AFCON is upon us once again. For the next month the football world is centered on Africa, as 24 teams battle to win the prestigious tournament.
For Southampton, the tournament occurring during the EFL Championship season means that Saints will lose one of their own players for most of January and (hopefully) into February as his team progresses deeper into the competition. But there are several former Saints also participating in AFCON. For neutral Southampton fans (like myself) looking to get behind a specific team, this is a guide of former Saints players who are involved in the African Cup of Nations.
Current Saints in squad: Joe Aribo, Paul Onuachu
Former Saints: Nathan Tella (not in final AFCON squad)
FIFA Men's World Ranking: 42
The Super Eagles, a force to be reckoned with in past years, have fallen on relatively tough times. The 3 time AFCON winners were surprisingly eliminated in the round of 16 in the 2021 edition of the tournament, and failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup at the hands of bitter rivals Ghana (an encounter between the two is termed the Jollof Derby...and I challenge any reader to find a rivalry fixture with a better nickname).
However this edition of the Nigerian Men's National team is full of optimism. Oddsmakers have the Super Eagles one of the contenders to win the tournaments, slightly behind heavyweights Morocco, Senegal, and Egypt. Nigeria might be one of the most well rounded teams of the tournament -- Premier League fans will recognize the Fulham duo of Calvin Bassey and Alex Iwobi, former Fulham and Everton winger Ademola Lookman, Leicester City's Kelechi Iheanacho, as well as big name players Ahmed Musa and Samuel Chukwueze. The squad also features superstar Victor Osimhen, possibly the best player of the tournament.
Injuries have hit the Super Eagles hard -- Wilfried Ndidi and Victor Boniface are out, and an late injury to Umar Sadiq has allowed Southampton loanee Paul Onuachu a spot in the squad. As a neutral fan, if you want to jump on the bandwagon of a fun, talented squad that isn't a true frontrunner, the Super Eagles might be your best bet.
Former Saints in squad: Sofiane Boufal
FIFA Men's World Ranking: 13
In the midst of a golden generation, Morocco have lifted themselves to be a top team in world football. African Nations Championship (not the same as AFCON) winners in 2018 and 2020, they continued their dominance with a Cinderella run to the semi finals of the 2022 World Cup. And the Atlas Lions have not showed any signs of slowing down.
All the big names from the Qatar World Cup are back: keeper Yassine Bounou, Bayern Munich's Noussair Masraoui, Manchester United's Sofyan Amrabat, and of course PSG's Achraf Hakimi. They are rounded out with aerial threat Youssef En-Neysiri, defenders Romain Saïss and Nayef Aguerd, Hakim Ziyech, and former Saint Sofiane Boufal. Boufal made his on the ball wizardry known to the entire world at the World Cup, and will look to continue wowing viewers at AFCON.
Morocco are the highest ranked team in the competition, and figure to make a deep run. While there is no such thing as a safe bet at AFCON, Morocco are as close to it as possible.
Former Saints in squad: Mohammed Salisu
Current Saints: Kamaldeen Sulemana (out due to injury)
FIFA Men's Ranking: 61
Much like rivals Nigeria, the Black Stars of Ghana are in a rough patch. They are five time AFCON winners, but haven't won since 1982. In recent years, they have failed to progress past the group stage in both the 2021 AFCON and the 2022 World Cup. And they suffered one of the most ignominious exists in World Cup history at the hands (literally) of Luis Suarez and Uruguay in 2010. Their golden generation of the early 21st century: Asamoah Gyan, the Ayews, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and others, are gone.
But a new generation of talent has come to take their place. Former Southampton defender Mohammed Salisu joins Mohammed Kudus, Jordan Ayew, and Antoine Semenyo as names Premier League fans will recognize, as well as striker Inaki Williams, who plays for Athletic Bilbao in La Liga.
While on paper Ghana may not have the star power as fellow group B members Egypt or rivals Nigeria, do not count out the Black Stars. After all, they went to the 2022 World Cup above both those teams.
Former Saints: Djamel Belmadi
FIFA Men's Ranking: 30
This one is my personal favorite on the list. Yes, the Algeria manager, Djamel Belmadi, is a former Southampton player, making 36 appearances across 2 injury limited seasons in the Championship from 2005-2007. Hired in 2018, after some initial disappointment, Belmadi's Algeria lifted the 2019 AFCON trophy.
World Cup viewers in 2010 and 2014 will remember Algeria's two close group stage exits (American fans will remember Landon Donovan's goal at the death against Algeria to send the USA through...you could not write a script like this). However Algeria rebounded and ripped off an incredible run of form, not losing a game for almost 3 calendar years and winning the aforementioned 2019 AFCON.
Algeria features several international superstars. Ismaël Bennacer plies his trade with giants AC Milan, Houssem Aouar with Roma, and they are led by Premier League and Champions League winner Riyadh Mahrez.
But Mahrez is aging, and it is up to the younger generation of Algerian players to step up in his absence. Algeria are odds on favorites to easily top their group, barring a stumble there, it will be up to their young players to pick up their aging star's slack if they want to progress far into the competition.
Former Saints in squad: Yan Valery
FIFA Men's Ranking: 28
For a classics nerd like myself, Tunisia boasts one of the best national team nicknames of all time: "The Eagles of Carthage". Tunisia fared well at the 2022 World Cup and were unlucky not to progress past the group stage: drawing against pre-tournament dark horse Denmark, and beating finalist France. Tunisia made it to the quarter finals of the 2021 AFCON, and were knocked out by Burkina Faso.
Despite being one of the higher ranked teams in the tournament, oddsmakers are not favorable towards the Carthage Eagles, placing them far down the list of contenders. But anything can happen, and Saints fans will remember Yan Valery's thunderbuster goal against Man United in 2019. One of the tournament favorites will have to get through Tunisia to win, which will not be an easy task. If you like getting behind potential giant killers, Tunisia might be your team. Carthago delenda est indeed.
Former Saints in squad: Sadio Mané
FIFA Men's Ranking: 20
Last but certainly not least, we come to one of the greatest players to leave St. Mary's, Sadio Mané. I need not remind Saints fans of the
Mané's glory years, featuring his Southampton side that qualified for European Competition.
While he may be entering the twilight of his club career, the former Southampton, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich man has not slowed down for his country. Senegal won its first AFCON in 2021, and is the holder of both AFCON (Mané scoring the winning penalty against Liverpool teammate Mohamed Salah and Egypt) and the Africa Nations Championship. They went on to qualify for the 2022 World Cup by beating Egypt again (Mané again scoring the winning penalty).
But Les Lions de la Teranga are much more than their talisman striker. In fact, they progressed to the 2022 World Cup Round of 16 without him. Édouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Idrissa Gueye are just a few of a star studded lineup that also features young talents Nicolas Jackson, Pape Matar Sarr, and Ismaïla Sarr.
While Senegal are set up to win the tournament on paper -- they have to contend with one of the toughest groups: Cameroon, Gambia, and Guinea stand in their way. Only time will tell if they can repeat as champions, or if an challenging upstart can have the last laugh.
And that is that! I hope this provided all Southampton fans reading this article with some insight into who to get behind for this edition of the African Cup of Nations. There is nothing like international football, and there are some compelling storylines and players for us Saints to get invested in over the coming month in Côte d'Ivoire. For me personally, I'm throwing my support behind our lad Joe A-Ri-Bo-OH and Nigeria...hopefully he can bring more winning ways back to Saints upon his return.