Football Features

Afcon 2019: Five things to know about expanded 24-team tournament

By Steve Jennings

Published: 13:03, 20 June 2019

Think you’ve had your fill of tournament football? Well think again, because the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations is just around the corner.

It all kicks off on Friday when host nation Egypt take on Zimbabwe in Group A.

With the UEFA Nations League finals, the Women’s World Cup group stages and the start of the Under-21 European Championships keeping our minds preoccupied, some may not know much about the Afcon going into the tournament.

So what might you need to know as Africa’s best battle for glory? We’ve got you covered.

1. Tournament format

For the first time ever, the Afcon has grown from 16 to 24 nations.

That means there will be six groups of four teams, with the top two from each group automatically qualifying for the knockout stages. The groups are as follows:

Group A: DR Congo, Egypt, Uganda, Zimbabwe
Group B: Burundi, Guinea, Madagascar, Nigeria
Group C: Algeria, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania
Group D: Ivory Coast, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa
Group E: Angola, Mali, Mauritania, Tunisia
Group F: Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau

Much like the Women’s World Cup, the four best third-placed teams will also go into the last 16. These are decided by points totals. If they can’t be separated then goal difference will come into the equation, followed by goals scored, disciplinary points and, if required, drawing lots.

So we now know how the nations will qualify for the knockout stages. But how will the Round-of-16 fixtures be determined? Much of it comes down to which third-place teams qualify, but here’s a general breakdown:

Game 1. Runner-up Group A v Runner-up Group C
Game 2. Winner Group D v Third Group B/E/F
Game 3. Winner Group B v Third Group A/C/D
Game 4. Winner Group F v Runner-up Group E
Game 5. Winner Group E v Runner-up Group D
Game 6. Winner Group C v Third Group A/B/F
Game 7. Runner-up Group B v Runner-up Group F
Game 8. Winner Group A v Third Group C/D/E

For the quarter-finals, the winner of Game 1 will meet the winner of Game 2, the winner of Game 3 will meet the winner of Game 4, and so forth. The victor from the four teams in Game 1 and Game 2 will play the victor from the four teams in Game 3 and Game 4 in the semi-finals etc.

The final will take place at the Cairo International Stadium on July 19th.

2. Who are the top five favourites?

Host nation Egypt are the favourites to win the competition. They have lifted the Afcon trophy seven times, more than any other nation, most recently winning it in 2010. They lost in the final last time out in 2017, but Mohamed Salah’s growth since then could see them go all the way this time around.

Senegal are also among the teams being tipped to take home the trophy. They have never won it before, but like Egypt they possess an in-form Liverpool attacker, Sadio Mane, who could inspire his country to success in Egypt.

Next up it’s Nigeria, who have won the trophy three times in the past, coming at least third on seven occasions making them arguably the competition’s most consistent nation. Captain and former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel will look to lead his team to glory.

Or perhaps it’s time for Ghana to replicate their Afcon successes of old. They’ve won it four times but not since 1982, reaching the final in 2010 and 2015 but falling at the last hurdle.

Ivory Coast are the final nation on our list of favourites. They last won the competition in 2015, their second bout of Afcon glory. Do Ibrahim Kamara’s side have enough to make it three in 2019?

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3. Will VAR be used?

VAR has been a major talking point in one African nation this week. Nigeria were desperately unlucky to fall foul of the video assistant referee system at the Women’s World Cup when France were allowed to re-take a missed penalty.

Nigeria goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie was adjudged to have moved off her line a matter of inches before the initial spot-kick was taken.

Such situations will not occur in the 2019 Afcon group stages. That’s because VAR will not be introduced until the quarter-finals of the competition.

The Egyptian FA made the announcement back in January, so the teams have known for some time about when VAR will be used. Many of the smaller competing nations play in leagues that don’t use VAR anyway.

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4. Who are the Afcon debutants?

The favourites to win the competition alluded to above have all taken part in the Africa Cup of Nations a number of times in the past.

But because of the competition’s expansion from 16 to 24 teams, more countries than usual were given the chance to qualify for the very first time – and three did exactly that.

Madagascar, Mauritania and Burundi will all compete in their first ever Afcon this year, which will surely result in some emotional scenes in Egypt.

Six of the nations taking part this year are outside of the top 100 in FIFA’s world rankings, so for some just reaching the finals is quite an achievement.

5. Five players to look out for

Two of the players who shared the Premier League Golden Boot in 2018/19 – Salah and Mane – will obviously get a lot of attention going into the Afcon, but another star from the English top-flight deserves some of the limelight. Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi will anchor the Nigeria midfield, aiming to replicate his fine displays for the Foxes.

Wilfried Zaha will also be looking to take his Premier League form into the international calendar. The Crystal Palace winger reached double figures in terms of goals for the first time this season. He will have to perform if Ivory Coast are to go far, and with that in mind the 26-year-old could be a dark horse for the Golden Boot.

Another player who enjoyed his best ever goalscoring campaign in 2018/19 was Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech. The extraordinary Moroccan, who is being linked with a move to some of Europe’s biggest clubs, hit 21 goals across all competitions and will want to build on his impressive record for his country; Ziyech has found the net 14 times in 25 matches for Morocco.

Meanwhile, Nicolas Pepe has been earning plaudits in France after firing Lille to a second-placed finish in Ligue 1. The firepower Ivory Coast possess with him and Zaha in the side is frightening, and Pepe could attract further interest from the likes of Manchester United if he shines in Egypt.

Finally, Real Madrid youngster Achraf Hakimi, who is currently in the middle of a two-year loan at Borussia Dortmund, is another to keep an eye on for Morocco. It’s never certain where the 20-year-old will pop up; he can play on either side of the defence or at centre-back. But the Afcon will be another test of his ability to make it as an elite player.