Ranking all 24 Africa Cup of Nations teams, from pretenders to contenders

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Sportem
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The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations is upon us, as the continent’s top teams collide in the biennial month-long football showpiece in the Ivory Coast. And while this tournament is notoriously difficult to predict, with heavyweights often falling by the wayside early, ESPN has a go at ranking the teams regardless.

24. Mozambique

Reasons for optimism: There’s a smattering of genuine talent in the squad – notably Reinildo Mandava of Atletico Madrid and Sporting Lisbon’s Geny Catamo – and Mozambique demonstrated both attacking flair and defensive resilience to eliminate Benin during qualification.

Why they won’t win it: Zero victories in 12 previous AFCON matches, Mozambique are returning to the high table for the first time in 14 years as rank outsiders. Avoiding defeat at the tournament for only the second time since 1996 would be a decent return.

23. Namibia

Reasons for optimism: Mamelodi Sundowns’ Peter Shalulile netted in every one of Namibia’s qualifiers, and relishes the big occasion. Namibia are capable of bloodying a nose or two, and will enjoy their COSAFA derby with South Africa on January 21.

Why they won’t win it: Three previous campaigns have all ended in the group stage and it’s hard to predict a more positive outcome this time around. A lack of organisation at federation level – and an ongoing bonus dispute – threaten to undermine the Brave Warriors.

22. Tanzania

Reasons for optimism: Often attractive, but horribly brittle when pressure is applied, Tanzania showed another side to themselves as they held Algeria 0-0 in September. Could that match serve as a blueprint for AFCON survival?

Why they won’t win it: None of the other teams scored fewer than Tanzania’s three goals during qualification. Across two double-headers with Uganda and Algeria, they found the net just once.

21. Guinea-Bissau

Reasons for optimism: They’re consistent qualifiers now, with the experience of reaching all of the last four tournaments, and must now show that lessons have been learned from that trio of continental campaigns.

Why they won’t win it: The Djurtus have failed to score in any of their last seven AFCON appearances – stretching back to 2017 – and may again struggle to trouble the continent’s toughest defences.

20. Angola

Reasons for optimism: Perhaps benefited from a weak qualifying group containing Madagascar and the Central African Republic, Angola have plenty of flair and creativity – notably Cagliari’s Zito Luvumbo – and their individualism can make them a dangerous prospect.

Why they won’t win it: Fiorentina’s M’bala Nzola – who remains absent after appearing to lost faith in the federation – would have been a certain starter, while ex-Leeds United man Hélder Costa is another who could have provided the cutting edge to sneak into the knockouts.

19. Mauritania

Reasons for optimism: Another beneficiary of the expanded AFCON, Mauritania are featuring in their third consecutive tournaments. They need to demonstrate they’re wiser for the experience, although qualifying despite a three-point deduction hints at their character under thorough head coach Amir Abdou.

Why they won’t win it: Always competitive in their Nouakchott home, Mauritania remain a far inferior prospect away from their local support and familiar surroundings.

18. Cape Verde

Reasons for optimism: 2023 saw an impressive away draw against Morocco, as well as a home victory over Burkina Faso, fuelling optimism that Cape Verde’s experienced heads can help them compete against group foe Egypt and Ghana.

Why they won’t win it: A team in transition, the islanders may just need victory over Mozambique to progress, but they rely too heavily on the veterans of the glory years a decade ago (Ryan Mendes, Garry Rodrigues, Stopira) to go the distance.

17. Gambia

Reasons for optimism: Gambia are a talented outfit, supremely drilled by Tom Saintfiet, and who wear their underdog tag with pride. Worthy quarterfinalists in 2022, they could have been quietly confident of emulating that run…

Why they won’t win it: However, tournament preparation has been disastrous, with a bonus row, unnecessary traipse to Saudi Arabia for a training camp, and the near-carbon monoxide poisoning during the team’s flight to Ivory Coast. It’s hard to see how this combination cannot impact their performance.

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Gambia’s national team suffer from ‘unacceptable’ travel conditions for AFCON

Gambia’s Saidy Janko posted footage of when their flight from Gambia to Ivory Coast for AFCON had to perform an emergency landing on his Instagram account.

16. Zambia

Reasons for optimism: Zambia can boast of a wealth of attacking options, with the likes of Lameck Banda, Patson Daka and Fashion Sakala likely enough to fire them out of Group F. In Avram Grant, they also boast a coach who has experience of reaching the AFCON final, albeit with a much stronger Ghana selection in 2015.

Why they won’t win it: Defensively, there are still fragilities – only five teams conceded more in qualification – and Grant may have his work cut out on the training ground before the tournament to ensure Zambia can keep their opponents at bay.

15. Guinea

Reasons for optimism: In Serhou Guirassy, Guinea boast one of the world’s in-form players heading into the Nations Cup. The forward has a remarkable 17 goals in his 14 Bundesliga games so far this term, and he’s already demonstrated – against the likes of Brazil and Egypt – that he can lead the line effectively for the Syli Nationale.

Why they won’t win it: Guirassy’s injured. The Stuttgart man has still made the squad – and is expected to return – but an injury sustained in Guinea’s final pre-tournament warm-up game against Nigeria has dampened expectations. Beyond him – and ex-Liverpool man Naby Keita – is the talent really there to trouble the big boys?

14. South Africa

Reasons for optimism: South Africa are looking healthy heading into the AFCON, with Hugo Broos forging a competitive team based around the stars and style of continental powerhouses Mamelodi Sundowns. The likes of Percy Tau adds further experience (and possibly a sprinkle of magic).

Why they won’t win it: Both Lebo Mothiba and Lyle Foster miss the Nations Cup, denying Bafana Bafana two of their chief goal threats, while tensions consider to bubble under the surface between Broos and SAFA. The Belgian coach’s outspoken style and forthright approach has helped restore some of South Africa’s swagger, but he isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

13. Equatorial Guinea

Reasons for optimism: Continental minnows, but Equatorial Guinea have a decent pedigree at the Nations Cup, having never been eliminated in the group stage. They were instrumental in Algeria’s shock elimination in 2022, and won’t be overawed. Having gone unbeaten in 2023, the disciplined Nzalang Nacional will fear no one.

Why they won’t win it: Few will beat them for unity or togetherness, but Equatorial Guinea are lacking in genuinely top end talent – only three of their squad play in a major European league – and they can struggle to impose themselves on fixtures.

12. DR Congo

Reasons for optimism: Defensive organisation has been the bedrock upon which Sebastien Desabre’s DRC have returned to the Nations Cup, with the Leopards keeping eight clean sheets across all fixtures in 2023.

Why they won’t win it: There aren’t too many obvious failings in Desabre’s side. They can be vulnerable to the counter-attack or set pieces, and while 32-year-old Cédric Bakambu remains in the squad, his rivals as centre-forward (Fiston Mayele, Silas Mvumpa, Simon Banza) have two international goals between them.

11. Ghana

Reasons for optimism: Mohammed Kudus heads into the Nations Cup in irresistible form, having starred for West Ham United since arriving in the Premier League. He’s built on his eye-catching World Cup displays to become a complete operator in the top flight, and has already taken on a leading role in this Black Stars squad. There’s no shortage of talent around him, with Chris Hughton blending a collective of experienced heads and vibrant emerging talent.

Why they won’t win it: 2023 brought Ghana down to earth as Hughton’s side failed to cope against USA or Mexico (losing 4-0 and 2-0 respectively), while also being humbled against Comoros during the qualifiers. The head coach’s safety-first approach doesn’t always get the best out of his attacking options, and the return of André Ayew – without a club until November – may destabilise, rather than galvanise, the squad. Injured absentee Thomas Partey is also a considerable loss.

10. Nigeria

Reasons for optimism: Such immense talent on paper – not least Victor Osimhen – if Nigeria click (as they threatened to do during the group stage last time around), they have the firepower to blow teams away.

Why they won’t win it: The Super Eagles have grown accustomed to being less than the sum of their parts. There appears to be little faith in head coach Jose Peseiro – who appears a dead man walking – while injuries to Wilfred Ndidi and Victor Boniface could prove costly. The lack of a quality goalkeeper also threatens to undermine the West Africans.

9. Burkina Faso

Reasons for optimism: No one does ‘AFCON wildcards’ better than Burkina Faso, who are perennially underrated on the continental high table. With canny Hubert Velud at the helm, three final four finishes in their last four tournaments, and the likes of Edmond Tapsoba and Dango Ouattara in their ranks, another impressive run could be on the cards.

Why they won’t win it: Bertrand Traoré is the side’s talisman, and while capable of moments of magic, he’s played just 10 minutes in the Premier League this season, and will be well short of match sharpness. There’s also an internal mutiny against Velud in domestic football, although the influence this will have at the AFCON remains to be seen.

8. Mali

Reasons for optimism: The production line of talent continues unabated, with Mali continuing to excel at youth level and a steady progression from junior sides to the senior set-up.

Why they won’t win it: Arguably African football’s biggest underachievers, Mali are the biggest side neither to have won the Nations Cup nor qualified for the World Cup, having developed a propensity for choking when the pressure’s on. This year, it’ll be no easier, with a poorly timed injury crisis (Ibrahima Kone headlines a list of high-profile absentees) prompting a reshuffle from Eric Chelle.

7. Tunisia

Reasons for optimism: Consistency – Tunisia have reached the knockouts in eight of the last 10 tournament outings – and (apologies for the cliché) have the ‘grinta’ and guts to edge past some of the continent’s less seasoned selections.

Why they won’t win it: Slow starters – Tunisia have failed to win their opening Nations Cup game in every tournament since 2013 – an evenly matched group could leave the Carthage Eagles with too much ground to make up later on. Without Hannibal Mejbri, Ferjani Sassi or Wahbi Khazri, they may also lack a spark.

6. Cameroon

Reasons for optimism: The character Cameroon demonstrated in dumping Algeria out of World Cup qualification, or in battling back against Burkina Faso in the bronze-medal match of 2022, should serve this collective well. Head coach Rigobert Song continues to (just about) hold the reins steady as FA President Samuel Eto’o watches on ever closer, while the decision to reconcile with André Onana – exiled from camp during the World Cup – gives the Indomitable Lions another asset. Players such as Vincent Aboubakar, Karl Toko Ekambi and Clinton N’Jie also have experience of going the distance at the Nations Cup.

Why they won’t win it: Cameroon rarely feel too far away from the kind of crisis that could completely derail their title hopes. Whether it’s an Eto’o intervention, key players being dismissed from the team hotel, or another unforeseen scandal, don’t expect a serene campaign for the Indomitable Lions.

5. Egypt

Reasons for optimism: Barring an astonishing lull of not qualifying between 2012 and 2015, and their capitulation on home soil in 2019, no team knows how to navigate the Nations Cup quite like the Pharaohs. They’ve reached the final in five of their last six tournament appearances – including as runners-up last time around – oh, and with Mohamed Salah still in his prime, there’s no better match-winner on the continent.

Why they won’t win it: Despite encouraging signs from the likes of Mostafa Mohamed and Omar Marmoush, Egypt remain reliant on Salah. If he’s silenced – as was the case by Senegal in the last AFCON final – then the North Africans rapidly run out of ideas.

4. Ivory Coast

Reasons for optimism: Hosting a tournament can be a blessing or a curse (no hosts have won since Egypt in 2006), but the Elephants and their supporters appear primed to enjoy themselves this time around. Expectations are generally lower than they have been over the past decade, and if the West Africans can ride the wave of local support, they could reach the latter stages.

Why they won’t win it: A lot rests of Sébastien Haller, particularly following the decision to overlook Wilfried Zaha from the tournament squad, with the Borussia Dortmund hitman failing to score in 13 club outings so far. Too many of the supporting cast (Nicolas Pépé, Jean Seri, Max Gradel, Willy Boly, Sèrge Aurier) appear past their prime. If they start slowly in a tough group, then that home ‘support’ could prove a burden.

3. Algeria

Reasons for optimism: Many of the side who won the title in 2019 before embarking on a continental record undefeated streak remain, and with Riyad Mahrez still an inspirational presence, they have the motivation and the conviction to make amends for a devastating 2022.

Why they won’t win it: Despite Djamel Belmadi’s attempts to revitalise his classic squad with youth, there are still a few too many creaking old-timers in key positions. Islam Slimani, now 35, and 32-year-old Baghdad Bounedjah represent the chief goal threat, while Mahrez (32), Youcef Belaïli (31), Sofiane Feghouli (34) and Aïssa Mandi (32) all remain pivotal. Will ageing legs be found out?

2. Senegal

Reasons for optimism: Aiming to become the fourth team to retain the Nations Cup, Senegal built on their 2022 success with a run to the World Cup knockouts. Having missed Qatar, captain Sadio Mané returns, and under head coach Aliou Cisse, this side remain familiar and unified, with an excellent spirit, rugged defence and encouraging options in attack.

Why they won’t win it: There aren’t too many weaknesses here. Even an ageing midfield has been revitalised by the likes of Lamine Camara and Pape Matar Sarr. Could the likes of Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly and Édouard Mendy moving to the Saudi league take the edge off their competitiveness?

1. Morocco

Reasons for optimism: Morocco has long been the best run federation in African football, and a talented collection of players – united tactically and spiritually by Walid Regragui – made history in Qatar by reaching the World Cup semifinals. With quality across the part, automatic habits within the team, and the experience of negotiating elite knockout football, they appear well placed to win their first crown since 1976.

Why they won’t win it: The poor recent club form of instrumental creators Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal ought to be a concern. Similarly, as well as some disappointing results since the World Cup, Morocco are the perennial AFCON let-downs. One title win in 19 appearances, only one semifinal outing since the 80s, Morocco are regulars when it comes to falling short of pre-tournament expectations. They won’t repeat these bad habits again, will they?

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