The biennial African Nations Championship (CHAN) – one of the most unique international competitions in world football – kicks off in Algeria on 13 January.
Not to be confused with the Confederation of African Football’s (Caf) other flagship pan-African tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations, countries competing in the CHAN can only select players who ply their trade in their domestic leagues.
This means, for example, that Algeria cannot claim the services of Riyad Mahrez, and Senegal will not be able to call up Sadio Mane.
More on that soon. But first, the political dispute that has been the elephant in the room in the build-up to the tournament: why did Morocco withdraw?
Carriers will not take off
Morocco are the two-time defending champions, but the North Africans will not score a hat-trick after The Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) has decided to withdraw – just a day before the grand opening.
To understand this last-minute decision, you need to understand the political background.
Relations between Morocco and Algeria have been strained for decades — largely due to the twists and turns of several different territorial disputes — but in August 2021, when Algeria cut diplomatic ties entirely, it also closed its airspace to Moroccan aircraft.
Last month, on December 27, FRMF president and budget minister’s envoy Fouzi Lekjaa announced that the Atlas Lions would withdraw if the team did not land directly in the host city of Constantine, where they will play their matches, on a Royal Air Maroc flight.
A stalemate ensued, and neither nation wanted to budge. Caf has also remained silent on the matter, despite several requests from the BBC for clarification.
It was the FRMF who finally revealed on January 12, releasing a statement that read: “The Moroccan national team cannot travel to Constantine (Algeria) to play the 7th edition of the African Nations Championship and defend their title insofar as the final the approval of the flight of Royal Air Maroc (RAM), the official carrier of the Moroccan national football team, from Rabat to Constantine has not been confirmed.”
The consequences of the withdrawal have yet to be announced, but Caf’s rulebook appears to suggest Morocco could be banned from the next CHAN.
The BBC has contacted Caf for comment but has yet to hear back.
Uganda and Libya also threatened to withdraw from the CHAN due to legal and financial reasons, but in a few days their problems have been resolved and other teams are expected to compete.
In light of such widespread turmoil, Algeria is likely to be the bookies’ favourite.
DR Congo, Mali, Cameroon and Libya are also credible candidates ahead of the tournament.
We have already established that the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane will not entertain the Algerian crowd.
So if none of the star names are there to add some stardust, why bother?
Well, for those who want to catch a glimpse of the African stars of tomorrow, CHAN remains must-see television.
Take the success of the Moroccan national team at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Nayef Aguerd, Achraf Dari and Jawad El Yamiq made valuable contributions during the Atlas Lions’ historic run to the semi-finals.
Each of these players was an integral part of Morocco one after another CHAN triumphs in 2018 and 2020helping them move to European clubs West Ham United, Stade Brestois and Real Valladolid.
Cameroon’s run in Qatar was a little less impressive, but two of their better players, Samuel Oum Gouet and Moumi Ngamaleu, are also CHAN alumni, having played in the 2016 tournament in Rwanda.
19-year-old Yves Bissouma also played in Rwanda and made a very notable contribution in the semi-finals.
When he scored a dramatic last-minute winner against the country of his birth, Ivory Coast, he became an instant household name in Mali, even though the midfielder and his team-mates were lose the final to DR Congo.
French giants Lille had already scouted Bissouma for several years, but his performances at the CHAN cemented their interest and quickly prompted Les Dogues to sign the unlikely wonderkid.
Except for Bissouma, who has been part of the English Premier League for more than four years currently resides at Tottenham Hotspurother notable players who have made an impact at European clubs include Leicester City’s Patson Daka, RB Salzburg’s Sekou Koita and Braga’s Al Motasim Al-Musrati.
CHAN is also an integral part of the intra-continental transfer market.
For example, Aliou Dieng of Mali and Ali Maaloul of Tunisia each have multiple CHAN appearances on their resumes and now play for Al Ahly in Egypt, arguably the biggest club in Africa.
Who are this year’s stars?
There will be no shortage of talent at CHAN 2022.
For hosts Algeria, Ahmed Kendouci worth watching out for.
The 23-year-old midfielder leads the Algerian league with eight goals and is known as an opportunistic threat.
Another prolific goalscorer looking to make his mark is the striker from Ghana Daniel Afriyie.
The 21-year-old has already signed a pre-contract with Swiss club FC Zurich, but will still be allowed to take part as he is technically currently registered with Ghana’s Hearts of Oak.
Afriyie scored in each of Ghana’s four CHAN qualifiers and even went to Qatar where he was an unused substitute during the Black Stars’ World Cup campaign.
Senegal Lamine Camara and Angola Zini are two less established players who could become key players of their senior national teams in the near future.
Camara is a midfield dynamo who comes from the famous Generation Foot academy that produced Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane, Watford’s Ismail Sarr and Tottenham’s Papa Matar Sarr.
Zini is more of a long-legged striker who has already scored three goals in seven games for Angola in competitive senior matches and has played a few games in Europe, on loan at AEK Athens.
You may be wondering why CHAN 2022 is being played in January 2023.
Unsurprisingly, this is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused a backlog in the international football calendar, and CHAN has been pushed back by six months as a result.
This is the seventh edition, but Algeria is the host for the first time. The country is unveiling a brand new football-specific stadium to mark the occasion.
The Nelson Mandela Stadium in Algiers has a capacity of 40,784 and will host several important matches during the competition, including the opening match and the final on February 4.
The other three venues are the Miloud Hadefi Stadium in Oran, the Mohamed Hamlaoui Stadium in Constantine and the 19 May 1956 Stadium in Annaba.
CHAN 2022 was set to feature 18 nations for the first time, up from 16, after Caf’s executive committee voted to expand the tournament last May.
However, Morocco’s withdrawal reduced that number to 17 – something that disrupted the planned format of qualifying for the knockout stages.
Participating nations are divided into two groups of four and three groups of three.
In groups A and B, the top two teams will advance, but what will happen to groups C, D and E remains to be seen.
Caf’s initial plan was that only the top side from the three-team group would progress – but that will now mean just seven sides will reach the quarter-finals.
How the organizers will overcome this numerical imbalance remains to be seen.
Another reason to keep an eye on this unique international tournament.
Group A (Algeria): Algeria, Libya, Ethiopia, Mozambique
Group B (Annaba): DR Congo, Uganda, Côte D’Ivoire, Senegal
Group C (Konstantin): Sudan, Madagascar, Ghana, Morocco (retired)
Group D (Oran): Mali, Angola, Mauritania
Group E (Oran): Cameroon, Congo, Niger