanded to include 24 teams and the best loser clause in 2022. Previous editions featured 16 teams grouped in fours, and as such, no round of 16; it was straight to the quarter-finals for the top two teams from each of the four groups.

Angola lost their 2008 and 2010 quarterfinal games, having qualified for both of them from the group stage on five points courtesy of a win and two draws. Thus, Angola’s win over Namibia in the round of 16 was their first-ever knockout win at the AFCON. Their victory over the Burkinabe in the final week of the group stage was their record first time winning two games at an AFCON tournament. Rising above historical precedent and achieving these feats are a testament to their sharp form and mettle. It remains to be seen whether Angola can build on this edition’s positive soon seeing as their AFCON form has constantly blown hot and cold over the years.

Cape Verde

Cape Verde players celebrating winner against Ghana - afrocritik
Cape Verde players celebrating win against Ghana

The AFCON 2023 quarter-final was concluded dramatically as South Africa crushed Cape Verde’s hopes of making the semi-final on penalty shootouts, after a blank draw through regulation and extra time. While Cape Verde failed to make it through to what would have been a historic first semi-final appearance for them, they have plenty to be proud of as they’ve spent every moment of their campaign rewriting their football history.

The Cape Verde national team had only ever made it to the AFCON quarterfinals once before this edition — in 2013 when they made their AFCON debut. As such, achieving another quarterfinal appearance is a big achievement for the African underdogs. Interestingly, the craze around Cape Verde making the quarterfinal playoffs this edition is not much about the fact, but about how they did. Cape Verde qualified for the round of 16, top of their group on seven points, with two wins and one draw. They scored seven goals and finished the group stages with a goal difference of +4, having conceded just three goals.

They were the first differential team to catch the eye as they upset the Black Stars of Ghana — who eventually failed to qualify for the playoffs — in their first match of Group B, winning 2-1 and taking all three points. They secured their second win of the tournament in emphatic style against Mozambique, winning 3-nil, and held out for a 2-2 draw against the Pharaohs of Egypt in their final group game to qualify as group leaders. Being grouped with seven-time winners, Egypt, and four-time winners, Ghana, most predictions projected the Blue Sharks finishing the group behind Ghana and Egypt. However, their quality, as well as Mozambique’s, made the group into a “group of death” which they more than survived.

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According to a Confederation of African Football Fact Sheet published in the build-up to Cape Verde’s quarter-final clash with South Africa, the Blue Sharks had attempted as well as completed the most dribbles (95, 44 completed) by any team throughout the tournament. They also recorded the most dribbles attempted in a single game with 34 against Mauritania in their round of 16 tie, all while having the oldest average starting XI in the tournament, with an average age of 29 years and 64 days. These achievements are no mean feat for a nation that surfaced at the AFCON table just a decade ago.

South Africa

Ronwen Williams - Afrocritik
Ronwen Williams

Since their 1996 debut triumph, the Bafana Bafana has consistently taken a step back from the limelight, finishing second and then third in ’98 and 2000 respectively. In 2006 they set an unwanted and relatively unknown AFCON record as the first team to exit the tournament with no win, no draw and no goal. Their 2013 falter as hosts of the tournament was the final spell needed to erase them from comments on the AFCON and favourites per edition. South Africa has taken advantage of this situation as they have stormed into the Semifinals of the AFCON 2023 untracked and unexpectedly.

In their first game of the tournament, South Africa was beaten 2-nil by a persistent Mali side who forced their way into the back of the net. On the flip side, Bafana Bafana was wasteful, squandering a penalty just 18 minutes in. While the first game was too early to predict group outcomes, unlike Angola and Cape Verde, South Africa showed no urgency in those 90 minutes to suggest any chance of progressing as far as they have. They went on to win 4-nil against Namibia and played out a goalless draw with Tunisia to qualify on four points in second place behind Mali. Their round of 16  match against popular favourites, Morocco, was a reverse in fortune of their opener vs Mali. The North Africans missed a penalty while the Southerners netted an open-play goal and a freekick to claim the win.

While Bafana Bafana is a bigger team than Morocco in terms of African success, the Arabian African’s recent exploits at the FIFA World Cup and their European-esque gameplay made them a fan favourite and projected finalists in many predictions. However, statistical underdog, South Africa cruised to a 2-nil win in regulation time, scoring on either side of Achraf Hakimi’s penalty miss, on 57 minutes and 90+5 to book their quarter-final place. This was the first time the Bafana Bafana popped up as a possible contender to go all the way. The Morocco win also set them up for history-making as they needed penalties to book their semifinal place following a stalemate against Cape Verde.

Bafana Bafana’s skipper and goalkeeper, Ronwen Williams etched his name and that of his country in the AFCON book of records, with his historic penalty saves in the shootout against Cape Verde. Williams, who plays at club level domestically for the Mamelodi Sundowns in the South African League, saved a record four penalties out of five — the most by any goalie in a single shootout at the AFCON. Williams held on to the first penalty by Bebe in what was an unbelievable show of confidence and conviction. He similarly kept Cape Verde’s second, third and fifth attempts out, this time with punches to see his team through to the semis.

The semifinal match against Nigeria on Wednesday, 7th February was arguably the AFCON 2023 Golden Glove decider. The goalies of both teams came into the game tied on a run of four consecutive clean sheets. Williams had an edge in terms of saves made, however, Nigeria’s Stanley Nwabili held the best defensive record, having conceded just one goal all tournament. The game proved to be deserving of all the chatter that preluded it as, after a frantic action-packed 90 minutes, it ended 1-1 following a VAR masterclass. Inspired by their Cape Verde victory, South Africa held on to much of the possession in extra time to take the game to penalties. Bafana Bafana was penalised for their smugness as Nigeria won the shootouts 4-2. Nwabali made two saves while Williams managed none in contrast to his Cape Verde form.

Regardless of the loss, South Africa like the other teams highlighted above, can be proud of their achievements at this Nations Cup. They still have a lot to play for and a shot at another landmark as they face DR Congo — who lost their semifinal game 1-nil to hosts, Côte d’Ivoire — in the third-place playoff on Saturday, 10th February. They will be looking to secure their second AFCON bronze medal, which will be their first AFCON medal since 2000.

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.

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