Curse of the holders strikes again as Afcon enters knockout phase

Algeria forward Riyad Mahrez reacts

Algeria's forward Riyad Mahrez reacts after Ivory Coast's forward Nicolas Pepe (not seen) scored Ivory Coast's third goal during the Group E Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 football match between Ivory Coast and Algeria at Stade de Japoma in Douala on January 20, 2022.

Photo credit: Charly Triballeau | AFP


  • Woeful Ghana lick wounds of defeat as Cup enters last 16 stage
  • The Africa Cup of Nations might be held more often and now features 24 teams after its expansion for the 2019 edition, but the reigning champions have a habit of stumbling at the finals
  • Since Egypt won a third consecutive Afcon in 2010, only once have the title holders made the knockout phase of the following edition. That was Cameroon in the 2019 edition

In Yaounde

The 16 teams that have qualified for the knockout stage of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations taking place in Cameroon are now known following the final group fixtures played on Thursday.

The end of the group stages has however produced some shocking results, with some big names in African football crashing out or struggling in the hands of hands of football midgets.

The Cup of Nations might be held more often and now features 24 teams after its expansion for the 2019 edition, but the reigning champions have a habit of stumbling at the finals. Since Egypt won a third consecutive Afcon in 2010, only once have the title holders made the knockout phase of the following edition.

That was Cameroon in 2019, but they were eliminated in the last 16. Egypt did not even qualify for the tournament in 2012, nor did Nigeria in 2015 after they won the previous edition.

Ghana’s early elimination from the tournament has left tongues wagging over how the mighty fall.

In Groups ‘A’ and ‘B’, favourites, Cameroon and Senegal got their round of 16 qualifiers almost easily, but it wasn’t the case in Group ‘C’, ‘E’ and ‘F’.

Ghana's forward Andre Ayew (left) reacts during their Group C 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN)  match against Comoros at Stade Roumde Adjia in Garoua on January 18, 2022.

Ghana from Group  ‘C’ are the first big name that fell by the wayside at the tournament. The Black Stars suffered an early exit when they fell 2-3 to minnows Comoros in their final group fixture on Tuesday at the Roumde Adjia Stadium in Garoua.

Earlier tipped favourites, Andre Ayew and teammates rather staged a disastrous performance during the group stages of the 33rd edition of the tournament that resulted in them boarding an early flight back to Accra.

Prior to losing their last group fixture to newcomers Comoros, the Black Stars had lost their group opener 0 -1 to Morocco and conceded a late equaliser against Gabon in Matchday 2, leaving them with just a point from the two matches. Comoros put a final nail on Ghana’s coffin, the Black Stars finishing bottom of the group.

Africa’s eighth most powerful football nation, the Black Stars were eliminated by a country 30 places lower in football ranking and it is the first group stage exit of the four times African champions in 15 years. The Black Stars have participated in all eight editions of the competition after their last group stage ouster in Egypt in 2006 and have gone passed the round of 16 until last edition in Egypt where they were eliminated at the playoffs.

Ghana finished third when they hosted the 2008 Afcon, then improved to second position in Angola two years later. They finished fourth in 2012, and were runners-up in 2015 before winding up fourth again in 2017.

According to Ghanian journalist, Akosua Amoo, the mood in Accra has been gloomy following the early elimination of the team form the tournament with fans making postmortem analysis of how and why their darling team left the competition at such an early stage.

The country’s minister of Sports has also summoned a meeting to diagnose the reasons for the “abysmal” performance and early exit” of the team from the competition.

The most shocking early exit at the tournament has however come from Group ‘E’ where defending champions and Africa’s third most powerful football nation, Algeria were sent following a humiliating 1-3 defeat to Cote d’Ivoire  at the Japoma Stadium in Douala on Thursday.

Currently one of Africa’s finest midfielders, AC Milan’s Franck Kessié netted the opener for the Elephants on 22 minutes and fellow midfielder Ibrahim Sangaré doubled the scores with a powerful header just five minutes before half time.

Just 10 minutes into the second half, Arsenal forward Nicolas Pepe added a third goal for the Elephants as the Fennec Foxes tried in vain to score their first-ever goal at the tournament.

Coach Djamel Belmadi’s side will later have an opportunity to score when referee, Victor Gomes from South Africa awarded them a penalty but Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez failed to convert into a goal.

At 17 minutes to regular playing time however, Sofiane Bendebka of Saudi Professional League side Al-Fateh scored what will be Algeria’s lone goal at the tournament. The defending champions thus finished the tournament at the bottom of the group with just a point from their goalless draw against Sierra Leone in their group opener and a goal scored in their last group game against Cote d’Ivoire .

Cote d’Ivoire who are also tipped favourites are Africa’s 10th most powerful football nation according to latest Fifa World ranking. However, Algeria’s early elimination was apparent when Mahrez and co were held to draw goalless draw by Sierra Leone in their opener before falling to a 0-1 defeat by rank outsiders Equatorial Guinea in the second Group ‘E’ fixture in Douala on Monday, with Esteban Obiang from Spanish fourth tier club Antequera scoring the goal.

The defeat ended Algeria’s 35-match unbeaten streak as it was the first defeat of the 2021 Fifa Arab cup winners since 2018.

Ranked 28th in Africa, Equatorial Guinea are at their third participation at Africa’s flagship tournament—their first to have achieved their qualification on the pitch.

The first two appearances of Juan Micha Obiang’s side at the continental soccer tournament in 2012 and 2015 have been as hosts; the first jointly with Gabon and the latter as sole organizer.

Gambia's midfielder Ablie Jallow (centre) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during their Group 'F' Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) 2021 match against Tunisia at Limbe Omnisport Stadium in Limbe on January 20, 2022.

In another match at the 24-nation tournament that has kept tongues waging, debutants Gambia dramatically defeated heavyweight and favourites Tunisia 1-0 on Thursday in Limbe to finish second of Group ‘F’ with seven points, same like group leaders, Mali who stunned Mauritania 2-0 in Douala at same time.

Forward Ablie Jallow score a surprise stoppage time goal that cruised the Scorpions into the knockout stage. It was the Belgian First Division A club Seraing’s second goal at the tournament which they are participating for the their very first time.

Tunisia had the opportunity to score when referee Fernando Guerrero from Mexico awarded them a penalty at the 43 minute, but Gambian goalkeeper, Baboucarr Gaye stopped Seifeddine Jaziri’s shot to the right corner of the pole.

Tunisia missed a penalty in all three group matches with captain Wahbi Khazri failing in a loss to Mali and Youssef Msakni unsuccessful in a victory over Mauritania.
Though beaten, Tunisia narrowly qualified into the playoffs as one of four best third-placed teams from the group stage.

Gambia will now face Guinea in the round of 16 on Monday in Bafoussam in the West region of the country and coach Tom Saintfiet knows what awaits him.

“For me, it is the best scenario we could wish for because had we finished third in this Group F, traveling to Garoua to face Nigeria would have been hard on us with all that is in traveling and recovering…We are confident in our abilities and though the Guineans are a very good side we did beat them in a competitive game back in 2019,” the Gambian coach said at a post-match press conference in Limbe.