The Africa Cup of Nations: A Review

Join The Spectator as we recap the storylines and spectacular moments that Africa’s biggest tournament has had to offer.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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By Celeste Hoo

In the world of international soccer competitions, there are arguably none more entertaining and captivating than the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). Recently, the biennial competition between Africa’s best soccer countries wrote stories of incredible upsets, suspenseful action, and celebration of the continent’s excellent soccer heritage, and this edition of the tournament has been no different. From the early exit of defending champions Senegal to Gambian right back Muhammed Sanneh’s comical reenactment of Diego Maradona’s legendary “Hand of God” goal, the 2023 AFCON has been nothing short of a spectacle. Now that it has been wrapped up with the hosts, Ivory Coast, being crowned champions, it is a perfect time to review the important and interesting moments the tournament had to offer.

Group Stages: Upsets Galore!

The tournament kicked off on January 13 with an expected 2-0 victory for Ivory Coast against Guinea-Bissau. However, it was not long before the competition’s characteristic surprises sprung up when Ghana lost 2-1 to underdogs Cape Verde. Then, favorites Egypt also suffered a setback in a 2-2 tie against the weaker Mozambique.

As the group stage continued and the knockout stages drew closer, fans were greeted with more unexpected upsets and exciting storylines. In Group A, Equatorial Guinea finished first in a group featuring two top nations: Nigeria and Ivory Coast. Led by unlikely hero and AFCON top goalscorer striker Emilio Nsue, the Guineans scored nine goals across their three group games, including a 4-0 humiliation of hosts Ivory Coast. Underdogs Cape Verde dominated Group B despite being significantly weaker on paper than their Egyptian and Ghanaian opponents. On the other side of the spectrum, heavyweights Algeria and Ghana shockingly missed out on knockout qualification after losing 1-0 and tying 2-2 in their respective closing group stage matches.

The group stage also gifted fans with some comical and bewildering moments. During the game between Senegal and Cameroon, Cameroonian goalkeeper André Onana sprinted from his goal all the way to the opposing half to offer some advice to teammate and winger Georges N’Koudou, who was about to take a free kick. After taking Onana’s advice to heart, N’Koudou went on to miss the set piece completely as Cameroon was defeated 3-1. Cameroon was involved in another strange incident when, during their game against Gambia, Gambian right-back Muhammed Sanneh stuck his hand to score a late equalizer, reminiscent of Maradona’s iconic “Hand of God” goal. The goal was rightfully called back after a review by the video assistant referee, allowing the Cameroonians to breathe a sigh of relief as they narrowly clinched a spot in the round of sixteen with the 3-2 win.

When all was said and done, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Cape Verde, Egypt, Senegal, Cameroon, Angola, Burkina Faso, Mali, South Africa, Morocco, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) booked their place in the last 16 as the top two sides in their respective groups. Joining them were Namibia, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, and Guinea as the best-performing teams that finished third in their groups. Meanwhile, 2019 AFCON winners Algeria exited the competition early after finishing last in Group D while favorites Ghana did not qualify as their two points meant they were not good enough to finish as one of the best-performing third-placed sides. 

Round of 16: Senegal and Egypt Underwhelm

As thrilling as the group stage was, the round of 16 was even more dramatic as it witnessed the jaw-dropping exits of both Egypt and Senegal, the two teams who faced off in the final of the previous AFCON. Though they performed disappointingly in the group stages (as seen by their three ties) and were missing captain and key forward Mohamed Salah, many still favored the Egyptians to triumph against DR Congo. However, the Congolese scored early and contained the Egyptians well, holding the game to 1-1 after extra time. In the penalty shootout that followed, Egyptian goalkeeper Gabaski missed his penalty and sent DR Congo through to the next round. 

The defending champions, Senegal, suffered the same fate in their game against Ivory Coast. Though both nations possessed stellar quality, Senegal’s form was red-hot as they were the only team at the time to win all their games. The Ivorians, meanwhile, were lucky to even get this far in the tournament as they were subpar in the group stage and even sacked their manager after a 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea. The game appeared to reflect that as well when Senegalese striker Habib Diallo scored four minutes into the game. However, the tenacious Ivorians did not give in, and though it took them 86 minutes, a penalty from midfielder Franck Kessié gave them their deserved equalizer. The tie held through extra time, and in the following penalty shootout, the underdog came out on top again. After Senegalese defender Moussa Niakhaté’s fateful penalty hit the left post, Ivory Coast sealed their spot in the quarter-finals with a 5-4 victory on penalties over the defending champions. 

Another big surprise to many fans was South Africa’s victory over Morocco, whom many predicted would go very far given their semi-final run in the 2022 World Cup. Instead, the Moroccans were very wasteful with their opportunities, missing a penalty that would have put them on level terms. South Africa later extended their advantage and won 2-0, leaving Morocco to hope that the 2025 AFCON they will be hosting will give them greater success.

Quarter-Finals: Fairy Tales End

After their resurgence in the important victory against Senegal in the last 16, Ivory Coast followed it up with a 2-1 win over Mali in the quarter-finals. The hosts displayed their strong winning mentality and, with the help of young winger Simon Adingra, were able to equalize in the 90th minute despite being forced to play with ten players after defender Odilon Kossounou was sent off with a second yellow card. Then, a winner in the second half of extra time from substitute striker Oumar Diakité sealed a semifinal spot for the Ivorians. The quarter-finals also marked the end of Cape Verde’s fairy-tale run as South Africa defeated them in a spectacular penalty shootout that saw South African goalkeeper Ronwen Williams save four penalties. 

DR Congo continued their deep run in this edition of the AFCON by convincingly beating Guinea 3-1 and will be hoping to win the tournament for the first time since 1974 when the country was still known as Zaire. Meanwhile, Angola’s outstanding campaign was cut short when they lost 0-2 to the African powerhouse, Nigeria. Still, the Angolans can be proud of reaching their best finish in the AFCON in the past 13 years. 

Semi-Finals: The Last Two

Now down to the final four teams, the tournament was quickly reaching its climax and the semi-final games proved it. Both games pitted a major favorite against a relative underdog, as Nigeria faced South Africa while Ivory Coast competed against DR Congo. Though Nigeria had superior players, the South African defense performed well and only limited the Nigerians to a single penalty goal. Luckily, South Africa was awarded a penalty themselves in the 90th minute, and midfielder Teboho Mokoena coolly converted the crucial chance to equalize. Ultimately, the game went into a penalty shootout, where Nigerian goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali’s heroics gave Nigeria a 4-2 win, sending them to the final. 

Just over an hour later, the game between Ivory Coast and DR Congo commenced, and it too was an end-to-end contest marked by many missed opportunities from both sides. However, Ivorian star striker Sebastien Haller scored the breakthrough with a volley in the second half. The hosts held the 1-0 lead throughout and advanced to the final against Nigeria.

Third Place Playoff: South Africa Secures Bronze

Saturday saw the customary battle for third place between the losers of the tournament’s semifinals, with South Africa pitted against DR Congo. Though they had the most dangerous chances in the game, including a moment where winger Silas missed an open net, the Congolese failed to capitalize. Thus, the playoff was decided by yet another penalty shootout, where South Africa’s impressive goalkeeper Ronwen Williams saved Congolese striker Meschak Elia’s penalty to win his country the title of third-best in the tournament.

Finals: Congratulations Ivory Coast!

In the vibrant Alassane Ouattara Stadium, the world witnessed arguably one of the most dramatic conclusions. Nigeria and Ivory Coast, two countries that have blessed the world with some of its best African soccer talent, were set to make a highly-anticipated encounter in the game that mattered most. The Nigerians were by far the most convincing of the two finalists, only conceding two goals in their path to the final and even defeating Ivory Coast in the group stage. On the other hand, the Ivorians were almost on the brink of elimination had it not been for Ghana’s shock exit in the group stage but they impressively recovered in the knockouts to punch a ticket to the final. Now boosted by the home advantage as hosts and a raised team spirit, Ivory Coast were not to be underestimated. 

Though favorites, Nigeria lined up defensively for the game and relied mostly on fast counterattacks through quick forwards Victor Osimhen and Ademola Lookman. This invited a lot of pressure from the Ivorians, who sprayed crosses for main striker Sébastien Haller. However, the Ivorians were poor with their finishing, and a header against the run of play from Nigerian captain William Troost-Ekong stunned the hosts before half-time to make it 1-0. 

But once again, Ivory Coast displayed their resilience, and after many more attempts at goal, midfielder Franck Kessié equalized with a header in the 62nd minute from a corner by winger Simon Adingra. Then, 20 minutes later, Adingra dribbled past Nigerian wing-back Ola Aina to deliver a hopeful ball into the box where this time, Haller tapped it home to give a 2-1 lead. Just as they overcame set-back after set-back, whether it was the 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea or the comeback victory over defending champions Senegal, the Ivorian perseverance proved itself again, as the hosts were crowned kings of Africa for the third time in AFCON history.

With such a dramatic ending, it is undeniable that the 2023 African Cup of Nations has been one for the ages, giving fans around the world a spectacular tournament filled to the brim with suspense and action. From surprising upsets to incredible efforts of skill, the moments that this tournament has created are unforgettable and will forever serve as a reminder of the immense talent and potential within African soccer.