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AFCON 2023: The Year of the Dark Horse

By Samuel Egyir-Hagan, Pan-Africa Football contributor

The knockout stages- The business end of any football tournament. The journey from the Round of 16 to the quarterfinals has been intense. Moments of joy and heartbreak alike, heroes and villains emerging from the penalty spot in shootouts and during the game, and many more scenarios are playing out in a tournament that seems predictable but still finds a way to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.

The group stages of AFCON 2023 sprung surprises such as early exits for powerhouses Algeria, Tunisia and Ghana. There was also an elimination scare for hosts, Ivory Coast, who despite playing on the first day of round three had to wait to the last day to confirm a place in the R16. There were also brilliant underdog stories, as Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, Angola all topped their groups while Namibia and Mauritania made it past the group stages for the first time ever, which saw 34-year-old Emilio Nsue leading the goals chart after three games. These dark horses are rewriting African football history, and look poised to continue till they clinch the ultimate prize.

A nightmare 2023 Africa Cup of Nations for North African nations saw Algeria and Tunisia eliminated at the group stage at the hands of Mauritania and South Africa

The case of an underdog pulling off a fairytale seems on with the quarterfinals approaching. Four out of the eight teams in the quarterfinals are yet to win the AFCON and despite the presence of previous winners such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast, it is not far-fetched to think that a new name will be added to the exclusive hall of fame in emulation of Zambia’s effort in 2012 under Herve Renard.

With the term ‘Dark Horse’ attributed to a nation’s most recent form measured against public opinions on chances of winning the title, it is safe to say that Angola, Cape Verde, Mali and Guinea fit the description considering they have never won the competition before. South Africa, competing with a squad of mostly home-based players, and DR Congo who are yet to taste victory since the country’s change of name from Zaire, complete the list of dark horses remaining in the tournament.

South Africa and Mamelodi Sundowns midfielder Teboho Mokoena is leading the charge for a Bafana Bafana team that is leaning heavily on Sundowns players for success

Survive and advance: Despite drawing all their matches so far in Ivory Coast, DR Congo are through to the quarterfinals following a scrappy victory over Egypt in a penalty kick shootout

On the left side of the bracket, Angola, having trashed Namibia in the first knockout round will meet Nigeria who dispatched Cameroon in the earlier round. The Angolans are poised to reach a first semi-final, and fancy their chances against a Nigerian side whose maturity in defence and attack has been top-notch. Having already been rewarded for a brilliant group stage and R16 performance with phones and cash, ‘Palancas Negras’ will hope for an all-round team performance spearheaded by star men Gelson Dala and Mabululu.

In the same way Cape Verde, thanks to a late penalty by captain Ryan Mendes against Mauritania, face off against team of the moment South Africa who shocked 2022 World Cup semi-finalists Morocco by two goals to nil. Considered unlikely to make an impact at the start of the AFCON, these teams are defying the odds and unfortunately one will meet their end in Saturday’s clash.

In an excellent tournament for Africa’s Lusophone nations, Angola and Cape Verde are ready to upset the odds again in the quarterfinals

Now to the right side of the draw. A determined Mali will hope to rise above home support as they face hosts Ivory Coast in the last eight stage. Despite a rallying win against reigning champions, Senegal, Ivory Coast should be wary as their fellow West Africans have never tasted the ultimate victory with one occasion where they came close with a runner-up finish in 1972. AFCON 2023 looks like the edition where the chain will be broken and the throne is vacant for the taking.

Hosts Ivory Coast clash with Mali in an all-West African duel from which the champion could emerge

The other tie on the right side sees DR Congo side play Guinea. DR Congo are chasing a first title since 1974 when the Leopards were competing as Zaire. They will be wary of Guinea, who despite producing great players such as Ismaël Bangoura, Titi Camara and Pascal Feindouno have never won the AFCON.

DR Congo last won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1974 when the nation was known as Zaire

AFCON 2023 has shown that no team should be written off and as the knockout stages roll out, Dark Horses at this edition have an excellent opportunity to replicate Zambia’s unlikely run in 2012. There’s a 100% possibility of a team that has never won reaching the final as well as a 50% chance of a first-time winner. Players from the nations mentioned can look forward to an occasion they once dreamed of and have a chance to write their names into national history. Despite the presence of some of Africa’s traditional footballing powers, it is always beautiful to see an underdog win such a prestigious competition.

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