Football Mania In The Two Largest Continents: AFCON And Asia Cup Previews

As both the Asia Cup and AFCON (Africa Cup of Nations) kicked off on the 12 and 13th of January respectively, football fever has gone wild in both continents. I thought I’d focus on some of the favourites of both competitions, but also, I’d like to examine a few cases of how football has gone beyond the pitch in terms of its impact in more depth. 

Why Football Means So Much To Africa and Asia

Something in the past that I’ve mentioned is how football can be viewed through a Eurocentric lens. There is no doubt that the best clubs have forged their way in Europe in comparison with the rest of the world, but it doesn’t mean that some of the best players haven’t come from different continents. Football is after all about passion, and Asia and Africa hold the same level of love for the game. Beyond this, football has often changed the course of events in countries showing just how pivotal the game has been. 

One of my favourite footballing stories of course is Iraq, my nation, winning the Asia Cup in 2007, coming at a time of great struggle within the heart of the oldest civilisation. Iraq as we all know were invaded by a US and UK-led coalition in 2003, and not long after found itself in sectarian violence with the country split over identity such as Sunni, Shia or Kurdish incited by poor governing structures created by the US. Many of the players had lost loved ones in attacks that occurred in the lead-up to the tournament. Before the final, another attack happened killing more Iraqi civilians and the team contemplated not playing the match, however, the words of a mother of one of the victims spurred the players on as she said, ‘I won’t bury my son until you come home with the trophy.’ Many gathered in the streets to celebrate after they won, and many associate this glory with uniting the people of Iraq, as one commentator said, ‘Football succeeds where politics has failed’.

Didier Drogba is not only a Chelsea legend, but his legacy rings around all of Africa for what he has done to help his country of Ivory Coast, pledging to help build five hospitals of which one is now built in his hometown of Abidjan. However, his biggest feat came in 2005 after the team had secured World Cup qualification. Except, it wouldn’t be the match but what would come after. Ivory Coast had been in the midst of a civil war since 2002, and while there had been a halt in violence in 2004 there were fears that it would re-escalate in the lead-up to the 2005 elections. An already alarming amount of a million people had been displaced and thousands killed as a result of fighting In the aftermath of the game against Sudan that secured World Cup qualification, Drogba felt the need to address the nation on TV pleading with those fighting for the war to come to an end. This speech is often referenced for ending the civil war itself, again highlighting the power of football.

In Egypt, people recognise how Mohammad Salah has united the country after it had previously been scarred by events that had taken place over the years. In 2012 a fight broke out between Egyptian teams Al Masry and Al Ahly, leading to 74 deaths. It was a dark day for Egyptian football, causing league football to be cancelled for two years and a further four years before fans were allowed back in the stadium. Since then, Salah has led his country to two AFCON finals and a World Cup in his international career and brought pride back to Egyptian football, with the icon being recognised as one of the best in the world currently.

In 2012 Zambia surprised all by winning the AFCON final against favourites Ivory Coast. An upset of a giant would be enough to make this an extraordinary story, but there was so much more to this. In 1993, 18 Zambian players were killed when a plane carrying them failed to take off after stopping to re-fuel in Gabon. This caused friction between the two countries for many years and with the tournament being hosted in Gabon in 2012 it added extra motivation for the players of Zambia. Many were expecting the final to be a hostile environment for the Zambian players due to previous events. It was the opposite, with many fans in Gabon cheering on Zambian glory in 2012. Again, we see how football has the power to mend old wounds and has done so in Africa.

Favourites For AFCON

There are certainly some exciting teams hailed to go all the way in AFCON this year among them include: the previous winners in Senegal, host nation Ivory Coast, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, and perhaps the list could go on.

Senegal has every right to go down as the favourites to repeat what they did in 2022, after what they did that year creating a solid base in having; Mendy, Koulibaly, P.Gueye and Sadio Mane which has made them unstoppable. Despite a decline in club form for Mendy and Koulibaly (perhaps it was a Chelsea effect I don’t know), they will wear the green and yellow shirts with a different level of care, understanding they have a chance to make history by winning back-to-back tournaments.

Ivory Coast has struggled in the last ten years or so to rebuild that ‘golden generation’ they had with the likes of; Drogba, the Toure brothers, Kalou etc… Despite having talents like Frank Kessie now, they will have a long way to go to prove that they have what it takes.

Mohammad Salah may be looking at this AFCON tournament as one of the last chances he gets to win the continent’s prized possession. Egypt will always certainly be a favourite because of the Liverpool talisman, but the truth is the North African side doesn’t field a strongly balanced team. With their tactics simply being getting the ball to their key man, Salah will need to drag this team towards the finish line, which, he certainly can as he’s proven before.

Nigeria will also feel confident of their chances to win the whole tournament. The Super Eagles have some exciting attacking options, most prominently hot prospect Osimhen who has been ripping it up for Napoli in Serie A over the past couple of years. They also have Iwobi and Lookman as alternatives behind the striker who provide pace and dynamism. Alongside this, they have defensively-minded players in Onyeka and Ajayi who aren’t afraid to get stuck into a tackle.

The last of the prominent favourites I’ve listed is Morrocco and of course, it is for what they did in last year’s World Cup. They not only exceeded expectations by beating Belgium, Spain, and Portugal along their journey, but they created history by being the first nation in Africa and the Arab world to reach a World Cup Semi-Final ever! They have arguably the best right back in the world in Hakimi, coupled with other talent like Zyiech, Amrabat and shot-stopper Bounou. The question is can they carry over the World Cup form into AFCON, I certainly believe they can!

Other teams such as Algeria, Ghana or Tunisia could upset the applecart, but they have neither the squad balance nor enough star power to bring home the trophy. Algeria won the tournament recently in 2019, but I don’t think Mahrez’s men will get it done again.

Based on these estimates I’m touting Nigeria to win, eleven years after their last victory. With Osimhen providing a goal threat at any moment and Iwobi providing that direct attacking threat I think they’ll be dangerous to play against.

Favourites For Asia Cup 

Identifying the favourites for Asia’s elite may be slightly more difficult after obviously naming Japan and South Korea. I think the three next best is between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I know it’s probably controversial to leave Australia out of the running, but I just think what the other teams bring to the table is more impressive.

South Korea is most people’s pick for champion and there’s certainly a good case. The blistering pace of both Son Heung-Min and Hwang Hee-Chan would be enough to leave most teams dizzy. Just imagine having to backtrack as a defender while you face the pair on the counterattack. Both have been causing havoc in the Premier League for Tottenham and Wolves this season and I can see this continuing into the tournament. Although the side has not won the tournament since 1960!

Japan certainly boasts one of the more balanced teams in the tournament with Minamino spearheading the attack, Endo as the main interceptor of the ball, and Tomiyasu with the overlaps from full-back. They also have depth with emerging talent Kubo raring to go. Japan last won the tournament in 2011 and since then finished as runners-up in 2019. Japan will want to avenge this loss and go one step further in their conquest to become five-time Asia Cup winners.

 Iran goes into every tournament as one of the teams to beat. Taremi and Azmoun front the attack, with Hajsafi and Ghoddos at the back. What makes Iran so dangerous is their style of attacking play which is relentless whoever they play as demonstrated by the previous two World Cup appearances (barring their humiliating defeat to England). They can pen opposition teams into their own box and start the press high which is what makes them such a ball-dominant team. They also have a clear pattern of play and don’t keep the ball for possession’s sake, as each pass is building towards a move.

As for Iraq, they go into the tournament with renewed hope, after last year’s Gulf Cup victory hosted in their home nation in Basra (the south of Iraq). It was an intense affair, but they came out on top of Oman 3-2 in the dying moments of the game. They also have a young core in; Zidane Iqbal (formerly of Manchester United), Ali Jasim, Mohanad Ali, Ibrahim Bayesh etc. and so bring a fresh, exciting, and energetic outlook to the team. Couple that with the experience of Ali Adnan and Aymen Hussein, Iraq are certainly headed in the right direction. One thing they don’t lack as shown by last year is spirit.

Like Morocco, Saudi Arabia’s key highlights came at the 2022 World Cup, defeating Argentina (eventual champions) in the group stage. Salem, who scored the winning goal in that affair will look to be the man that Saudis rely on. The team is currently managed by Roberto Mancini and Yaya Toure on the staff, and one thing is for certain is that bringing in already proven winners to the mix can only boost their odds of winning the whole thing. Mancini’s Italy went into Euro 2020 as underdogs, so he’ll be used to maximising what he’s got at his disposal.

For me, I can’t bet against my team, so I’m going with Iraq to win the Asia Cup once more. Is it blind loyalty? Perhaps. But as I explained, I think there’s a real belief amongst the fans that Iraq can win it all! Maybe Japan is a safer bet to be fair…

Why You Must Watch

Regardless of the outcomes, one thing for certain is football is going to bring joy to both continents. You’ll see it from fans dancing, wearing face paint and going crazy as their team plays. Even if you’re not the biggest football fan, the spectacles on show and the drama are pure entertainment.

 For me, all Premier League football is on standby as I keep my eyes on the group stages of what is set to be some tasty clashes. Some of the big games to look out for are Nigeria vs Ivory Coast and Egypt vs Ghana which are both on the 18th of January. Iraq also plays Japan on the 19th. I may be glued to my screen for a while Bath Time so if you don’t hear from me, you’ll know why. 

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