After twice being postponed due to Covid-19, and with significant doubt about whether it would take place at all, the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations will begin on Sunday. With UK viewers able to watch all 52 matches on Sky Sports (with 10 matches also shown on BBC One) and some of the Premier League’s best players on show, the tournament is enjoying a higher profile than ever before.
Cameroon are the hosts and will hold ambitions of participating deep into the tournament, but there are six nations that come into the tournament placed higher in Fifa’s world rankings. Top of that list are Senegal (20th), who are marginal favourites ahead of Egypt, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and the hosts.
Star player: Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa holds the midfield together, but it’s Vincent Aboubakar who carries the nation’s hopes on his shoulders, ably supported by the reborn Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Those two have scored 42 international goals between them, more than everyone else in the squad combined.
Breakout star: Few options, given that Cameroon have picked an experienced squad. But Martin Hongla can play in defence or midfield and joined Serie A side Hellas Verona on a loan-to-buy deal last summer.
UK-based players: James Léa Siliki (Middlesbrough)
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1984, 1988, 2000, 2002, 2017)
Prediction: A potential semi-final matchup against holders Algeria awaits. And that might be the end of the road.
Star player: Edmond Tapsoba is quickly earning a reputation at Bayer Leverkusen as one of the best young, ball-playing central defenders in the Bundesliga. Still only 22, he was repeatedly linked with a move to Chelsea last summer.
Breakout star: Still only 20, Issa Kabore has 10 senior caps at right-back and was signed on a permanent deal by Manchester City in 2020. Now on loan at Troyes (who are part of the City Football Group network), he may well be first choice in Cameroon.
UK-based players: Bertrand Traore (Aston Villa)
Best Afcon performance: Runners-up (2013)
Prediction: Should finish second to qualify, but that would likely lead to a last-16 game against Ghana or Morocco for which they would be outsiders.
Star player: Cape Verde have a squad picked from a worldwide diaspora, and Djaniny is the personification. The forward has played in Portugal, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, but has found a home at Trabzonspor in Turkey, where he is a regular for the team seven points clear at the top of the Super Lig.
Breakout star: Kenny Rocha Santos plays his football in Belgium’s First League for Oostende. He’s also one of only two outfielders in this squad aged under 23.
UK-based players: None
Best Afcon performance: Quarter-finals (2013)
Prediction: Their best realistic hope is beating Ethiopia to qualify in third place. But then comes a group winner.
Star player: Only two members of Ethiopia’s 25-man squad plays their football outside of their homeland. One of those, Shimelis Bekele of Egyptian side El Gouna, is the highest-capped member of the squad and also its second-highest goalscorer.
Breakout star: Amanuel Gebremichael is a 22-year-old attacker who plays for Saint George, Ethiopia’s biggest club. His goals won previous club Mekelle their first ever league title, but he has found life far harder in the capital.
UK-based players: None
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1962)
Prediction: The second lowest-ranked team in the tournament. Finishing bottom of Group A seems probable.
Star player: Sadio Mane, who accounts for more than 60 per cent of all the goals in Senegal’s squad and is the de facto leader of his country’s sporting hopes. There are other stars here too, but everyone is looking up to Mane.
Breakout star: Tottenham paid around £13m for midfielder Pape Matar Sarr last summer, immediately loaning the 19-year-old back to Metz. He will surely add to his four senior caps in Cameroon.
UK-based players: Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Edouard Mendy (Chelsea), Seny Dieng (QPR), Cheikhou Kouyaté (Crystal Palace), Nampalys Mendy (Leicester City), Ismaila Sarr (Watford)
Best Afcon performance: Runners-up (2002, 2019)
Prediction: Nothing is ever certain, but the stage looks set for Senegal to win their first ever Afcon. No other squad in this competition has such high-level depth.
Star player: Having scored goals semi-regularly in Belgium for six years, Knowledge Musona joined Saudi Arabian club Al-Tai last year. He is the highest scorer in the squad with a goal every other game for one of the lowest-ranked teams in the tournament.
Breakout star: Having left Charlton’s academy in 2019, Jordan Zemura has now broken into the Bournemouth first team, starting 18 games at left-back this season.
UK-based players: Jordan Zemura (Bournemouth), Admiral Muskwe (Luton Town), David Moyo (Hamilton)
Best Afcon performance: Group stage (2004, 2006, 2017, 2019)
Prediction: Fifth time lucky to get past the group stage? They have a chance if they can beat Malawi and finish in third.
Star player: Things might not have gone swimmingly at Liverpool, but Naby Keita is still Guinea’s biggest star and will hope to lead a team that retains a realistic hope of surprising a few in Cameroon.
Breakout star: Ilaix Moriba gained notoriety when he scored a hattrick in the Under-19 Clasico at the age of 15, but he left Barcelona after opportunities were limited. Now at RB Leipzig – and still just 19 – he cost the German side €16m and has been compared to Paul Pogba. No pressure, kid.
UK-based players: Naby Keita (Liverpool)
Best Afcon performance: Runners-up (1976)
Prediction: A gentle group-stage draw sets up a possible last-16 tie against Mali and quarter-final tie against the hosts. Guinea believe a semi-final appearance is achievable.
Star player: Gabadinho Mhango, who was prolific in his first season for Orlando Pirates in South Africa before being moved to the fringes of the first team. He has 11 goals for the national team and is going to have to continue that form if they have any chance of making the knockout stages.
Breakout star: Charles Petro has made five Champions League appearances – all in the qualifiers – for Sheriff Tiraspol over the last two seasons, despite only turning 21 two days after Afcon ends. Usually a defender, he may play in midfield in Cameroon.
UK-based players: None
Best Afcon performance: Group stage (1984, 2010)
Prediction: The big game is against Zimbabwe, but comprehensive defeats in the other two games may mean that even a win isn’t enough to qualify from third place.
Star player: It probably would have been Hakim Ziyech, who was surprisingly omitted from the squad. Youssef En-Nesyri is a serviceable replacement, somehow still only 24 despite having 40 caps and having been a La Liga regular for more than five years. Honourable mention for Achraf Hakimi.
Breakout star: At 24, Ilias Chair is a little old for this category. But he only has seven caps, made his debut in June last year and has become one of the most exciting attacking midfielders in the Championship.
UK-based players: Romain Saiss (Wolves), Adam Masina and Imran Louza (both Watford), Ilias Chair (QPR)
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1976)
Prediction: The second highest-ranked team in the tournament, but Morocco have underperformed at recent Afcons. Anything less than a semi-final appearance may be viewed back home as a failure.
Star player: It’s probably still either or both of the Ayews, who are the top two goalscorers and appearance-makers in Ghana’s squad. Jordan has struggled for goals at Crystal Palace, but nobody doubts his industry or selflessness. This is also a massive tournament for Thomas Partey.
Breakout star: Mohammed Kudus has found opportunities hard to come by at Ajax having recovered from a serious injury but, at 21, this would be the perfect tournament for him to demonstrate his huge potential. Kamaldeen Sulemana is another player with a growing reputation.
UK-based players: Andy Yiadom and Baba Rahman (both Reading), Thomas Partey (Arsenal), Jordan Ayew (Crystal Palace), Joe Wollacott (Swindon Town), Daniel Amartey (Leicester City)
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1963, 1965, 1978, 1982)
Prediction: In one of the groups of death with Morocco and Gabon, Ghana could easily finish top or third. But a top-two finish will be needed to make a quarter-final place likely.
Star player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and no mistake. He may have been frozen out at Arsenal, but Aubameyang has scored almost half of the goals in this squad. Their hopes weigh heavy on his shoulders.
Breakout star: This tournament may come too early for Ulrick Eneme Ella, given the number of attackers in Gabon’s squad. But he’s 20, he joined Brighton in 2020 and he was a fixture in France’s youth teams from Under-16 to Under-19 level.
UK-based players: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal), Ulrick Eneme Ella (Brighton)
Best Afcon performance: Quarter-finals (1996, 2012)
Prediction: Most likely is that they finish third in the group and play Cameroon or Senegal in the last-16. And exit the tournament there.
Star player: Having spent most of his career struggling for starts and goals, El Fardou Ben Nabouhane moved to Red Star Belgrade in 2018 and hit an extended purple patch. At 32, he has scored 49 league goals in three-and-a-half seasons in Serbia.
Breakout star: Tricky, given the age profile of the squad. But Yacine Bourhane moved to Go Ahead Eagles in the Eredivisie last year and is still only 23. He only has four senior caps, though.
UK-based players: None
Best Afcon performance: Debut
Prediction: Given their rapid progress over the last five years, Comoros are optimistic they can cause a shock against Gabon and progress. Do we share that optimism? Hmmm.
Star player: George Weah’s Ballon D’Or may suggest differently, but this is probably the first time in history that Africa can claim to have the most in-form player in world football. Mohamed Salah has dismantled Premier League defences; it’s hard not to envisage him doing the same in Cameroon.
Breakout star: Omar Marmoush is not a guaranteed starter, but the Wolfsburg striker (on loan at Stuttgart) was named Young Player of the Month in the Bundesliga last September and scored on his international debut the following month.
UK-based players: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), Trezeguet (Aston Villa)
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1957, 1959, 1986, 1998, 2006, 2008, 2010)
Prediction: Anything less than a win will be deemed unacceptable. But is the depth there to service and support Salah?
Star player: Take your pick between Leicester’s pair of Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi, but it’s Ndidi who probably holds the key given the manner in which he protects the defence. The best non-Big Six player in the Premier League? Maybe.
Breakout star: Samuel Chukwueze made his Villarreal debut at the age of 19 following a move from his homeland. He is a tricky winger who loves to dribble infield with the ball and, at 22, this will be his second Afcon.
UK-based players: William Troost-Ekong (Watford), Semi Ajayi (West Brom), Alex Iwobi (Everton), Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho (both Leicester City), Joe Aribo (Rangers), Frank Onyeka (Brentford)
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1980, 1994, 2013)
Prediction: After twice failing to qualify, Nigeria reached the semi-finals in 2019. This squad aims to go at least one better, but the loss of Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis and Napoli striker Victor Osimhen. Semi-finals again.
Star player: The squad is still a provisional one and all but two of them play their football in Sudan, but Mohamed Abdelrahman is his country’s most expensive player and scored eight international goals in 2021. He’ll have to hit the ground running in Cameroon.
Breakout star: Yasin Hamed is one of those two who have moved abroad. He’s a 22-year-old forward who was born in Romania, plays in Hungary and made his debut for Sudan in 2019.
UK-based players: None
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1970)
Prediction: Having sacked their manager last month, nobody really knows what to expect from Sudan, but third place in the group is hardly an impossibility. Then you cross your fingers and hope that’s enough.
Star player: Moreto Cassama isn’t a household name, and only has 12 senior caps, but he has started 10 Ligue 1 games for Stade Reims this season and may start in central midfield alongside former Nottingham Forest and Reading midfielder Alfa Semedo.
Breakout star: Cassama is one of the youngest in the squad, but Mauro Rodrigues is a 20-year-old midfielder on the fringes of Sion’s first-team squad who may get minutes in Cameroon. Plymouth supporters rate Panutche Camara very highly too.
UK-based players: Fernandy Mendy (Alloa Athletic), Panutche Camara (Plymouth Argyle)
Best Afcon performance: Group stage (2017, 2019)
Prediction: The grudge game against Sudan may determine whether it’s a third group-stage exit in three tournaments.
Star player: Ismael Bennacer was named as the Player of the Tournament when Algerian won Afcon in 2019, but Riyad Mahrez is the superstar. He has been in wonderful form for Manchester City; replicate it and Algeria can retain their crown.
Breakout star: Algeria have an incredibly experienced squad, but Ramiz Zerrouki has started 17 of FC Twente’s Eredivisie matches this season as they push for European qualification. Born in Amsterdam, he started five of Algeria’s World Cup qualifiers.
UK-based players: Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City), Said Benrahma (West Ham)
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1990, 2019)
Prediction: Algeria will almost certainly face one of Morocco, Ghana, Egypt or Nigeria in the quarter-finals. Get through that and who knows…
Star player: Ordinarily we would have picked Milan’s Franck Kessie here. But with the Ivorians having lots of creators and far fewer goalscorers, the supreme Champions League form of Sebastien Haller is very intriguing indeed. If he performs at the same level, he could easily be Afcon’s top goalscorer
Breakout star: Ibrahim Sangare is going to be a star. The only question is which elite club realises it and pays PSV Eindhoven whatever it takes to make him part of their central midfield. Expert scouts galore at every game he plays.
UK-based players: Eric Bailly (Manchester United), Willy Boly (Wolves), Jean Michel Seri (Fulham), Maxwel Cornet (Burnley), Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal), Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
Best Afcon performance: Winners (1992, 2015)
Prediction: One of the dark horses to win this competition despite being ranked 56th in the world. Much will come down to the group game against Algeria – lose it and finish second and you probably face Senegal in the quarter-finals.
Star player: Kei Kamara is now 37, but the fifth-highest goalscorer in MLS history is still crucial to Sierra Leone’s chances of qualification. Which is pretty remarkable given that he only has seven international goals.
Breakout star: Does Steven Caulker count, given that he doesn’t yet have a cap for Sierra Leone having switched nationality from England? He does? Excellent.
UK-based players: Osman Kakay (QPR), Sullay Kaikai (Wycombe Wanderers), Idris Kanu (Peterborough United), David Sesay (Wealdstone)
Best Afcon performance: Group stage (1994, 1996)
Prediction: Hard to know, given the recent recruitment drive in Europe. If they can gel the team together, they could grab a third-place qualifier spot.
Star player: It’s probably former Middlesbrough striker Emilio Nsue, who is the captain and leading goalscorer. But he’s been without a club for several months, which gives you an idea of the uphill task Equatorial Guinea face. Pedro Obiang being ruled out through injury doesn’t help.
Breakout star: This is a squad composed almost exclusively of lower-league and ‘B’ team players, but Jesús Owono is a 20-year-old goalkeeper who has made a La Liga appearance for Alaves.
UK-based players: None
Best Afcon performance: Fourth place (2015)
Prediction: No 2015 miracles this time, I’m afraid. The defence just won’t be strong enough to keep the goal difference down enough to make a win against Sierra Leone enough to qualify.
Star player: Since leaving Sunderland as an apparent flop, Wahbi Khazri has gone on to have a brilliant career in which he seems to trend most months on Twitter for scoring an outrageous goal. He’s also scored 22 times for his national team.
Breakout star: Hannibal Mejbri has only made one league appearance for Manchester United, but he already has nine senior caps for Tunisia. Mejbri is unlikely to start many games, but he was Man of the Match twice in the recent Arab Cup and could be a game-changing substitute.
UK-based players: Omar Rekik (Arsenal), Mohamed Drager (Nottingham Forest), Hannibal Mejbri (Manchester United)
Best Afcon performance: Winners (2004)
Prediction: Ranked 30 in the world, but lost to Equatorial Guinea in qualifying and the sense is that this squad is just not as strong as Senegal, Egypt or Algeria. Decent group stage draw, though.
Star player: Forgive the anglo-centric bias, but Yves Bissouma. There are few more enjoyable things to watch in the Premier League than Bissouma gliding from one tackle to the next, controlling a midfield with every movement.
Breakout star: When Red Bull Salzburg sign a midfielder at 18, you can be sure that your club should have tried to sign him too. Mohamed Camara only became a regular this season, but he started all six of the Champions League matches. Expect the RB Leipzig links to come soon.
UK-based players: Moussa Djenepo (Southampton), Yves Bissouma (Brighton)
Best Afcon performance: Runners-up (1972)
Prediction: Should finish second in the group, which might set up a last-16 tie against Guinea. Mali will fancy themselves there.
Star player: Assan Ceesay might well score the goals, but Bologna’s Musa Barrow has the profile. He has flourished since his move from Atalanta and will aim to be Gambia’s creative force.
Breakout star: Defensive midfielder Ebrima Darboe rose through Roma’s youth system. He’s still pushing for a regular first-team place, but started three Europa Conference League group games this season and started in the Rome derby last May.
UK-based players: Ibou Touray (Salford City), Ebou Adams (Forest Green Rovers)
Best Afcon performance: Debut
Prediction: Anything is a bonus, but they finished ahead of Gabon in qualifying and hold hopes of beating Mauritania and holding one of the other two teams in the group to a draw.
Star player: Former Fulham striker Aboubakar Kamara has only scored twice for his national team, but he is the biggest name in the squad and starts regularly for Aris in the Greek Superleague.
Breakout star: Abdallahi Mahmoud is a 21-year-old midfielder currently playing for Istres 1961 in the Croatian league, on loan from Alaves. Only 21, he has made five appearances in La Liga and is the second youngest outfield player in the squad. He might well start matches too.
UK-based players: None
Best Afcon performance: Group stage (2019)
Prediction: The first game against Gambia is the big one, but they did draw against Tunisia in 2019. A repeat and they could cause an upset to make the knockouts.