Tuesday , September 27 2022

ESPN’s team-by-team guide to the Africa Women Cup of Nations

The Africa Women Cup of Nations [AWCON] in Morocco, the first since 2018 due to COVID-19, will serve as the African qualifiers for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

The four semifinalists will book their spots, while two more teams will go to the inter-confederation play-offs. The tournament, running from July 2-23, has been expanded to 12 teams from eight, with Nigeria aiming for their 12th title.

A controversial qualifying system pitted two of Africa’s best teams against each other, so Ghana will not be at the tournament after losing to Nigeria. Therefore, the Super Falcons’ main challengers are South Africa, Cameroon, and Zambia, with Morocco and Tunisia the potential surprise packages.

READ: A bumper month of women’s football, from Women’s Euros to AWCON to USWNT

Group A: Morocco, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda

Morocco

How did they qualify? As hosts.

History: Morocco have only twice appeared at the AWCON, in 1998 and 2000, exiting at the group stage both times. However, their women’s football development structures have been upscaled in recent years, with their women’s league launched in November 2019.

Star player: Ranya Senhaji

Reasons for optimism: Morocco will be on home soil and they have been very intentional about upgrading their women’s football programme in recent years. Last year, the Atlas Lionesses beat Cameroon 1-0 at the Aisha Buhari Cup in Nigeria, proving that they are ready to compete with the best teams on the continent.

Reasons for concern: This is Morocco’s first AWCON appearance since 2000 and they are still behind the likes of South Africa and Nigeria in terms of star names.

Solms’ prediction: Quarter-finals

Senegal

How did they qualify? Senegal thrashed Liberia 8- 1 in the first round of qualifiers and then beat Mali on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate draw.

History: Senegal played their first women’s international in 2002, losing 3-0 to Ghana. They reached the group stage of the African Women’s Championship in 1991 and 2012.

Star player: Nguenar Ndiaye

Reasons for optimism: Victory over Mali showed that Senegal can be competitive against strong opponents. They are on the up, benefitting from the success of their country’s AFCON-winning men’s team, and have several players gaining experience in France.

Reasons for concern: The current generation of Senegalese women’s footballers has yet to be tested at this level. Senegal have never made it out of the group stage of the AWCON before.

Solms’ prediction: Quarter-finals

Uganda

How did they qualify? Uganda edged Ethiopia on penalties after a 2-2 aggregate draw in the first round of qualifying. In the second round, they were awarded a walkover against Kenya, who withdrew amid tension between their federation and government.

History: Uganda played their first women’s international in 1998, drawing 1-1 against Egypt, and were unlucky to be eliminated from the group stage of AWCON 2000. They have not appeared at the tournament since.

Star player: Fauzia Najjemba

Reasons for optimism: Uganda are a team on the up and they have an increasingly sizeable overseas contingent of players, most notably 18-year-old starlet Fauzia Najjemba, who plays her club football in Khazakstan for BIIK Kazygurt.

Reasons for concern: A lack of experience on the big stage means they are highly unlikely to be on par with the major sides. Uganda are ranked 157th in the world and their run through qualifying was extremely fortuitous.

Solms’ prediction: Group stage

Burkina Faso

How did they qualify? Burkina Faso won all four of their qualifying games, beating Benin 5-2 on aggregate and then Guinea-Bissau 7-0.

History: Burkina Faso played their first women’s international in 2007, beating Niger 10-0. This remains their best result to date. This will be their debut appearance at the AWCON.

Star player: Juliette Nana

Reasons for optimism: Burkina Faso breezed through qualifying and looked like a team capable of building on the legacy left by Salimata Simporé and her generation of players.

Reasons for concern: Burkina Faso have rarely throughout their history troubled the biggest teams in Africa and overseas experience is sorely lacking in their squad.

Solms’ prediction: Group stage

Group B: Cameroon, Zambia, Tunisia, Togo

Tunisia

How did they qualify? Tunisia beat Egypt 7-2 in the first round of qualifying before unceremoniously dumping two-time African champions Equatorial Guinea out of the competition with a 7-3 aggregate thrashing.

History: Tunisia’s talent was stifled for a long time by a lack of administrative will for competitive women’s football. However, this has gradually changed since the 2000s. In 2006, Tunisia played their first women’s international, losing 2-1 to Egypt in Alexandria.

Their only previous appearance at the AWCON was in 2008, when they were eliminated in the group stage.

Star player: Mariem Houij

Reasons for optimism: Tunisia’s thrashing of Equatorial Guinea in qualifying showed that they can compete with the continent’s best teams. Goals seem to follow Houij, who plays in the Turkish top flight for ALG Spor, wherever she goes and even the best defences might struggle to silence her.

Reasons for concern: Tunisia are largely untested against the best teams in Africa at this level, having never made the knockout rounds of the AWCON and not appeared at all since 2008. They may ruffle a few feathers, but are unlikely to go all the way to the final.

Solms’ prediction: Quarter-finals

Cameroon

How did they qualify? Cameroon beat the Central African Republic 3-0 on aggregate before making light work of Gambia in a 10-1 drubbing.

History: Like Nigeria, Cameroon have been competitive since the first African Women’s Championship in 1991. They were runners-up at that tournament and again in 2004, 2014 and 2016.

The Indomitable Lionesses featured at the 2012 Olympics and made the round of 16 at the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

Star player: Ajara Nchout

Reasons for optimism: With Nigeria going through a tough time, the Indomitable Lionesses are one of the teams best-poised to pounce. They have a well-balanced side with quality and experience at both ends of the pitch. Nchout in particular has been in fine form upfront for Inter Milan.

Reasons for concern: Cameroon’s form has been patchy lately, with their 1-0 defeat to Morocco in the Aisha Buhari Cup a major surprise given the strength of the side that they fielded.

Solms’ prediction: Semi-finals

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Zambia

How did they qualify? Zambia were handed a difficult draw against Malawi in the first round of qualifying and then another against Namibia in the second. They saw off Malawi 4-3 on aggregate and then edged the Brave Gladiators on away goals after a 1-1 aggregate draw.

History: The Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) was ahead of the game as far as women’s football was concerned. As early as 1983, organised women’s football was up and running in the country. By 1994, Zambia had an active women’s national team, nicknamed She-Polopolo.

Their best AWCON performance was in 1995, when they reached the quarter-finals. In 2014 and 2018, Zambia were eliminated in the group stage. However, they were the only African team to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics last year and they put on a good show, with Barbra Banda scoring back-to-back hat-tricks against the Netherlands and China.

Star player: Barbra Banda

Reasons for optimism: Zambia’s Olympic qualification tournament victory showed that when luck is on their side, She-polopolo can be the best team in Africa. Banda’s heroics in Tokyo showed that they have players who thoroughly deserve to be on the big stage. Racheal Kundananji was another player who starred there and she is now playing her football with Spanish club Eibar, where she finished the league season in fine form.

Reasons for concern: The Olympics showed that Zambia’s defensive frailty can be exposed by the best teams. If Banda, who plays her club football for China’s Shanghai Shengli, is not at her best, it will be difficult for them to compete with Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon.

Furthermore, it looked until recently as if Banda would be out of the squad for Zambia before a u-turn on their part. Bizarrely, she was initially left off the provisional squad list only for coach Bruce Mwape to claim, as per Diamond TV, that this was an error on the part of the technical bench.

With Banda, Zambia could be one of the strongest sides of the tournament, but if there is disunity within the camp, this could be compromised.

Solms’ prediction: Semi-finals

Togo

How did they qualify? Togo were awarded a walkover in the second leg of the first round against São Tomé and Príncipe after winning the first 5-0. They beat Gabon back-to-back to seal a 4-2 aggregate second round win and book their place at the tournament.

History: Togo’s national women’s football team started playing in official FIFA matches in 2006, beating São Tomé and Príncipe 3-0 in February of that year in their first game. Organised women’s football has existed in Togo since 2000.

After decades of administrative issues and frequent withdrawals from qualifying for major tournaments, Togo will now be playing in their first AWCON.

Star player: Nathalie Badate

Reasons for optimism: Togo have been in winning form recently and their women’s football programme appears to be on the up.

Reasons for concern: With little overseas experience to add a different dimension to their squad, Togo have a mammoth task awaiting them on debut at the AWCON as they look to compete against the continent’s best sides.

Solms’ prediction: Group stage

Group C: Nigeria, Botswana, South Africa, Burundi

Nigeria

How did they qualify? The Super Falcons were controversially drawn against fellow title contenders Ghana in the first round of qualifying, edging them out 2-1 on aggregate. They faced another tricky tie against Ivory Coast thereafter, but prevailed 3-0.

History: The Super Falcons won the AWCON at the first attempt in 1991 and then again in 1995, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2018. The only AWCON tournaments that they did not win were in 2008, when they finished third, and 2012, when they were fourth. In other words, Nigeria have never failed to win an AWCON hosted outside of Equatorial Guinea.

Nigeria have also been Africa’s most consistent representatives on the global stage. They reached the quarter-finals of the 1999 World Cup and the 2004 Olympics.

Star player: Asisat Oshoala

Reasons for optimism: History has proven that Nigeria tend to win this tournament regardless of their build-up. For all their recent struggles, they have more depth than any of their rivals and coach Randy Waldrum has all the necessary tools at his disposal to get the Super Falcons soaring again.

Reasons for concern: Nigeria lost 4-2 to South Africa at last year’s Aisha Buhari Cup, which is worrying given that the Super Falcons are in a group with Banyana Banyana and could have an uphill battle if they lose again to Desiree Ellis’ side.

Star striker Asisat Oshoala has been struggling to score for the Super Falcons and also battling with injuries while at Barcelona. There is never an easy time to face Nigeria, but the likes of Cameroon, South Africa and Zambia can certainly feel more confident against the Super Falcons now than they would have 20 years ago.

Solms’ prediction: Runners-up

Botswana

How did they qualify? Botswana emerged victorious in two all-Southern African qualifying ties, thrashing Angola 7-1 on aggregate before relying on away goals to beat Zimbabwe following a 3-3 draw.

History: Botswana played their first women’s international in 2002, losing 14-0 to South Africa. This remains their heaviest defeat to date. The Zebras were runners-up at the 2020 COSAFA Women’s Championship and will now be participating in their first AWCON.

Star player: Lesego Radiakanyo

Reasons for optimism: Botswana have been competitive in recent years against strong opponents in the COSAFA region. Their women’s football has progressed tremendously in the last two decades and it would be hugely surprising to see the Botswana of today finding themselves on the end of 14-0 scorelines.

Reasons for concern: Botswana are inexperienced at this level and they lack any superstars in the mould of Barbra Banda who can drive the team forward in uncharted territory.

Solms’ prediction: Group stage

South Africa

How did they qualify? South Africa thrashed Mozambique 13-0 on aggregate before beating Algeria 2-0 at home and holding on for a 1-1 away draw to seal their spot at the tournament.

History: Until now, Banyana Banyana have been Africa’s perennial nearly-women. They have produced generation after generation of special talents, from Portia Modise to Janine van Wyk to Atletico Madrid‘s Thembi Kgatlana, but have failed to lift the AWCON, losing finals in 1995, 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2018. The 2019 World Cup was their first ever appearance and they were eliminated in the group stage.

Star player: Thembi Kgatlana

Reasons for optimism: Banyana Banyana beat Nigeria in the group stage of AWCON 2018 before losing on penalties to them at the final. Furthermore, they beat the Super Falcons 4-2 at the Aisha Buhari Cup. They have more players with overseas experience than in the past and have had time to build a stable project under coach Des Ellis. Mamelodi Sundowns’ women’s team were African champions at club level and the national team will feel it is their time to follow suit.

Reasons for concern: South Africa have never been able to lift the trophy before, despite coming so close on several occasions. A shock defeat to Botswana in Olympic qualifying showed that they still needed to learn to hold their nerve at crucial moments.

Solms’ prediction: Winners

Burundi

How did they qualify? Convincingly so, thrashing Eritrea 6-0 on aggregate in the first round of qualifying and then Djibouti 11-1 in the second.

History: The Football Federation of Burundi created a women’s programme in 2000, but in the first six years, only registered 455 players. There were several false starts for their national team, who have only properly assembled within the last few years. They did not play a match until 2016, but have progressed rapidly since.

Star player: Rukiya Bizimana

Reasons for optimism: They will have the element of surprise on their side, as well as a talented group of attacking players including Rukiya Bizimana, who scored four times against Djibouti in their 11-1 qualifying win, and Huddersfield Town’s Falone Sumaili.

Reasons for concern: Burundi are one of the least experienced teams at the tournament and are not used to facing top quality opponents. As recently as 2019, they were dismantled 5-0 by Kenya.

Solms’ prediction: Quarter-finals




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