Football Features

Eight exciting players + stories from Africa Cup of Nations 2023

By Harry Edwards

Published: 10:22, 12 February 2024

Well there we have it. The 2023 Africa Cup of Nations is over, and what a tournament it was.

It had everything you could possibly want from a football tournament, with goals, fantastic performances, drama and so much more.

Ivory Coast were crowned champions of Africa for the third time in their history, claiming the trophy as hosts of the tournament in front of a raucous home crowd. But rather than be sad that the tournament is over, let’s remember the good times of AFCON 2023.

We’ve rounded up the best stories, and some key players, from the tournament below.

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Ivory Coast’s historic win

There’s no other place to start.

It looked as though the host’s tournament would be over after just three games, as they managed just one win in the group stage. The final nail in the coffin was a 4-0 trashing at the hands of Equatorial Guinea, condemning Ivory Coast to third.

As a result, manager Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked. But thanks to Ghana’s capitulation in their 2-2 draw with Mozambique, as well as Zambia losing their final game, Ivory Coast scraped through to the last 16 as the fourth-best third-placed team. Then it all became about Ivory Coast’s resolve.

They knocked out defending champions Senegal on penalties, having equalised in the 86th minute. In the quarter-finals, there was a 90th-minute equaliser and 120th-minute winner against Mali, as Ivory Coast looked so close to bowing out.

In the semi-finals, Sebastian Haller scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over DR Congo and the Borussia Dortmund striker netted the winner against Nigeria in the final, after Franck Kessie had equalised following William Troost-Ekong’s opener. A win from behind, it perfectly summed up Ivory Coast’s tournament as they became the first host nation to win the Africa Cup of Nations since Egypt in 2006.

Remarkably, Kessie was the first Ivorian to score in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, as their previous two wins in 1992 and 2015 came on penalties after goalless draws — both against Ghana.

Simon Adingra

Simon Adingra has been a bright spark for Brighton in the Premier League this season, scoring four goals and providing one assists, including a goal against Liverpool in October. But this was the tournament in which he made his name known.

The 22-year-old had played just five times for Ivory Coast before the Africa Cup of Nations, doubling his tally of caps at the tournament. His first three appearances came as a substitute, and it was Adingra who scored the 90th-minute equaliser against Mali to take the game to extra-time.

That earned Adingra his first start of the tournament against DR Congo, before a second in the final vs Nigeria. And there he made a telling contribution. Adingra assisted both of Ivory Coast’s in the final, having ran Ola Aina ragged, particularly for the winner before putting a lovely cross into the box for Haller. In the final, he won nine duels, created six chances, completed five take-ons and had eight touches in the opposition box, leading the game for a number of metrics.

Ronwen Williams

Another star name of the tournament was Ronwen Williams, who helped South Africa achieve a bronze medal, beating DR Congo in the third place play-off. This was a great tournament for goalkeepers, with Nigeria’s Stanley Nwabili also starring, but Williams will leave with the headlines.

In his seven games at AFCON, Williams kept five clean sheets. The only players to score past Williams were Hamari Traore, Lassine Sinayoko and William Troost-Ekong, with two of those being penalties. But it was on penalties that Williams shone.

He saved an incredible seven penalties in shootouts at the tournament, including four of the five he faced as South Africa knocked out Cape Verde in the quarter-finals. In match play, Williams made a total of 20 saves, and will surely go down in history as an AFCON cult icon.

Cape Verde’s historic run

Talking of Cape Verde, what a run they went on this year.

Taking part in the Africa Cup of Nations for just the fourth time, Cape Verde had only failed to get out of the group once — when they drew all three matches in 2015. In their debut tournament, Cape Verde reached the quarter-finals, and they were knocked out at the last 16 in 2021. But this year was different.

For the first time ever, Cape Verde won their Africa Cup of Nations group. They opened with a 2-1 win over Ghana, sealed by Garry Rodrigues’ winner in the second minute of injury time. They then beat Mozambique, before rounding off an unbeaten group stage with a 2-2 draw against Cape Verde — again courtesy of an injury-time goal.

That set Cape Verde up for a last 16 tie against Mauritania, and they got through that thanks to Ryan Mendes’ late penalty. The dream would end at the quarter-finals, in that now-famous penalty shootout against South Africa which finished just 2-1. Still, it was a tournament to remember, and one upon which Cape Verde will hope they can build.

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Last 16 curse

The World Cup has the group stage curse for its holders. For AFCON, it’s the last 16.

Senegal were defending champions, having lifted the trophy two years ago, and they topped their group with a perfect record. It was a comfortable group too, with a 3-0 win over Gambia, 3-1 against Cameroon and 2-0 vs Guinea. That set them up with a last 16 tie against group stage strugglers Ivory Coast. Surely they’d have no problems.

The game started brightly for Senegal and they were 1-0 up after just four minutes through Habib Diallo, holding onto the lead for 82 minutes. But Kessie equalised for Ivory Coast and Senegal eventually went out on penalties.

The defeat continued what is a pretty interesting run. In each of the past seven Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, the defending champions have failed to reach the quarter-final stage.

But, Senegal are far from the worst defending champions in that run, with Egypt (who were affected by the 2011 Egyptian revolution) failing to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. Nigeria also failed to qualify in 2015, Zambia fell at the group stage in 2013, as did Ivory Coast in 2017 and Algeria in 2021, while Cameroon at least reached the last 16 in 2019.

Algeria’s poor period continues

2019 was a year of celebration for Algeria, as they ended a 29-year wait for their second Africa Cup of Nations title.

In 2019, the Fennec Foxes went perfect in the group stage without conceding a goal, and only conceded twice in the tournament as a whole — winning six of their seven games, with the other being a penalty-shootout victory over Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals.

But their 1-0 win over Senegal in the final was the last time Algeria have tasted success at the Africa Cup of Nations. As mentioned, as defending champions in 2021, Algeria bowed out at the group stage — and they did so with just one point from their three games, secured in a draw against Sierra Leone. They finished bottom of their group, and it was a similar story this time around. Although they managed two draws alongside a loss to Mauritania, Algeria still finished bottom of their group, with the final defeat costing them a spot in the last 16 when a draw would have been enough.

What next for Algeria?

Emilio Nsue a throwback Golden Boot winner

English fans of a certain vintage will remember Emilio Nsue’s spell in the country, with Middlesbrough and Birmingham. Mostly in the Championship, Nsue did play four games for Boro in the Premier League, before being sold to Birmingham. Across over 100 appearances for both clubs, Nsue scored three goals, which he would because he was a right-back.

But, now 34, Nsue isn’t a stranger to playing further up the pitch and sometimes leads the line for Spanish club Intercity where he currently plies his trade. It’s the same story for Equatorial Guinea, and Nsue led the line with experience and expertise, grabbing himself the Golden Boot at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Nsue scored five goals in four games, with all of his strikes coming in the group stage. There was a hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Guinea-Bissau, the becoming the oldest player to do so in Africa Cup of Nations history. He then scored a brace in the 4-0 win over Ivory Coast in Equatorial Guinea’s final group game as they secured top spot.

Mostafa Mohamed carries Egypt

Everyone expected Mohamed Salah to shine for Egypt at this year’s tournament, but he wasn’t as influential in his appearances before falling to injury. But Mostafa Mohamed stepped up.

The 26-year-old, who plies his trade in Ligue 1 with Nates, scored in all three of Egypt’s group stage games to help them secure third spot. He opened the scoring against Mozambique — a draw secured by Salah’s late penalty — before equalising against Ghana and netting vs Cape Verde, which many thought was the winner.

Mohamed also scored in the last 16 tie against DR Congo, from the penalty spot, but did miss in the shootout as Egypt bowed out.