Three Unlikely Champions in AFCON History

Three nations have made history in the African Cup of Nations as they became the unlikely winners in the tournament’s history.

The latest edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) is getting underway. It was originally scheduled for summer 2023, but was moved to January 2024 due to weather concerns. CAF’s main continental competition is no stranger to the unlikely champions as well, just like UEFA EURO.

Throughout the tournament’s history, there have been multiple unexpected winners in three different eras. One of them has even been unable to qualify for the AFCON since their successful campaign 50 years ago. Here are those unlikely champions of Africa.

Republic of the Congo, 1972

Congo was never a tournament favourite. They only made one appearance previously. It was in the 1968 edition. At that time, they were still known as Congo-Brazzaville. In the 1972 edition, they qualified as the People’s Republic of Congo after knocking out Nigeria and Ivory Coast in a two-round qualifier.

At the group stage, Congo started off well by holding Morocco, who qualified for the 1970 FIFA World Cup, in a 1-1 draw. After losing 2-0 to Zaire – now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo – they stunned the defending champions, Sudan 4-2 victory in the third game. That saw them secure a place in the semifinal.

Their impressive form did not stop there, as they defeated the hosts Cameroon, 1-0 in the last four and topped Mali 3-2 in the summit. Their third goal was scored by a former PSG player, François M’Pelé, who was also awarded the best player in the competition.

In the following edition, Congo managed to advance to the semifinals too. Unfortunately, they were beaten by Zambia 4-2 in extra time. In the third-place playoff, they were hapless against hosts Egypt. The Pharaohs romped to a 4-0 victory at Cairo International Stadium. The 1974 AFCON was their last appearance in the tournament. Les Diables Rouges have not returned to the competition ever since.

South Africa in the 1996 AFCON

The mid-1990s was an era of new beginnings for South Africa, including in football. It even marked the emergence of Bafana Bafana’s golden generation. Their first appearance on the international stage was in the 1996 AFCON as a host, not as a qualified contestant from the qualifiers. It was supposed to be staged in Kenya, but they lost their hosting rights due to a political reason.

Such boosted South Africa’s ability to create their own victorious moment after the end of apartheid law. What is more, the reigning champion, Nigeria, also withdrew due to the same reason as Kenya, which provided them an additional advantage.

Bafana Bafana’s campaign in the tournament was impressive, as they began with a massive 3-0 win over Cameroon in the opener. Clive Barker’s men snatched another victory against Angola to secure a place in the quarterfinal. Their loss to Egypt in the final group stage match did not derail their progress as the group leader.

At the knockout stage, Phil Masinga and co eased past Algeria and tournament favourites Ghana 2-1 and 3-0 win, respectively, before facing off Tunisia in the final. Nelson Mandela’s presence at the venue really inspired the team to beat the North African side by a 2-0 scoreline. It was a victory for the unity of the new nation. Their mixed-race squad, which included Mark Fish, Neil Tovey, Lucas Radebe, Phil Masinga, and Shaun Bartlett, symbolized the new spirit of South Africa.

Soon after their AFCON triumph, they made their FIFA World Cup debut in France in 1998, their Olympic debut in Sydney in 2000, and even reached another AFCON final in 1998. Sadly, they were beaten by Egypt at the summit.

Zambia in the 2012 AFCON

In the 2012 AFCON, Zambia was not even considered a contender to lift the trophy. At that time, Ivory Coast and Ghana, with their star-studded squads, including Didier Drogba and Asamoah Gyan, were the favorites. Zambia, on the other hand, had no star figures, with only one name playing in Europe.

Hervé Renard’s side began their campaign with a narrow 2-1 win over Senegal. They finished the group stage as section toppers, with two wins and one draw. In the knockout stage, Christopher Katongo and co eliminated Sudan and Ghana in the quarterfinal and semifinal, respectively, without conceding a single goal.

In the final, Zambia took on the best team that had been unbeaten with a clean sheet since day one, Ivory Coast. It was an intense and tight match. The Ivorian key men, including Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, and Salomon Kalou, were frustrated by Zambia’s compact defence. The final score after 120 minutes was a stalemate.

Finally, the shootout made the difference as the Ivory Coast’s last executor, ex-Arsenal forward Gervinho, failed to convert the penalty, whereas Stopphila Sunzu succeeded. Zambia burst into joy after securing an 8-7 victory on penalties.

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