AFCON Preview: Salim Said Q&A

At The Offside Rule Podcast, we’ll be previewing the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations tournament every day this week, right here on our website.

Today we speak to Editor-in-Chief of African football website Sandals4Goalposts about the effect of moving the tournament so late in the day, big blows for Senegal and who his new favourites are.

Obviously, the host nation has changed and Equatorial Guinea isn’t exactly well-known on the landscape of international football. What kind of tournament can we expect and how prepared is the nation for AFCON 2015?

SS: Given Morocco essentially cancelled at the last minute, and taking the context into consideration, I guess Equatorial Guinea as are prepared as an African nation could be. Conditions probably won’t be to the high standard that some of the teams are accustomed to, so I do foresee a lot of complaints in the coming weeks about facilities and logistics.

I don’t think it will be a great spectacle from the stands – expect a lot of empty seats, even at Equatorial Guinea games. When they co-hosted in 2012, they didn’t manage to fill the stadium even in their quarter-final against a star-studded Ivory Coast team.

Despite being 120th in the rankings, could the hosts spring any surprises and should we watch out for any home nation player making a name for themselves?

SS: I think they can spring a surprise. They have quite a few unknown, technically adept young players strutting their stuff in Spanish B teams and some solid players. Conversely, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them exit early. Their preparation has been shambolic. But it was shambolic last time too…No precious talents in the team, closest thing is Felipe Ovono, the 19-year-old No.1, and perhaps Kike of Mallorca B.

You mentioned on Twitter Senegal had been your favourites before Sadio Mane pulled out. How much of a blow is his injury?

SS: I had been pondering over naming them as my favourites but I’m not so sure now!

It is a massive blow. It seems there has been an improvement with his fitness, enough for him to be named in the full squad, but there is a chance Senegal coach Alain Giresse could exercise the option of replacing on him on the final cut-off point of 48 hours before the tournament starts.

Senegal are blessed with a collection of good-very good strikers, but a severe weaknesses over the last few years has been creating chances for those strikers against well-drilled opposition.

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Though they still struggle to build play from deep, the emergence of Sadio Mane in the attacking third has gone some way to solving the creativity in the attacking third. When they’re struggling to create anything, he has that little bit of magic required to unlock stubborn defences.

Who’s the favourite now in your opinion? Can Zambia spring a surprise again, will someone else surprise or will it be one of the heavy-hitters?

SS: Logically, the favourites are Algeria. They have carried forward the momentum they gained from the World Cup so have the confidence. Tactically, they have a very cohesive attack and they’re generally well-balanced. They’re probably also take a large travelling support. I don’t think they’re outstanding favourites – Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Tunisia and a few others could all beat them on any given day.

The top half of the draw is significantly easier so there is room for dark horse to emerge. I really like both Gabon and Tunisia. Both finished qualifying unbeaten and won their groups. Gabon are raw, promising generation coming through – they won Afcon Under-23 back in 2011 – but they will need Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to be at his very best if they are to go on a run. Tunisia have Yassine Chikhaoui and Ferjani Sassi, two of the most eye-catching players at the tournament, and are the most ‘tactically fascinating’ team in tournament. They can play different formations and their 3-5-2 could tactically nauseate teams.

The landscape of African football appears to have changed somewhat since people in my generation grew up watching Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa rule in terms of World Cup qualification. Now we have Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria and Zambia, why do you think things have changed so much?

Part of this is that football is cyclical. I’m sure the landscape in 10-20 years will also be very different. (I hope so anyway – would be great to see my beloved Tanzania win AFCON.) That truism is particularly applicable to countries like Cameroon and Senegal, both of them have population sizes of less than 20 million, so the talent pool to be at the very top in Africa isn’t always there. As for Nigeria and South Africa, they have huge resources and population sizes so I believe they should always be up there but, amongst other things, there are infrastructural, grassroots problems which have held their development back.

Another reason is that other, “non-elite” African countries are catching up all the time. The likes of Burkina Faso and Cape Verde, for example, have developed very well over the last few years. The former failed to make the World Cup because they lost their play-off to Algeria on away goals while the later were ranked 182nd in the world in 2000 but were unfortunate not to make the World Cup.

The four you mention have emerged for various reasons. Algeria have been able to benefit from French-born players of Algerian descent. There were fears that they’d essentially become a France B team but they’ve been able to attract some good players like Sofiane Feghouli, Nabil Bentaleb and Yacine Brahimi.

With Ivory Coast, the driving force has been the footballers produced at the ASEC Mimosas academy from the mid 1990s. The academy was way ahead of its time and produced the Toure brothers, Emmanuel Eboue, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora and so many others in the squad. Likewise, Ghana’s youth football infrastructure is pretty good by African standards and they’ve managed to piece together good players for youth tournaments and kept them together.

As for Zambia, it was patient, long-term planning, sticking with the same core of players over a series of tournaments and getting a little bit lucky (they won the weakest Afcon in years). It was a feel-good story due to the backstory but, as they have gone on to show, it was more one-hit wonder than sustained success.

Egypt have had great success in the AFCON but along with Nigeria they haven’t made it. African football at least sounds incredibly unpredictable?

SS: It is very unpredictable. Uganda, for example, haven’t qualified for a major tournament since 1978. Yet, until Togo beat them last October, they hadn’t lost a competitive home game in 10 years. A month after that Togo defeat they beat Ghana. Nearly every team can now call on European-based players, or a couple of players playing at a good standard, so the quality to hurt big teams is, generally, always there.

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Throw in the fact that AFCON qualification is only 6 games, the pressure is on if you drop points – especially at home, as it puts pressure on your away games – where, as Nigeria will tell you after their 1-0 defeat to Sudan, awkward conditions (bumpy pitch in their case) can await you.

In fairness to Egypt, this is the third consecutive Afcon they’ve failed to qualify for. Politically they’re going through an unstable time and that has severely affected their domestic league, not to mention that the core of the golden generation of the 2000s have now retired.

Finally, stick your neck on the line. Tournament winner?

SS: I will go for Algeria but the favourites never tend to win these tournaments…


You can follow Salim on Twitter @salimosaid

View our other AFCON 2015 previews right here!

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