WAFCON 2022: A group stage like none before

A collage of 2022 WAFCON Group Stage players.

For the first time in history, the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) has entered the quarterfinals after an entertaining group stage. There was some excellent football, VAR drama and a level of competition that the tournament had never seen before.

Tournament overshadowed by absences

As the women’s game continues to grow in Africa, so does the stature of the biggest stars on the continent. More and more players are moving abroad to the strongest leagues in the world and bringing back that experience and quality to light up the WAFCON. But the cruel hand of fate has denied Africa’s three biggest stars from moving into the competition’s quarterfinals.

On the verge of the tournament kicking off, Barba Banda had just arrived from China to play in her first international matches since the Olympics, where she set a record as the only player to score back-to-back hat-tricks.

But to the shock of the continent, Banda was left out of the squad list for the tournament. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) ruled her ineligible to compete under differences in sexual development (DSD) rules set by FIFA. Plenty of questions have cropped up, namely on how she could be allowed to play in previous WAFCONs and the Olympics but not in this summer’s competition.

The Zambian FA has appealed the decision to CAF and FIFA. They are still hopeful of bringing Banda into the squad for the quarterfinals ahead of their match against Senegal.

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The second star to fall was Asisat Oshoala, Africa’s mightiest superstar in the women’s game. Having come into the tournament off the back of two seasons in which she won every trophy bar the most recent Champions League final with Barcelona and with something to prove after ceding her WAFCON top scorer title to Thembi Kgatlana in 2018.

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Fittingly, her first match of the 2022 tournament pitted her against Kgatlana and South Africa. But she took a heavy challenge on her knee just seven minutes into the game. Despite refusing to come off until the 82nd minute, Oshoala’s tournament was clearly in peril. Two days later, the Nigerian camp confirmed that she suffered an MCL injury and would be out for the rest of the contest.

With Oshoala and Banda out, only Kgatlana remained. And she began this year’s competition with the same brilliance that won her the Player of the Tournament award in 2018. Against Nigeria, she was a constant menace. She scored and set up a goal against Burundi and was Player of the Match against Botswana in the final group stage game.

But even Kgtalana fell to the cruel fate of injury. In the second half against Botswana, she slipped and fell in pain as she tried to lose her marker. Later, she revealed that her achilleas had popped when she tried to step off. The next day, the news came that the recently signed Racing Louisville forward would be out for three months.

Without any clear stars upfront, the tournament’s Golden Boot award is now up for grabs. Moroccan midfielder Ghizlane Chebbak is currently leading the way on three goals, two from penalties and another from a free-kick. But a host of players sit on two goals behind her.

Competition never seen before

The biggest takeaway from the WAFCON 2022 so far is how competitive the tournament has been. Despite four debutants and some of the most prominent African nations like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali and Equatorial Guinea not being present, the gap between the top and the rest has narrowed in the last four years.

The most significant deficit in the tournament so far was Nigeria’s 4-0 thrashing of Burundi. But even that result in the context of a Burundian side that is entirely amateur and has an average age of 21.5 is a reasonable outcome for the Swallows.

Fellow debutants Togo grabbed a shock 1-1 draw with giants Cameroon, and both Botswana and Burkina Faso only fell to late goals against South Africa and Morocco, respectively.

Despite opening the tournament to 12 teams, the competition has never been higher. This athletic edge carries into the first-ever quarterfinals, where it initially would have been expected to see four teams completely ease through to the semi-finals.

On the contrary, none of the quarterfinals are a given.

Zambia vs. Senegal and Nigeria vs. Cameroon are too close to call beforehand. Morocco will face a very stubborn Botswana side and, having not created a single open-play goal yet, will struggle to break down the Mares. Following Kgatlana’s injury, South Africa will likely have similar travails in breaking down Tunisia, even if they come into the match as heavy favourites.

Gone are the days that Nigeria are guaranteed to win the tournament and gone are the days of cricket score lines at the WAFCON. Instead, every match is competitive, and no team can come into any game with complacency.

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