Friday 15 January 2021, 09:14

For local glory and global opportunity

  • Sixth edition of the CAF African Nations Championship starts this weekend

  • Tournament reserved for African players competing in continent’s national leagues

  • For some teams, also serves as dress rehearsal before Qatar 2022 qualifiers resume

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ goes the old adage. And for African football fans, opportunities to see many of their top internationals can be rare, with a lot playing outside the continent. This could explain the enthusiasm with which fans greet each edition of the CAF African Nations Championship. This competition is reserved exclusively for players from the Mother Continent who are active in its national championships, thereby enabling fans to see players they watch week-in week-out in the domestic leagues proudly donning their national team colours.

The 2020 edition, moved to 2021 because of Covid-19 and being hosted by Cameroon, will be especially important for those called up, presenting as it does the chance for them to stake a claim for a squad place ahead of the second round of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, in which all 16 teams are still involved. takes a closer look at some of the contenders on the eve of the continental showdown.

Key info

  • Dates: 16 January to 7 February 2021

  • Host nation: Cameroon (Douala, Limbe, Yaounde)

  • Defending champions: Morocco

  • Participants: - Group A: Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Mali, Burkina Faso - Group B: Libya, Niger, Congo DR, Congo - Group C: Morocco, Togo, Rwanda, Uganda - Group D: Zambia, Tanzania, Guinea, Namibia

The context

This sixth edition was originally set to take place in Ethiopia, before being switched to Cameroon and rescheduled for April 2020. After then being postponed due to the pandemic, the competition finally gets underway this week in Cameroon, which will also host the CAF Africa Cup of Nations next year. The opening game will see the host nation take on Zimbabwe on 16 January at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde, where the final will also take place on 7 February.

Did you know?

Hosts under pressure: As they prepare for their fourth appearance at the event and the first major men’s tournament to be staged in Cameroon since the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations, the Indomitable Lions will be anxious to improve on their quarter-final exits of 2011 and 2016, and most certainly atone for finishing bottom of their group in 2018. However, the hosts failed to impress in their preparation games (two defeats and a draw), despite a forward line featuring two strikers with European experience in the shape of Jacques Zoua and Yannick Ndjeng.

A Moroccan stroll: The Atlas Lions were comfortable winners on home soil at the last edition in 2018, thanks in no small part to an unstoppable Ayoub El Kaabi. The forward picked up the top scorer and best player awards and forced his way into Herve Renard's squad for Russia 2018. Three years on, he continues to hone his craft in his national league, currently playing for Wydad Casablanca after a short loan spell in China PR, and represents his side’s best chance of retaining the title. Former international Mustapha Hadji, assistant to senior team coach Vahid Halilhodzic, has been tasked with closely monitoring the performances of five players in Cameroon: Abdelkrim Baaddi, Yahya Jabrane, Hicham El Mejhad, Soufiane Rahimi and Abdelilah Hafidi.

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Another miracle for Libya? Winners in 2014 and semi-finalists four years later, Libya have worked wonders with their teams of local players during a period when the country’s national championship has regularly been cancelled. Once again this year, it seems fortune is favouring the Mediterranean Knights who, despite being eliminated by Tunisia in qualifying, nonetheless secured a place following the subsequent withdrawal of the Eagles of Carthage.

Cranes hoping for lift off: In this their fifth participation (a record they share with Congo DR and Zimbabwe), Uganda look better equipped than ever to finally get past the group stage. Coached by Northern Irishman Johnathan McKinstry, who led Rwanda in the 2016 edition, the Cranes will take confidence from their 2019 CECAFA Cup title. On the flip side, however, Patrick Kaddu, the top scorer in the qualifying phase of this African Nations Championship, later signed for Moroccan club RS Berkane and is therefore ineligible for the tournament.

Leopards back for more: Winners in 2009 and 2016, Congo DR would love a third title on their return, after missing the 2018 edition. The Leopards welcome back former coach Florent Ibenge, who had previously enjoyed success with the full national team before leaving his post in 2019 after a disappointing performance in that year’s Cup of Nations. The current squad draws heavily from the two local giants, TP Mazembe and AS Vita-Club, and has three players – Micah Mika, Ley Matampi and Ricky Tulenge – who were part of the team that won the 2016 title.

What they said

"Friendly matches are not the same as competitive ones. In competition, sometimes it’s the most determined team that wins. We have to live up to our name of Indomitable Lions by giving our all in every game. Our country has invested a great deal in hosting this tournament, so we cannot let that be for nothing. We’ll be giving everything." - Jacques Zoua, Cameroon striker and Africa Cup of Nations winner in 2017

"If we prepare well, then things should work out for us. We have confidence in this group of players because most of those selected already took part in the 2019 CECAFA Cup." - Johnathan McKinstry, Uganda coach and 2019 CECAFA Cup winner

"There’s still work to be done but we‘re close to being ready, given the time constraints. The [preparation] games were welcome and allowed us to see some of our shortcomings and get ready for the finals. We’re representing an entire nation so there’s no margin for error." - Gnama Akate, Togo captain