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Mauritania, Algeria, Ghana and Onana: The Stories of AFCON 24 So Far

Mauritania, Algeria, Ghana and Onana: The Stories of AFCON 24 So Far

The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2024 is currently underway since January 13th. This year’s tournament has been hosted in Ivory Coast.

This race of 24 sides pushing for the honor of being crowned Africa’s No.1 national team has been nothing short of exhilarating. From stunning upsets to last-minute heroics, AFCON 2024 has showcased the very best of African football.

Before the round of 16 kicks off on January 27, 2024, let’s take a moment to reflect on some memorable moments from AFCON 2024.

AFCON trophy

Mauritania’s fairytale rise

Mauritania took everyone by surprise in AFCON 24 as they marked a historical event for themselves by registering their debut AFCON win. Mauritania had never even led in any of its previous eight continental matches, let alone secured a victory.

On Wednesday, Mohamed Dellah Yaly’s goal was enough to fetch them all the points in a hard-fought but ultimately deserved 1-0 victory over the 2019 champions Algeria.

Mauritania have not only registered their maiden win but have also marked a place in the knockout phase for the first time in their history as one of the four best third-placed teams.

Mauritania’s journey to this unprecedented success is not a sudden fruit but can be traced back to years of strategic planning and commitment.

The nation, with a population of around 4.6 million, faced a challenging football history. Between 1995 and 2003, they did not win a single match in 18 years. Such was the distress that in 2010, financial crises led to their withdrawal from AFCON qualifiers.

Mauritania players celebrate after winning against Algeria
Mauritania players celebrate after winning against Algeria

The turning point came in 2011 when Ahmed Ould Yahya assumed leadership of the Mauritania Football Association. Up until then, the Mauritanian team was ranked 207th in the FIFA ranking. However, under his guidance, the football landscape began to transform.

Yahya’s emphasis on youth development saw the establishment of a youth league and the requirement for league clubs to field underage teams and fostering talent from the grassroots. Securing sponsorship from the country’s largest telecommunications company for the top-flight league, Super D 1, was also pivotal to alleviated financial burdens on clubs.

Hopes started to flicker when Mauritania registered their first away win in history, beating Liberia in 2014. In 2015, wisely utilizing the €10 million FIFA Goal Project fund, Mauritania renovated their national stadium, built a modern headquarters, and established a state-of-the-art training complex inspired by the renowned Clairefontaine facility in France. This investment into a youth development program was rewarded when Mauritania rose to their highest FIFA ranking of 81 in July 2017.

In 2019, Mauritania qualified for their first-ever AFCON tournament before qualifying for 2021 for the second time. Though they ended the tournament at the bottom of the groups, it set the stage for future successes. In 2023, they again qualified for the third time for the current tournament.

And now they are through in AFCON 2024 into the next stage. As Mauritania braces for a challenging round of 16 encounter against Cape Verde, we are witnessing them reap the rewards for their hard-earned labor through decades.

Algeria’s shattered dreams

While we celebrate Mauritania’s triumph, we can’t help but feel for Algeria’s mighty downfall.

It is hard to believe that this team was crowned the African champions just two editions ago. In AFCON 2024, Algeria has been the shadow of its past. They have been eliminated from the group stages itself, and that too, at the bottom of the group.

It has been quite some time now that Algeria has been struggling on the field. Sure, their FIFA rank upgraded to 30 in December 2023, but their pitch-side story is a different tale. The team did raise some eyebrows in the 2022 AFCON tournament itself when the defending champions registered just one point and were eliminated from the group stage as the worst team in the group.

They were also denied qualification for the 2022 World Cup as well after losing 2-1 to Cameroon in a playoff match in March 2022. The North Africans won the first leg 1-0 in Cameroon, but Cameroon pulled off a 2-1 victory in Algeria after extra time to advance on the away goals rule.

Since then, they have had quiet some time to rethink their strategies. Led by coach Djamel Belmadi, Algeria entered the 2024 tournament with high expectations, boasting a star-studded lineup.

However, Algeria found itself facing a disheartening déjà vu as they faced a group stage elimination this time as well.

Having drawn their first two group matches against Angola and Burkina Faso, Belmadi’s team had a chance at redemption against Mauritania in Bouaké. Even a draw could have sealed the deal for them.

However, coming into this match, it was the underdogs Mauritania who showed greater intent from the get-go. Even though Algeria partly dominated the match, it was without success. They seemed both uncoordinated and feverish. Unfortunately, Algeria fell short that sealed their fate at the bottom of the group. They have registered only 2 points along the way.

Algeria will again have to regroup and rise from their ashes. Maybe quite a few hard decisions have to be made along the way as well.

In fact, Belmadi made headlines for his comments even before the start of the African spectacle. While discussing the favorites for the Africa Cup of Nations, the 47-year-old snubbed his own team, naming sides like Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, and hosts Ivory Coast as the nations to watch.

It did raise some eyebrows among social media users. Did Algeria lose the mental battle and start to consider themselves unworthy even before the start? If you think about it, it is kind of outrageous how a team that boasts names such as Riyad Mahrez, Baghdad Bounedjah, Ismael Bennacer, and Ramy Bensebaini, all proven global superstars, can be knocked out by Mauritania. But all we can do now is ponder about the loss of Algeria’s golden generation. In the end, it is what it is.

Mohammed Kudus is lost for words-

Speaking of AFCON heartbreaks, you can add Ghana to that list as well.

Chris Hughton’s side was all poised to secure a 2-0 victory against Mozambique and advance to the knockout stage of Ghana’s journey. However, things took an unexpected turn in the final minute of regulation time, leaving fans and players alike in disbelief.

Defensive lapses have haunted Ghana throughout the season and have now left Ghana on the brink of elimination. Crystal Palace forward Jordan Ayew‘s two penalties had initially set Ghana on course for victory. However, the Mambas staged a remarkable comeback in stoppage time, snatching a 2-2 draw from the jaws of defeat. A 91st-minute Geny Catamo spot-kick accompanied by Reinildo Mandava’s header shattered their dreams of progression.

With two draws and a defeat, Ghana concluded their group-stage journey in third place with a meager two points. While a mathematical chance at progressing to the knockout stage still remained based on results from other matches, Cameroon’s Thursday win over Gambia completely sealed their elimination.

The Ghanaian players were left shell-shocked after the match. Most visible was the dejected West Ham star Mohammed Kudus, who could barely speak in a post-match interview. Speaking to GTV Sports+, the attacking midfielder was at a loss for words for quite a few seconds at the start of the interview.

Eventually, he was able to muster together a sentence, saying: ”I’m out of words… I don’t know what to say, man. Thanks to the fans for their support, you know.”

Kudus was then informed that the fans had voted him as the Man of the Match – but understandably wasn’t so enthusiastic in his response.

After letting out a sigh, he still managed to show his appreciation despite the disappointment written on his face, saying: ‘Thank you everyone for the votes, thank you, thank you.’

Seeing his face, you can’t help but sympathize with him. Ghana’s six-match wait for victory across the past two editions is the worst run in the West African nation’s history. The Black Stars were also ejected from the opening stage in 2021 when they took just one point from their three pool fixtures. Monday’s exit marked the first time that Ghana has suffered a group-stage exit in two consecutive editions of the AFCON.

However, West Ham fans won’t mind Ghana’s early exit. With their next league schedule against Bournemouth on February 1, they would hope their star winger gets back as soon as possible.

Onana’s nightmares continues

Andre Onana is going through a nightmare recently, as AFCON is not ready to grant him any favors. The United goalkeeper made headlines even before he could join his international squad.

Onana was the latest to join the AFCON side as he was reluctant to rather play in United’s FA Cup game against Wigan Athletic and the league game against Tottenham Hotspur. Even though he was granted permission, criticisms of disrespecting the national side became a topic of discussion among fans.

Even in his journey to Ivory Coast, he was granted no rest. The goalkeeper was stuck for quiet some time at the Abidjan airport due to bad weather. Having had no participation in Cameroon’s pre-tournament preparations and arriving late for the tournament, the goalkeeper missed the opening game. His position was instead replaced by his cousin, Fabrice Ondoa, who played the entire 1-1 draw against Zambia.

The 27-year-old returned to the starting XI for Cameroon’s second game against Senegal. But Onana would rather try to forget that match. Cameroon ended the match 3-1 against the five-time champions, and Onana has been one again held accountable for his subpar performance and error-strewn display.

Senegal opened the scoresheet through Ismaila Sarr after just 16 minutes, owing to Onana’s first mistake. His punch was without direction as it fell directly to the opposition, leading to the goal. Later, they went ahead to double the scoreline as Onana looked completely hapless for their strikes in the second half. You’d expect a big name like Onana to at least save a low-range shots near his own post. However, that was not the case. He was way too slow to stop the shot rom Sadio Mané resulting in Senegal’s third.

But that 90 minutes were not the end to Onana’s miseries. Cameroon’s head manager, Rigobert Song, completely dropped Onana from the starting lineup in Cameroon’s Group C decider against Gambia in Bouaké on Tuesday.

Song rather decided to go for Fabrice Ondoa once again. And we can’t even go ahead and criticize the manager as Cameroon did come out of the match with all three points. In a dramatic decider, Cameroon scored twice in the dying minutes to win 3-2 and book a ticket for the AFCON knockout stage.

It is well known that Onana has a long-time feud with Cameroon’s president of the Cameroonian Football Federation – Samuel Eto’o. Now, it is reported that being dropped from the squad has led to a fallout with the head manager as well.

Cameroon is scheduled to face off against Nigeria in the round of 16 stages on 28th Jan. It will be intriguing to see who starts under the post for Rigobert Song. But as it stands, things are not looking promising for Onana.