Africa’s continental football showpiece is about to kick off and global stars like Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and Riyad Mahrez are ready to light it up. Here’s what you need to know.
It’s all eyes on African football as some of the biggest names in the game get set for the Africa Cup of Nations 2021.
The 33rd edition of AFCON is hosted by Cameroon across five cities in a 24-team tournament that will play out over four weeks in January and February 2022.
And with the rise of African talent worldwide and the likes of Egypt’s red-hot Mohamed Salah, Senegal’s hitman Sadio Mane, Leicester’s pair of Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi and reigning champions Algeria boasting the talents of Riyad Mahrez and Said Benrahma, this could be the best Africa Cup of Nations yet.
Here’s a guide to the tournament including a preview, schedule, stars to watch and more.
When is the African Cup of Nations 2021?
AFCON 2021 runs from Sunday 9 January to Sunday 6 February 2022.
Originally scheduled for June and July 2021 the tournament was rescheduled twice due to ‘unfavourable climatic conditions’ and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who are the stars to watch at the African Cup of Nations 2021?
A star-studded tournament awaits at AFCON 2021.
‘The Pharoahs’ will have a huge boost with Salah ready to star in Cameroon: Egyptian fans will be hoping that the current Premier league top scorer can help fire them to a record eight African title.
Coach Carlos Queiroz has bolstered the Egyptian squad with the call-up of Salah, Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, Al Ahly keeper Mohamed El-Shennawy, and Aston Villa winger Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ Hassan.
Senegal are stacked with star names too like Salah’s Liverpool strike partner Sadio Mane, world-class centre-back and captain Kalidou Koulibaly, who plays in Italy for Napoli, and the Premier League duo of Edouard Mendy and Chiekhou Kouyate joining PSG’s Idrissa Gana Gueye.
Then there’s Algeria who have an attacking line-up that’ll give defenders waking nightmares, led by Mahrez and West Ham winger Benrahma with Adam Ounas (Napoli, Italy) and Islam Slimani (Lyon, France) ones to watch too.
At the back the experienced Issa Mandy, who plays in Spain’s La Liga with Villarreal, is rocklike.
Then there’s Morocco’s Sevilla trio of goalkeeper Yassine Bono, and attacking double threat Munir El Haddadi, and Youssef En-Nesyri.
But they won’t have Barcelona’s exciting 20-year-old wide man Ez Abde as Xavi has convinced him that Barca need him and he has an important role to play over the next few weeks.
And we still haven’t talked about a certain Pierre Emerick Aubameyang who’ll lead the Gabon line.
Although, the Super Eagles would be without star strikers Victor Oshimen and Emmanuel Dennis, but they still remain star studded and you can take your pick between Leicester’s pair of Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi, but it’s Ndidi who probably holds the key given the manner in which he protects the defence. There’s also Samuel Chukwueze who is a tricky winger and loves to dribble infield with the ball and, at 22, this will be his second Afcon.
Who are the favourites?
So who will go all the way to the final and lift the AFCON trophy at the newly built 60,000 seater Olembe Stadium in Yaounde on 6 February?
For many the reigning champs are top of the pile: Algeria have arguably the most complete team and lifted silverware in December at the FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar.
While a vastly changed side will take to the field in West Africa, the Fennec Foxes are on a roll and have gotten into that healthy habit of winning.
But in 2019 Algeria defeated Senegal by a single goal in the final, and now Koulibaly, Mane and co. are more motivated than ever to take that final step up to a first ever AFCON title.
Senegal have a stability brought by coach Aliou Cisse who’s been with The Lions since 2015, and during his tenure they have qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and made that AFCON final a couple of years ago.
Contrast Senegal’s managerial continuity with Nigerian instability as manager Augustine Eguavoen has been in the job less than a month after Gernot Rohr was shown the door, and the Super Eagles will have to find some unity fast if they are to add to their three CAN titles.
They have plenty of talent, but can they get it together on and off the pitch fast enough to mount a challenge?
Egypt are contenders too with Salah spearheading a seriously talented side, and the Cote D’Ivoire will also believe they can do some damage with Zaha and Pepe on board.
You can never write off the hosts and Cameroon will be quietly confident coming into this tournament, a lack of flashy names at big European clubs could work in their favour as they have had more time to play together and build up some team spirit.
Look out for Morocco too, a young hungry side aiming for a first podium since 2004 when they were runners-up to Tunisia.
African Cup of Nations Schedule
Here’s a basic schedule of the action in Cameroon, you can find the official schedule on the tournament site here.
Group Stage Games
Round of 16
African Cup of Nations Records and Stats
Successive title wins
Egypt: 2006, 2008, 2010
Overall top goalscorer
Samuel Eto’o (CMR): 18
Highest goalscorer in a single tournament
Ndaye Mulamba (Zaire): 9 (1974)
Most tournament appearances
Rigobert Song (CMR), Ahmed Hassan (EGY): 8