With a week’s momentum and then some, the 2022 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON) heads towards its business end, that point from which there are no second chances.
The group stage, featuring no less than a dozen teams for the very first time, didn’t disappoint.
Record champions Nigeria got another tournament off to a rocky start, losing to South Africa in their Group C opener. But they recovered, not surprisingly, to win their next two games and qualify for the knock-outs as runners-up to the Banyana Banyana.
The South Africans went through without a hitch, picking maximum points. Also enjoying smooth progress were hosts Morocco, who haven’t failed to make the most of home advantage. Zambia, an emerging force, advanced too – as did four other sides, including debutantes Botswana.
The next phase, however, won’t be lit up by some of the usual faces.
Between them, Asisat Oshoala of Nigeria and South Africa star Thembi Kgatlana share the last four prizes for Africa’s Player of the Year — with the ratio heavily in favour of the former — but neither would have any part in the rest of the competition. A medial ligament injury limited Oshoala to action in just the first game; Kgatlana, before a ruptured Achilles tendon ended her own involvement, got through three matches.
So, yes, this AWCON’s intensity, without its brightest stars, would dim a little, but there is still enough wattage to set the competition alight all the way to the grand finale.
The fact that Nigeria and South Africa – two of the tournament’s most successful sides, also the previous edition’s finalists – would be without their best players leaves both significantly weakened, certainly more vulnerable to potential shocks than they’d ordinarily be.
And there is no shortage of teams hopeful of exploiting those chinks in their respective armours.
Morocco and Cameroon would consider themselves favourites to do so, but, all round, this is as open a field as there has ever been in the AWCON’s history. Even Botswana, green and unfancied and only reaching this stage by the skin of their teeth, might just fancy the opportunity to claim a bigger scalp or two while they still have their license to dream.
The admittedly improbable prospect of an upset, if nothing else, is enough to keep us all hooked right till the very end. Blink, and you might just be blindsided.