Morocco, fresh off their World Cup heroics, seemed destined for glory, while Egypt, led by Mohamed Salah, looked unstoppable
The recent qualification for the 2023 AFCON quarterfinals marked a surprising turn of events for North African football powerhouses – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt – who entered the tournament with high expectations.
All four North African teams, despite their strong FIFA rankings (first, third, fourth and fifth respectively), were eliminated before the quarterfinals, raising questions about the impact of the challenging climatic conditions in Cote d’Ivoire during the supposedly hottest months of January and February, where humidity reaches 90-95 per cent.
The underwhelming performances of the Atlas Lions, the 2019 champions Algeria, seven-time champions Egypt, and third-ranked Tunisia fueled speculation about whether the combination of intense heat and high humidity posed insurmountable challenges.
This departure from expectations has prompted a closer examination of historical AFCON tournaments, particularly those hosted in West Africa, revealing a pattern of underperformance by North African nations since the 1990s. However, it is worth noting that there is a notable exception to this trend.
Morocco, fresh off their World Cup heroics, seemed destined for glory, while Egypt, fueled by Mohamed Salah’s ambition, appeared unstoppable.
The warning signs were vague but undeniable. Egypt’s last-gasp draw against Mozambique, Algeria’s underwhelming tie with Angola, and Tunisia’s shock defeat to Namibia hinted at vulnerabilities beneath the surface.
Morocco’s opening-day fireworks against Tanzania masked deeper issues, and their subsequent elimination by South Africa confirmed the unsettling trend.
The unsuccessful trips to West Africa
In the 17 editions where West Africa hosted the Nations Cup, North African teams reached the final six times and secured victory three times. An intriguing observation suggests that when AFCON takes place in West Africa, Egypt emerges as the sole North African contender with a realistic chance of winning.
Egypt clinched the title in Burkina Faso in 1998 and in Ghana in 2008. Notably, they reached the final in Gabon in 2017 and in Cameroon in 2021.
However, the 2023 AFCON witnessed a departure from this pattern as all North African teams, including Egypt, lost out by the round of 16. Egypt’s performance in the tournament was lacklustre from the beginning, barely advancing to the second round and ultimately exiting after a penalty shootout loss to DR Congo.
1957SudanEgyptOnly two games were played.
1963GhanaGhanaUAR [Egypt] came third
1970SudanSudanUAR [Egypt] came third
1972CameroonPR CongoNo North African country made the semis
1978GhanaGhanaTunisia came fourth
1980NigeriaNigeriaAlgeria came 2nd, Morocco 3rd, and Egypt 4th
1984Ivory CoastCameroonAlgeria came 3rd, Egypt 4th
1992SenegalIvory CoastNo North African country made the semis
2000Nigeria/GhanaCameroonTunisia came fourth
2002MaliCameroonNo North African country made the semis
2012Equatorial Guinea/GabonZambiaNo North African country made the semis
2015Equatorial GuineaIvory Coast
2017GabonCameroonEgypt got to the final
2021CameroonSenegalEgypt got to the final
2023Ivory CoastTBDNo North African country made the semis
Egypt’s Pharaohs were supposed to reign supreme; Tunisia’s Carthage Eagles should have flown high; Algeria’s Desert Foxes couldn’t prowl successfully, while it was a whimper from the Atlas Lions instead of the expected roar, marking a disappointing low for North African football in Cote d’Ivoire.
Beyond the scoreboard
People frequently attribute the decline in the performance of North African teams at the 2023 AFCON to fatigue and a notable level of complacency stemming from past successes.
The tag of favourites might have lulled some teams into a false sense of security, leading to the underestimation of opponents.
The Pharaohs began their campaign against a Mozambican team languishing in the 113th position on the FIFA rankings. They needed a last-gasp penalty kick converted by Salah to rescue a point. It was only a matter of time before they ran out of luck.It was the same for the others, whose opponents appeared to be mismatched but ended up being dangerous foes with great capabilities.
The North African teams may not have adapted effectively to the evolving tactical landscape of African football, where unpredictability and physicality reign supreme. A team like Algeria, known for its rigid playing style, struggled to adapt to dynamic opponents and changing game situations.
Internal issues and individual errors
Team chemistry, coaching decisions, and individual player form could have played a role in hindering performance.
Crucial mistakes at key moments, like missed penalties, and defensive lapses, proved costly for several teams.
Rise of other regions
The overall improvement in the quality of football across Africa might push North African dominance aside. From Equatorial Guinea to Cape Verde, Africa is witnessing a new breed of teams ready to take the continent by storm.
Too early to conclude
Though the North African exodus at AFCON 2023 raises crucial questions about the state of football in the region, many feel it will be premature to suggest there is a crisis.
The trend of underperformance by North African countries in West Africa during AFCON, except for Egypt, raises questions.
The answer is complex. While North Africa’s dominance may be waning, it’s important to remember that this is just one tournament. Power shifts are inevitable, but the region still boasts immense talent, potential, and excellently organised football leagues.
With their functional and lucrative football leagues and world-class structures in place, the North Africans are expected to overcome this temporary setback, even as Morocco hosts the next AFCON tournament in 2025.
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A Forbes AFCON preview read, “North African sides make up four of the top five sides in FIFA’s rankings, but none has won an AFCON tournament south of the Sahara since 2010.”Algeria won AFCON in 2019, but haven’t made it past the group stage in three of the four most recent tournaments to be held outside North Africa.”
It is worth noting that North African countries have collectively won the AFCON tournament 11 times, albeit with more than half of the successes attributed to Egypt, with seven titles.
Stephen Mbonu told TRT Africa he does not buy the heat excuse. “Most of the North African nations where this argument stemmed from have very hot climate and should be used to the heat. This should not be an excuse for underperformance.”
What does this mean for Nigeria?
For those who believe in history repeating itself, the pathway to AFCON glory just got clearer for the Super Eagles with the ouster of all the North African teams.
Aside from moving up to become the highest-ranked team left at AFCON 2023, when the Super Eagles won their last AFCON title in South Africa, no Maghreb Nation made it to the last eight.
Even though Nigeria did not win the tournament when this scenario around North African countries first happened in 1992, the Super Eagles made it past the quarterfinals.
With the next tournament billed for Morocco, if the noticeable pitfalls from the unceremonious campaign in Cote d’Ivoire are addressed, North Africa may complete a dozen titles in 2025.
However, one undeniable fact is that Cote d’Ivoire has provided excellent playing surfaces that have ensured fair competition, allowing every country to showcase its football prowess.