AFCON 2021: The Rise of the underdogs

By Bakah Derick 

The 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2021 will certainly go down in history as one of the tournaments during which the rise of underdogs was beyond expectations. Comoros, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Malawi and Gambia, have caused an unprecedented upset during the competition that enters the eighth finals this weekend. 

Representatives of the Comoros island have given a good account of themselves so far despite being new comers in the 33year old continental soccer showcase. Though they suffered a 1-0 defeat on the opening day in the hands of Gabon, beaten by the atlas lions of Morocco in their second outing, Comoros still had one option against the highly rated Black Stars of Ghana: WIN. In what many pundits considered an impossible mission for the "fresheurs", Comoros took Africa and the world by surprise as they showed Ghana the matching order out of the tournament with an emphatic 3-2 win. They have been paired against the host nation Cameoon in the round of 16. Many are now cautious in their  attempt to suggest who can be the winner of the fixture following Comoros' recent exploits. 

Sierra Leone 

The Leone Stars shocked the continent when the held defending champions Algeria to a zero all tie on the first day of games in Douala. Goal keeper Mohammed Kamara made sure his team gave the desert  foxes a true run for their money. Unfortunately, they have not been able qualified for the next stage but their determination and resistance against Algeria and Cote d'Ivoire has put them on a class of their own as they returned to the competition after 25years of absence. Equatorial Guinea progress at their expense but certainly, the Leone Stars had become a side no one wanted to face. 

Equatorial Guinea 

The Nzalang Nacional beyond expectation finished second after Cote d'Ivoire in group E. They beat Sierra Leone 1-0 to move to the round of 16. Their qualification for the knockout stages may not be the surprise since they have always done so but their defeat of defending champions Algeria is. Since their quarter final finish in their debut as host in 2012, no one has seen them as a threat though they finished fourth in 2015. They qualify for the knockout stages at the expense of another uncommon participant Sierra Leone. 


For the first time in their AFCON history, Malawi is at the quarter finals. Despite losing their opening game against the Republic of Guinea 1-0, their group B campaign that ended with a 2-1 win against Zimbabwe and a goalless draw against Senegal gave the Flames an opportunity to the round of 16 as one of the best third-placed finishers with four points. Very few pundits saw Malawi as a potential eighth finalists reason why their ability to pin down one of the tournament's  favourite Senegal and eventual qualification is seen as a major upset. Though Marian Mario Marinica’s side had to rely on other teams to reach the knockout stage, the important issue here is that they are there and the party will certainly be a big one in Malawi even if they fail to go beyond that level. 


Ranked 150th by the FIFA December 2021 rankings, the Scorpions were the lowest ranked team in the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations. As debutants, seeing them beyond the group stages was a challenge for the wise. Following their brilliant 1-0 win against the Carthage eagles of Tunisia on their last day on Thursday, the Gambia finished second. After sharing points with Mali on match Day one, the Gambia signaled their interest to go beyond expectation. As the Scorpions prepare to face Guinea on Monday, Tom Saintfiet's side can no longer be considered a light weight. 

As we look forward to the knockout stages that begin this weekend, the likelihood is that there could be more upset and surprises with the possibilities of the mighty falling as underdogs battle their way up.

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