The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, the biennial international men’s football championship organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), hosted by Egypt will officially kick-off today. This year’s tournament is the 32nd edition.
The competition will be held from 21 June to 19 July 2019, following the decision of the CAF Executive Committee on 20th July 2017 to move the Africa Cup of Nations from January/February to June/July for the first time. It will also be the first Africa Cup of Nations expanded from 16 to 24 teams. Subsequently with the expanded format, there are three new teams in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations – Burundi, Madagascar and Mauritania. They will be playing in the finals for the first time.
Instructively, Egypt is the most successful nation in the cup’s history, winning the tournament a record seven times, while the current champions, Cameroon has five titles. The Super Eagles of Nigeria will be making a return to the Championship after missing the last two editions. We note that the Super Eagles are three-time Africa Cup of Nations winners, with their recent title in 2013, after defeating Burkina Faso in the final. They also won the tournament in 1980 and 1994. The Nigerian national team will be gunning for their fourth.
The Super Eagles are in Group B, alongside Guinea, Madagascar, and Burundi. On paper, the Nigerian team should qualify but there are no longer minnows in world football. The last World Cup in Russia proved that the gap between the top dogs and minnows is reducing. Super Eagles coach, Gernot Rohr expressed hopes that he will be lucky in his third attempt by guiding the Super Eagles to Africa Cup of Nations title-success in Egypt after two futile attempts with different teams in the past.
Rohr once handled the Mena of Niger and Panthers of Gabon at the AFCON finals, but didn’t make much impact with the two teams. “I have been to the Nations Cup twice, I hope this one I can win it. This one will be more difficult to win because we have 24 teams. You have to play seven games to emerge champions, and more so, all the big countries are there,” Rohr stated in an interview on the Super Eagles YouTube channel.
Indeed, football is one major unifier in the country as Nigerians forget their ethnicity and religion. At a time the media space is filled with stories of banditry and kidnappings, the Nations Cup will serve as breath of fresh air for Nigerians.
The bane of the Super Eagles in recent years is lack of adequate preparation and failure by the football body to pay allowances of the players. The preparation for this tournament was nothing to write home about. The Super Eagles put in below par performance in their last two friendly matches against Zimbabwe and Senegal.
It is sad to say that the golden era of the Super Eagles playing for top level clubs in Europe is over. Ahmed Musa, arguably Nigerian’s best player plies his trade in the lowly Saudi Arabian league. A majority of the Super Eagles players are not starters in their club side. Nigeria lacks a superstar and game changer in the mould of Sadio Mane of Senegal, Riyah Mahrez of Algeria or Mohammed Salah of Egypt.
Interestingly, tournaments are won by early preparation, teamwork, grit and determination. Going forward, we suggest that the Nigeria Football Federation should sanitise the age grade competition which is characterised by age cheats and corruption. Future national team players should be groomed from the youth team. Beyond this, there is an urgent need to revive some of our dead youth competitions especially in secondary, schools. Competitions like the Principal’s Cup had in the past produced quality players that later graduated into the national team.
In retrospect, the Super Eagles have often demonstrated a knack for performing when least expected. Will this be one of those occasions? It is the hope of their teeming supporters around the country that they do the nation proud by putting up a stellar performance that will give the team success in the tournament. However, it is important to point out to the NFF that in Africa, football is not played only on the pitch. It is also regarded as politics by other means. That fact must not be lost to the football authorities as the campaign gets underway.
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