North Africa, the real powerhouse in African football

Author: Justin Agyeman Akowuah
A triumphant Algeria side celebrating with their trophy
A triumphant Algeria side celebrating with their trophy


West Africa can boast of having some of the giant teams when it comes to football, but at the moment, North Africa has the bragging rights as being the real powerhouse of African football.

At least, the number of times North African sides have won the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), as well as the prestigious CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup, are ample proof. 

Although there are only seven countries in North Africa, they have collectively won 13 titles out of the 32 AFCONs staged with seven won by Egypt alone and the newly crowned champions, Algeria, also from North Africa.

On the other hand, West Africa boasts of 17 nations, with most of the continental giants in the sub-region and collectively, they have 14 AFCON titles, Cameroun leading with five, Ghana on four, Nigeria on three and Cote d'Ivoire on two titles respectively.

The only region of Africa that is a bit close to the west and the north is the central part of Africa. Cameroun has won an impressive five out of the seven titles won with the Democratic Republic of Congo winning the rest. 

When the Confederation of African Football (CAF) decided to increase the number of competing teams from 16 to 24, many expressed the concern that it would be to just add up to the numbers, however, the tournament staged in Egypt was a very good one and showed the pedigree of African teams.

 Zonal representation at 2019 AFCON

Given the numbers in the various sub regions and the mode of qualification, West Africa once again led the pack when it came to representation, with as many as nine teams from the 24 teams.

Eastern African had five representatives, Northern and Southern Africa had four nations each, with three from Central Africa.

Group Stages

After the group stages of the just ended African Cup of Nations, North African teams qualified with 3 out of the 4 topping their group without dropping any points in their group games. 

The teams that finished with points were Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. The most impressive part of their group stage runs was that none of them conceded a goal during the group stages.

Egypt scored five, Algeria scored six and Morocco scored three without conceding. Tunisia, on the other hand, did not win or lose a single group game, but somewhat qualified with three draws and finished second in their group.

With a tournament like the AFCON, it is how teams finish and not really how they begin.

The West African countries were impressive in the group stages too as Guinea Bissau and Mauritania were the only countries from the region that did not progress to the Round of 16.

This meant that 7 out of the 16 countries in the knockout stages were from West Africa. Ghana and Mali were the only ones to top their respective groups.

Senegal, La Cote d’Ivoire, and Nigeria finished as runners-up with Guinea and Benin finishing as 2 out of the four third best-placed teams in the group stages. 

The most impressive run of the group stages came from tournament debutants Madagascar from East Africa as they finished as group winners ahead of 3-time winners the Super Eagles of Nigeria. Uganda also from East Africa progressed as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroun from the central part progressed.

The Republic of South Africa was the only country from the southern regions to make it into the last 16.

Knockout Stages.

 A West African nation caused one of the great upsets in all the Round of 16 ties as the Squirrels of Benin knocked out the Atlas Lions of Morocco on penalties.

Morocco who went into this tournament as favourites and one of the most exciting teams to watch were the first team to knock out. Hakim Ziyech missed a penalty in additional time that would have taken them to the quarters.

This early exit paved the way for more upsets that were going to happen later. Senegal fought off the Ugandans and progressed into the final 8 of competition. 

The next day was a bad day for the finalists of the last AFCON edition as Egypt and Cameroon were knocked out by South Africa and Nigeria. The defending champions Cameroun under Clarence Seedorf could not get past Gernot Rohr and the Super Eagles as they lost 3-2.

The Bafana Bafana knocked out host nation and favorites Egypt by a lone goal to nil. South Africa performed excellently from start to finish and kept Mohammed Salah and Trezeguet quiet throughout the whole game.

At this point 2 of the best performing teams in the tournament that is Egypt and Morocco, and this looked bad for North Africa. Madagascar’s fairy-tale competition continued as they knocked out two-time winners the Democratic Republic of Congo on penalties.

Algeria finished off Guinea merely beating them in style and knocking them out. Ghana also faced their penalty woes as Tunisia beat them during the shootout and giving Tunisia their first win over Ghana in AFCON history. Zaha made the difference for the Ivorians as they saw off Mali winning by a goal to nil. 

The boys were separated from the men as Tunisia knocked out Madagascar to progress to the semis. Senegal, Nigeria, Algeria all progressed to the last four as they knocked out Benin, South Africa, and La Cote d’Ivoire respectively.

At this stage, the most impressive team was undoubtedly the Algerians as they played to their strengths and showed they could win despite the situation. The two powerhouses of African football had two countries, each representing in the semi-finals -- Nigeria and Senegal from the western side and Tunisia and Algeria from the northern side. 

The Senegalese showed off their resilience to knock out the Tunisians to make it in this year’s finals by an own goal. And Algerian captain Riyad Mahrez left it late scoring the Super Eagles with the last kick of the game. His beautiful free-kick struck the roof of the net to win 2-1. Nigeria also beat Tunisia in the 3rd-placed game finishing as the bronze medalists ahead of the Tunisians.

Even though West Africa had the highest representation in the knockout stages, Algeria eliminated three of them to beat Senegal in the finals as well. The Algerian team displayed a typical tournament-winning squad from North Africa.

They possess a good coach, players with technique, strength, and players that could adapt to any game situation they face. None of their opponents scored the first goal against them as they never went behind during the whole tournament too. The trophy gave North Africa their 12th title win stretching their lead against West Africans. Cote d’Ivoire were the last team from the west to win in 2015 against neighbours, Ghana.

 Club competition dominance

North Africa's dominance has not been in just the AFCON, as most of the continental club champions have also incidentally emerged from that sub-region.

Most CAF Champions League winners have come from northern Africa with 30 titles since 1994, the year it started.

The supremacy of north Africa over the rest of Africa is evident in terms of their league, well-laid infrastructure and the harnessing of their local and international talents.

The rest of Africa has a lot of catching up to do with the North Africans, or they will dominate African football for a very long time.