From East Africa to West Africa, North Africa to the South, the world’s second largest continent is set to converge from November 19 to December 3, for the 10th Women’s Africa Cup of Nations to be staged in Cameroon for the first time.
Past editions may have seemed quite predictable, considering the stupendous supremacy of Nigeria’s Super Falcons. But that has not hampered the high expectations for ‘something new’ at this year’s tournament. The Super Falcons, even with seven trophies to their name, are not any less hungrier.
Equatorial Guinea, the only other side to have tasted continental glory (twice), were kicked out of the eight-team showdown for fielding a player with “forged or falsified documents” against Mali in the third and final round of qualifiers.
The Nzalang Nacional were further suspended from the 2018 and 2020 editions, by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), while world football governing body, FIFA compounded their misery by banning them from the 2020 Olympics.
Heavy sanctions indeed. But for a team that notoriously defied the idiom ‘once bitten twice shy’, failing to learn from the incident that disqualified them from London 2012, it should serve as ample time for them to thoroughly clear the mess.
Nevertheless, it seems we are in for a case of Nigeria against the rest of Africa in Cameroon. And only two numbers will count in the end as the giants look to grab an eighth title, while others chase a first.
As usual, there are eight teams in two groups out to overcome one another in the quest for the ultimate prize – the AFCON trophy.
Here, you will find a nation obsessed with the thought of clinching the title as hosts. And there is no better declaration of intent than organising six rounds of training camps since June 16.
In the space of over four months, the Indomitable Lionesses of Cameroon have negotiated over 10 local friendlies against both men and women club sides, before just recently going international in the final stage of their preparation. Engaging in two matches apiece against Mali, Kenya and 2016 CECAFA Women’s Champions, Tanzania, and amassing four wins, one draw and a defeat.
What’s more, Head Coach Enow Ngachu has at his disposal, the reigning Africa Women’s Player of the Year, Gaelle Enganamouit, who in spite of enduring a long spell out of action this year due to a cruciate ligament injury, recently marked her return with two goals in four games for FC Rosengard of Sweden.
The first hurdle for Cameroon comes in the shape of a banana skin. Egypt. They eliminated 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup participants, Côte d’Ivoire on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate result, to qualify for only the second time in their history and the first time in 18 years.
They may be a far cry from their male counterparts, who are the most successful team in Africa Cup of Nations history with seven titles. And they may turn out the ‘whipping boys’ of group A.
International friendlies have not gone their way too. With defeats to Zimbabwe (2-1), South Africa (3-1) and Kenya (1-0). But North Africa’s lone representatives in Cameroon are in the hunt for a first ever victory at the competition. Their first appearance in 1998 saw them lose all their group matches, scoring just two and conceding 14.
Zimbabwe are also returning after a 12-year hiatus. And coach Shadreck Mlauzi’s six months heroics will always be memorable. Within that space of time, he led the Mighty Warriors to a historic Rio Olympic qualification and capped it up with a spot at this year’s Women’s AFCON.
A bankrupt Zimbabwe Football Association meant shoddy preparations, which is so much like the peculiar tale of women’s football on the continent. However, the Mighty Warriors who would be making their fourth appearance at the tournament, followed up their victory over Egypt with a 3-0 defeat to Southern neighbours South Africa in another friendly encounter.
Unfortunately, Coach Mlauzi will have to make do without a key component of his squad, Rudo Neshamba, whom he ruled out because of a persistent knee injury. An obviously unfit Neshamba was off colour at the Rio Olympics and it is disheartening that she is yet to undergo the needed surgery that would aid full recovery. Captain Felistas Muzongondi was also left out due to injury.
To wrap up group A, is South Africa, Africa’s other representative at the Women’s Football event of this year’s Rio Games. Only last month, a former captain of the side, Desiree Ellis was appointed coach on an interim basis, following the departure of coach Vera Pauw whose contract expired at the end of the Olympics.
It was Pauw, a nominee for the Best FIFA Women’s Coach 2016, that led Banyana Banyana to 4th place in the 2014 edition, as they narrowly missed out on a place at the World Cup.
Now, under Ellis, who was Pauw’s assistant for two-and-a-half years, they have a renewed yearning for the title that has eluded them on three occasions. With a leader and defender like Janine Van Wyk rock solid at the heart of their defence, they have already dispatched two of their group opponents Egypt and Zimbabwe in tune up matches.
Here you will find the most successful team on the continent on a mission of redemption.
A lot has happened with the defending Champions since they won the last edition in 2014; from a disappointing World Cup campaign in 2015, to a more disappointing All Africa Games showing and worst of all, failing to qualify for the Olympics. Again.
Hence the need to mend broken hearts by reaffirming their status as number one, amidst talks that other teams are catching up.
Former captain Florence Omagbemi was in February this year, appointed in acting capacity, to replace erstwhile interim coach Christopher Danjuma who was sacked after he failed to win a medal at the All African Games in Brazzaville in September 2015.
Since qualifying for their 10th Women’s AFCON appearance with a 3-1 aggregate victory over Senegal in April, Nigeria’s players were only called to camp last month. The Super Falcons have gone on to play local friendlies against both men and women’s club sides (two wins, two draws and one defeat).
There were no international warm up matches organised for the defending Champions. The Nigeria Football Federation is broke (that’s the famous excuse). But that will not deter them from going for the kill. Coach Omagbemi can boast of quality in a squad that parades the highest goal scorer (Desire Oparanozie) and Most Valuable Player (Asisat Oshoala) of the last edition held in Namibia.
Meanwhile Ghana called off international friendlies against Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa, stating financial reasons too. This means, the Black Queens will have to hold on to whatever the could salvage from the 11-0 humiliation suffered by the hands of Germany before the Olympics – their biggest defeat yet. The final stage of their Women’s AFCON preparation has seen them play select sides in local friendlies.
Yusif Basigi’s charges claimed gold in the All Africa Games last September and will be looking to at least make the semi-finals of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2006.
The third West African team in Group B is Mali, who benefited from Equatorial Guinea’s disqualification. As a matter of fact, it was their protest to CAF that triggered the investigation of the culprit.
In their build up, they played Cameroon twice, losing 1-0 and drawing 0-0.
Moving on to the newbies of the tournament, Kenya. Head coach David Ouma, in a recent interview with CAFOnline.com, disclosed that their target is to reach the semi-finals.
Realistic? To do so, they will need to finish first or second in a group that has Nigeria and Ghana as outright favourites. They will need to cause upsets.
The Harambee Starlets have however shown they can be daring, with the way they beat Algeria on the away goal rule to book a ticket to Cameroon. And they have had a rigorous preparation to back it up.
In August, Kenya featured in the COTIF Invitational Tournament in Spain where they finished fourth, recording wins against Portuguese champions Benfica and Spanish side Espanyol in the process.
They went on to finish as runner-up of the CECAFA Women’s Championship after Tanzania beat them 2-1 before travelling to Morocco for a 10-day training camp, where they emerged victorious in two friendly matches against local clubs.
They have also defeated Egypt 1-0 in Nairobi and lost 3-1 to Cameroon over two legs.
However, forward Neddy Atieno, who has gone on to join the military, is one key player they will miss at the tournament.