Three things you may want to know before betting on the AFCON

Climate, population and tradition – those are three factors that could influence the Africa Cup of Nations that starts on Sunday.

Algeria are reigning champions. Egypt have won a record seven times. Algeria, Egypt or one of the other North African participants could win in Central African Cameroon. But the setting may not be ideal.

Altogether North African countries have won 13 times – ten of the 16 times a tournament was staged in North Africa but only three of the 16 times it was staged elsewhere. There has been a tendency in the Africa Cup of Nations for teams to achieve most in their own region.

Weather-wise, Africa can be divided into three regions: desert north, tropical west, centre and east and more varied south, in which there are some temperate areas. Snow falls occasionally in South Africa. Teams have tended to flourish where conditions were most familiar to them.

A North African country could win this year. Egypt won in West African Burkina Faso in 1998, in West African Ghana in 2008 and in South African Angola in 2010. No other North African country has won outside North Africa but that could change. The chance of a North African success, though, may be lower than it was in some other places in some other years. Algeria won three years ago in Egypt.

West and Central African countries have won 17 times – ten of the 13 times the competition was staged in West or Central Africa but only seven of the 19 times it was staged elsewhere.

Southern African countries have won twice – one of the tree times the championship was held in Southern Africa and one of the 29 times it was held elsewhere.

To say that conditions in Cameroon may suit the hosts and other Central and West African countries may not be particularly helpful on its own.

Fifteen of the 24 contestants are from Central or West Africa. Three are from Central Africa – Cameroon plus Equatorial Guinea and Gabon – and 12 are from West Africa – Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

But some of those will have better prospects than others.

Africa is the continent with the most diverse human population. Much of it loves football. The more people there are in a football-loving country, the more players the national coach will have to choose from, and the better the best 11 should be.

There has been a relationship between the population of a country and progress at the Africa Cup of Nations. The larger the population the further the country was likely to go. The population figures quoted below are the latest United Nations estimates – that is to say, they are current figures and will differ in some way from those at the times of earlier tournaments.

There were 13 Africa Cup of Nations tournaments between 1996 and 2019. The average current population of the winners is 64 million, the average current population of runners-up and beaten semi-finalists is 57m, the average current population of beaten quarter-finalists is 36m and the average current population of countries knocked out in the last 16 is 29m.

In 2019 the number of participants rose from 16 to 24 and the average current population of countries eliminated before the last 16 is 22m.

Twelve of the past 13 winners rank among the top nine at the tournament for current population. Eleven of those 13 have a current population of at least 25 million. Among this year’s qualifiers there are four from West or Central Africa that rank among the top nine for population and have a current population of at least 25m: Nigeria (ranking first with a current population of 201m), Ghana (seventh, 28.8m), Cameroon (eighth, 25.9m) and Ivory Coast (ninth, 25.7m).

Tunisia won as hosts in 2004 and have the lowest current population of the countries that contested then. So anything can happen. Generally speaking, though, the more populous countries have tended to fare better than the less populous ones.

There was also a relationship between performances at present and past tournaments – we can call that tradition. Winners tended to be countries that had done at least reasonably well over a reasonable period of time. A slight improvement on their average playing standard, or even better than usual luck, might have been all that was needed to make them champions.

There are various ways of expressing previous performances. Here is one that does not take too many words. Eleven of the last 13 winners had reached the quarter-finals or beyond in at least one of the previous two tournaments. Twelve of the last 13 did it in at least one of the previous four tournaments. The exception were South Africa, who won as hosts in 1996.

Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria – already identified as Central or West African countries with sizeable populations – all reached the quarter-finals or beyond in either 2019 or 2017. Among the other countries that did so are West African Burkina Faso and Senegal. Among those who were quarter-finalists or better in 2015 or 2013 are West African Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea and Mali.

What the players do will decide who is crowned as the new champions of Africa. They could be influenced, among other things, by climate, population and tradition.


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