A wild month of AFCON will draw to a close this weekend with one of Ivory Coast, Nigeria, DR Congo or South Africa lifting the title. No side has blitzed their way through the tournament; instead, that these four remain feels testament to survival skills rather than dominant football.
None of AFCON 2021’s quarter-finalists were present at the same stage this year, and hot favourites Egypt, Morocco and Senegal, among others, met demise in dramatic and diverse circumstances. Ivory Coast’s meagre group stage tally of three points & -3 goal difference saw them stare down the scrapheap and consign manager Jean-Louis Gasset to it, before a revival under interim boss Emerse Faé that has fans back on the bandwagon.
‘After their 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea in the final group game there was a feeling of apathy among fans. Attendances were down across those couple of days, but as they’ve suddenly built this momentum, a feeling has grown [again] in the country’, BBC Sport Africa’s Rob Stevens told Box2Box.
‘One of the major things you need sometimes in a tournament when you’re not playing well is luck, and in some ways Faé and Ivory Coast have had that; last minute goals, last minute winners to avoid penalties. You can see the joy that’s built among fans around the country.
‘It’s brilliant for the tournament because if the hosts had gone out in the group stage, it probably would have been a disaster. To come this far has benefited the tournament as a whole, and they have that renewed belief in themselves heading into a semi against DR Congo they’d probably see as winnable.’
Two-time champions DR Congo reach the semi-finals following a similarly paltry group stage where they scored two goals across three draws, then later knocked out Egypt on penalties in the last 16. They have not played a final since their second title in 1974, when still known as Zaire.
‘DR Congo weren’t stunning in the group stage, they got as far as the quarters without winning a game, having beaten Egypt on penalties. Their match against Guinea (3-1) was their most accomplished performance of the tournament, but you’d expect Ivory Coast, as the hosts, would have enough to get over the line here.’
Nigeria and South Africa will meet in the other semi-final; the Super Eagles were perhaps unfancied by their usual standards leading in but have conceded just one goal through their five matches, providing star striker Victor Osimhen and co. time to work through indifferent form and build into the tournament.
‘Osimhen is famous for his goals that led Napoli to the Serie A title last season and everyone expected this would be his tournament. He’s only scored once, but in a way his tireless running has set up the likes of Moses Simon and Ademola Lookman, and they’ve looked solid.
‘They’ve finally found a decent game plan, something that works…they just did enough in the group stage, their Round of 16 game was fairly comfortable, and after another comfortable win over Angola in the quarters, I’d say they’re favourites to get past South Africa.
Bafana Bafana arrive courtesy of goalkeeper Ronwen Williams’ insane quarter final feat against Cape Verde, saving four of five penalties in the shootout to push them this far into the tournament for the first time since 2000. Their 1996 triumph at first participation post-apartheid remains a sporting fairytale, and they find themselves two wins from a reprisal.
‘Their best performance was when they beat Morocco 2-0, holding Africa’s highest-ranked team at arm’s length for much of that contest. In the quarters I thought they played slightly within themselves… but the penalty shootout was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
‘Teboho Mokoena has been very impressive in midfield, Percy Tau has been a very good performer. Evidence Makgopa has been decent, too, so they have their threats, and it will be interesting to see if Bafana Bafana can really test this Nigerian side.’