If the ‘2023’ editions of the Africa Cup of Nations and Asian Cup demonstrate anything, it is that the parity in these tournaments stands out among international competitions. Each continent has relative powerhouses. Japan has been dominant in Asia, and South Korea always poses a threat. Egypt and Cameroon have more AFCON titles than any other country in history. None of those four teams will win their respective continental tournaments. Moreover, none of them will even reach the final.
Instead, fans of both the African and Asian competitions have seen unprecedented underdogs and dramatic finishes in January and February 2024. Jordan is in the Asian Cup Final for the first time in its history. South Africa is one win away from the AFCON 2023 Final after winning just three games in its last four trips to the Africa Cup of Nations. All the while, these teams are knocking off the traditional powers of their continents.
Jordan defeated South Korea with a comfortable 2-0 win in the semifinals. Jordan also defeated Iraq in the round of 16. This is only Jordan’s fifth appearance in the Asian Cup. South Africa upset World Cup semifinalist Morocco in the round of 16. Then, a dramatic penalty shootout win over fellow minnow Cape Verde set Bafana Bafana up for more success.
This speaks volumes about the quality of play in both Africa and Asia and the level of success these continents are showing holistically, not just from the usual suspects.
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Lesser games, but better storylines
Granted, if you ask fans before the tournament what their ideal finals would be, you would expect the biggest nations. In Asia, fans may want Japan against Iran or South Korea or battling Qatar. Africa has a litany of teams with world-class players who have set up sensational finals years prior. Sadio Mane at Senegal, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, and Victor Osimhen of Nigeria deserve their plaudits as elite players. Yet, a tournament is more than just its final, and what smaller countries have been able to do throughout the group stage and knockout stage has provided countless incredible moments.
Take Cape Verde as an example. Making its fifth appearance at AFCON, the African side ranks 73rd in the FIFA World Rankings, and it drew Ghana and Egypt in the group stage. A stoppage-time win over Ghana in matchday one preceded a 3-0 pounding of Mozambique. Cape Verde concluded a sensational group stage with an equalizer in the ninth minute of stoppage time against Egypt. Rapidly, Cape Verde became one of the major talking points of AFCON 2023.
In addition to Jordan’s success in the Asian Cup, Tajikistan made headlines for its ability to get out of its group. Tajikistan was one of three teams in the worst pot during the group-stage draw to make it to the knockout stage. A penalty win over the United Arab Emirates sent Tajikistan into the quarterfinals. This is the side’s first appearance in the AFC Asian Cup, and it made it to the last eight. Only Jordan, the other story of the Asian Cup, could stop the run from Tajikistan.
Underdogs showing potential of Asian and African tournaments
The Asian Cup and AFCON are coming to a close. Still, the success of underdog teams can set a precedent for the success of these competitions as a whole. Not only will the bigger teams want to usurp their spot at the top of the continent. Smaller nations will have a better belief that they can go on a similar run. Also, for what little bit of the tournaments are remaining, Jordan and South Africa are providing fans added joy in watching the tournament.
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