By Jacob Ajom
The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations has turned out to be like no other before it. The tournament which suffered postponements and was badly affected by the ravaging Covid-19 pandemic has no doubt produced stunning results that have repositioned African football and left everyone here wondering at the fall of heavyweights and the rise of minnows.
Debutants likeComoros and The Gambia have performed so well that they are in the Round of 16. For the records, The Gambia defeated the erstwhile defending champions Algeria in their Group opener while Comoros also sent out four-time champions, the Black Stars of Ghana.
Other countries like Malawi, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, who, though did not win a match, gave a good account of themselves. Cameroon 2021 Afcon has been a huge success so far and the standard of play and organisation will definitely put detractors of Africa to shame. And for those who think, Afcon was a small competition, may have to do a rethink, when they see what is going on in Cameroon.
The Round of sixteen pairings have thrown up some fantastic fixtures which could still produce upsets.
All eyes are on the Super Eagles as the knockout stage begins today.
Nigeria vs Tunisia : We don’t want to go home yet – Eguavoen
Kick off 8 pm
This, perhaps, is the toughest fixture in the Round of 16. The Super Eagles and the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia are not new customers, indeed, in football parlance, they are familiar foes.
This encounter will be the 21st time they will be meeting. Out of the 20 previous meets, the last being an international friendly in Austria, they have recorded 7 victories apiece with 6 draws.
Today will be different. It’s not friendly, it is an encounter that will define the destinies of many and reshape their future.
Nigeria coach, Austin Eguavoen, has said the Tunisians are not new to him. In 2006, he led the Eagles, as coach, to defeat them in the quarter finals. It was a tough encounter that ended 1-1 in regulation time. But the Super Eagles prevailed through penalties, after the result remained the same at the end of extra time. The Nigerians again prevailed over their north African counterparts in Egypt 2019 AFCON after Agahowa’s early strike earned Nigeria a third place finish and a bronze medal.
Eguavoen said, “we know them, we respect them but we are prepared for them. We know how important this match is to us. From this stage, a loss will send you home and we don’t want to go home yet.”
Since the commencement of the tournament here in Cameroon, the Nigerian team has been on a roller-coaster ride. They are the only team to have earned maximum points(9) after the first three rounds of matches, have scored six goals and conceded one, with two clean sheets. The Nigerians who arrived Cameroon as underdogs, suddenly shot themselves to the top of teams tagged as favourites. The Super Eagles have shown a lot of professionalism and hunger for success. “The boys want success and want to create a name for themselves, their families and country,” Eguavoen said, in an interview with Sports Vanguard at the team’s Hotel Le Ribadou, here in Garoua. The Nigerians are indeed on top of their game.
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Tunisia on the other hand, sneaked into the Round of 16 by sheer luck. With just one victory and two losses, the Tunisians sneaked into the knockout stage. Today’s encounter against the 1980 champions will see if their luck will continue to run.
It should, however be noted that most of their players that were in isolation due to positive test for Coronavirus have rejoined the team. It is expected that they will add verve to the team.
Fans should expect a tight game that will produce few goals.
As for who will win? Let’s put our fingers crossed.
Burkina Faso vs Gabon: Battle of wits
This is a fixture, expected to produce exciting football. Burkina Faso, 2013 finalists were the first team to score a goal in Cameroon 2021. Burkina Faso finished the preliminary rounds with 4 points, behind Cameroon. They are compact and play free flowing and purposeful football. They are bound to be a handful for the Gabonese who lost their captain and talisman, Emerick-Pierre Aubameyaner to covid.
However, Gabon have been able tto weather the storm even without their influential captain. Competing in Group C, from where Ghana was sent packing, Gabon finished second with 5 points behind Morocco. The match against Burkina Faso is bound to produce a lot of thrills. Certainly, one team will go after the encounter. If one is to go by history, then Burkina Faso are favoured to carry the day, but with the giant-killing trend in this Afcon, anything can happen.
Other Round of 16 pairings:
Guinea vs Gambia Mon Jan 24 5 pm
Cameroon vs Comoros Mon Jan 24 8 pm
Senegal vs Cape Verde Tuesday 25 5 pm
Morocco vss Malawi Tuesday 25 8 pm
Ivory Coast vs Egypt Wednesday 26 5 pm
Mali vs E/Guinea Wednesday 26 8 pm
Garoua, northern Cameroon town is like any northern Nigerian town, Although French is their second language, most of the population here speaks and understand Hausa, a major Nigerian language. Like northern Nigeria, Garoua is dominated by Muslims. But I have seen Churches here too. Ironically, the number of Mosques I have seen are few and in between.
One interesting thing I have also noticed is the way they worship. They are not loud in their religious activities. Since I arrived here about two weeks ago, I have not been woken up by any blaring loudspeaker, calling the faithful out for prayers. With Churches around, I believe they should also have Pastors. Yone cannot notice any loud-singing or preaching on loudspeakers hanging outside the House of God,, like we hear in Lagos. I have not noticed any Imam or Pastor in a particular prayer ground rendering sermons to large numbers.
In Lagos, I live in Okokomaiko, along the Lagos-Badagry axis. One Friday, on my way to work we were confronted with the unthinkable. When we got to Alaba, an area dominated by Muslims of northern extraction, the road was closed. Traffic came to a halt. We were all waiting, when I decided to check what the problem was, I saw Muslims, spreading their prayer mats on the road. Two lanes of the road were covered. I was told it was time for the Jumat service. I approached one and asked him why they had turned the road into a prayer ground. His answer? “Just two minuted, two minutes.” Meaning, two minutes of wait would not spoil anything. When I sleep and wake up here in peace, I give the Gambuans thumbs up.