Football fans watching the finals of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations could well be forgiven if they mistake the competition for the West African Football Union (WAFU) Nations Cup. Seven of the eight quarter-finalists were WAFU members, with only hosts South Africa the odd-side-out. The remarkable thing about that is that there were no nations from North African, a region of the continent with a rich history and a tradition of dominating the international game in Africa.
When Tunisia won their first AFCON title at home in 2004, they began a run of total dominance of North African sides in the competition. In the four events from 2004 to 2010, Egypt secured a hat-trick of titles to go with Tunisia’s in 2004, while Morocco were losing finalists in 2004 and Algeria took fourth place in 2010. All told, the region has won the continental showpiece a total of 10 times, more than any other, and that given there are only five North African countries: seven-time champions Egypt, single-event winners Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and then Libya, who finished runners-up in 1982.
With the region’s fortunes already on the wane in 2012, Tunisia's Carthage Eagles were the sole representatives of the Union of North African Football Federations (UNAF) that escaped the group phase in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea last year. But surprisingly, a year later in South Africa, all three UNAF teams in the competition were already at home when the quarter-finals were played - the first time that has happened since 1992, when Algeria, Morocco and Egypt failed to progress to the knock-out stages.
Moroccan coach Rachid Taoussi dismisses talk of North African teams haven fallen behind their West African counterparts. "In our case, we were knocked out without losing a single game, and we were leading against South Africa with just a few minutes to go. Had we won that match we would have gone through. I think all North African teams in this competition played well, and you must respect them for that, even if they did not progress. Tunisia were knocked out with four points only on goal difference."
The 53-year-old, who coached the Moroccan U-20 side to the African Youth Championship title in 1997, and remains undefeated in competitive matches since taking over the Atlas Lions in September last year, is confident that North African teams will bounce back. "[Morocco] are hosting the next AFCON finals in 2015, and I am sure that we will have a very strong side. I brought a young side to South Africa to start preparing them for 2015."
Algerian coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who formerly coached Côte d'Ivoire and won the CAF Champions League with Morocco's Raja Casablanca, however sees some problems with football in the Maghreb region west of Egypt. "It’s been nearly ten years since a team from Maghreb has won the AFCON. The last one was Tunisia, in 2004. I think it’s time Maghreb countries question themselves and put themselves back to work. Particularly work on identifying young talented players and training them should be improved, otherwise West African countries will keep their present advantage.”
West African teams make history
Edema Fuludu, who was in the Nigerian squad the last time a team from the WAFU region won the competition in 1994, believes that the AFCON results this time around show a “paradigm shift" in African football. "It simply means West Africa is now in control. In fact, even teams like Togo, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde that have been underrated in the past are pushing their way through. There was a time when North Africans dominated the scene, but West Africa is now in control,” the former international told journalists.
Never before in the history of the Nations Cup have all four semi-finalists belonged to the same regional body, but this time around Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso will be flying the WAFU flag. This is in contrast to the last finals, where only Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali made it past the group phase. That traditional powers Ghana, Mali and Nigeria made it through to the semi-finals this time around is not terribly surprising as they were all expected to do well in South Africa. Nigeria's path into the semis was somewhat unplanned as they only managed to finish runners-up in their group behind Burkina Faso and as a result faced the pre-tournament favourites Ivorians in the quarter-finals, winning over the weekend 2-1 through goals by Emmanuel Emenike and Sunday Mba. The real surprise though amongst the semi-finalists are Burkina Faso's Stallions, who stunned the Super Eagles and the defending champions Zambia to top Group C and then overcome tough opposition from Emmanuel Adebayor-inspired Togo to win 1-0 in extra-time for a place in the semi-finals.
In the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers West African teams are similarly well-positioned, with Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal and Benin leading their groups and several other WAFU members only a point or so behind the leaders. And for one of the four West African teams remaining in the AFCON, the honour of being the first WAFU team to participate in the FIFA Confederations Cup proper now beckons, as the African champions will take on world champions Spain, Uruguay and rookies Tahiti in Group B of the prestigious competition later this year in Brazil.