AFCON 2023 Group Stage Review: Drama, shocks, and a cracker of a tournament


The mouth-watering, 36 games in the groups at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2023 came to an end on Wednesday, 25 January, 2024 with the line-up for the knockout rounds now finalised. It was a loaded round of matches with cumbersome knockdowns, a humiliating loss for the hosts and the elimination of heavyweights Algeria, Tunisia and another dark day in Ghana’s tournament football recent record.

(Left to right) Cameroon winger Georges-Kevin N'Koudou, Senegal forward Sadio Mane, Cape Verde midfielder Bebe and Nigeria striker Victor Osimhen are all targeting victory in the 2023 Afcon round of 16 (Image: BBC Sport)

The group stages exceeded expectations in terms of entertainment value. The third and final round of group matches at the tournament produced some thrilling football and dramatic results.

The 36 group games produced 89 goals, and there were no scoreless results until the last group phase games. An average of 2.47 goals per game is an excellent output, considering the heat and low humidity in Cote d’Ivoire.

A grand total of five coaches lost or reigned from their jobs. The most high-profile were the coaches of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire; Chris Hughton and Jean-Louis Gasset were dismissed, while Tam Sainfiet, Djamel Belmadi, and Jalel Kadri of The Gambia, Algeria, and Tunisia, respectively, resigned from their posts.


Drama has unfolded both on and off the pitch during this AFCON tournament. Notably, the host nation, Côte d’Ivoire, experienced significant drama by dismissing their head coach, Jean Louis Gasset, after a 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea. 

Despite this setback, they managed to qualify for the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed teams. The host nation now faces the challenge of making an interim coaching appointment for their crucial match against Senegal.

Another entertaining yet bizarre moment occurred when Muhammed Sanneh attempted to emulate the famous “hand of god” goal by the late Maradonna against Cameroon. The attempt was later disallowed after Video Assistant Referee (VAR) intervention.

The match between Cameroon and Gambia is also noteworthy, with both teams scoring four goals in the last fifteen minutes. Cameroon, on the brink of elimination, secured a late victory, winning 3-2. 

Amidst all this drama, Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroon Football Association boss, was spotted giving players instructions from the VIP box.

Nigeria, although qualifying, struggled with poor finishing in front of goal, scoring only three goals in the group stage – one from open play, one from a penalty, and another from an own goal. 

In response to questions about the Super Eagles’ finishing, Cavin Bassey humorously deflected the blame, saying, “Go and ask the midfielders and attackers, me I’m defending.”

In another dramatic turn, Ghana’s goalkeeper, Richard Ofori, conceded a corner that led to Mozambique’s 94th-minute equalizer. 

Ofori’s decision to go out of his goal to touch the ball, resulting in a corner, drew heavy criticism, but he defended his action, stating that it was his and the defenders’ responsibility to ensure the ball was in a safe position.

Group A: Emilio Nsue takes over, Ivory Coast survive

The Ivory Coast were handed a shock 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea. It was a game where everything went wrong for the host nation and everything that could go right fell Equatorial Guinea’s way. Disappointing does not even begin to describe Cote d’Ivoire's horrendous outing so far. 

This is a nation with enough quality to win the tournament. Appalling from the hosts as they had to wait two days to see whether they would qualify for the next phase as one of the four best third-placed finishers.

Two goals from Emilio Nsue in the final grouo game pushed him up to five and top scorer at the tournament. He got things going with a breakaway goal in the first half at the Alassane Ouattara Olympic Stadium but it was Pablo Ganet’s freekick in the 73rd minute that set up the heaviest defeat ever suffered by a home nation.

Equatorial Guinea finished top with Nigeria second after an own goal handed them a narrow victory over Guinea Bissau.

Group B: Ghana sent packing, Egypt escape and Cape Verde Shines

For the third consecutive major tournament, Ghana failed to make it past the group stage. They looked quite disjointed on the pitch and had lingering issues both in attack and defence. Even so, they were on course for the knockouts until a stoppage-time collapse against Mozambique saw them throw away a two-goal lead.

Cape Verde were the deserved group winners, and indeed the first team to book a knockout berth. They had surprisingly already won the group and emphasised just how good they had become and are at AFCON to compete by leading against Egypt and then scoring a dramatic last-gasp equaliser to draw 2-2 at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium.

It was enough for the Pharaohs, who had to do without injured Mohamed Salah, to go through in second place despite not winning a game. But their three points was one more than Ghana, who were on course to finish second in the group as they went into stoppage time against Mozambique with a 2-0 lead.

Group C: Senegal Flexes Quality, Cameroon scrape through

Defending champions Senegal put out a blistering statement of intent in Group C as they won all three matches with eight goals scored and just one conceded. Aliou Cisse did not make too many changes to the title-winning set-up, but one key addition was 20-year-old midfield starlet Lamine Camara who thoroughly impressed in his two starts.

Senegal were the only side to complete the first round with a 100 per cent record, beating Guinea 2-0 in Yamoussoukro after Abdoulaye Seck broke the deadlock past the hour mark and Iliman Ndiaye got the second.

Guinea got the job done in their first two matches with a draw and a win respectively against Cameroon and Gambia.

Cameroon’s talented squad was massively held back by tactical and off-field issues under the turbulent tenure of Rigobert Song. They failed to win their first two matches and looked like they were headed home in their final match against Gambia, but two very late goals saved the tournament for them.

Group D: Algeria exit … again

Angola emerged as surprise group winners as Mabululu’s first half header and a stoppage time second goal from substitute Zini ensured a 2-0 win over Burkina Faso, who finished second.

Burkina Faso's second-place finish in this group should not be considered much of a surprise. Their recent knockout pedigree means they too could stage an upset or three.

Pressure was on for Djamel Belmadi after the disappointment of the group stage exit in 2021 as well as the failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Top seeds Algeria however created the headlines in the group as they suffered a shock loss to Mauritania and went home in last place.

Mauritania registered their first-ever AFCON win at the ninth attempt and snuck into a knockout spot in the process.

Group E: Mali Finish Top, Tunisia drop

After all the matchday 3 drama in the above groups, Group E was quite a let-down as it threw up the first goalless draws of the tournament.

The first two goalless draws of the tournament saw Mali top, South Africa second and Namibia go into the knockout phase for the first time in their history.

Namibia had beaten Tunisia in their opening group game to register their first win at the tournament in their fourth appearance and took the achievement a step further with their qualification after holding Mali to a stalemate at the Laurent Pokou Stadium in San Pedro on the final day to set up their knockout debut.

Group F: Morocco Win The Group, As Expected

Morocco won the group by beating Zambia with a first half goal from Hakim Ziyech while the Democratic Republic of Congo finished second after a 0-0 draw with Tanzania.

Everyone in the Ivory Coast was plotting for Zambia’s downfall in the last group stage kick-off as they were the final team standing between the hosts and a knockout berth. A draw – like they managed in their first two games – would have been enough, but they put out a pretty flat performance and fell short against Morocco.

AFCON Last 16 Promises Thrills

Saturday marks the start of the Africa Cup of Nations round of 16 as we reach the business end of what has been a hugely entertaining continental finals to date.

Senegal vs Ivory Coast has to be the headline-grabber as the hosts will look to make the most of their second chance against the defending champions and favourites, so that could be a blockbuster.

Nigeria vs Cameroon; a West African derby, could be another cracker.

Equatorial Guinea v Guinea; these two sides have never met in international football before. Equatorial Guinea have been the surprise package of this tournament and a revelation with their free-flowing football.


-Angola vs. Namibia

- Nigeria vs. Cameroon

- Equatorial Guinea vs. Guinea

- Egypt vs. DR Congo

- Cape Verde vs. Mauritania

- Senegal vs. Ivory Coast

- Mali vs. Burkina Faso

- Morocco vs. South Africa

The group stage of this AFCON was perhaps the best we have ever witnessed, so let us hope the knockouts can even be better.

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