The Africa Cup of Nations is famous for being an incredibly competitive tournament with surprises always likely. In 2012 Zambia went all the way and defeated Ghana and Ivory Coast sides at the height of their powers. A year later, an unfancied Burkina Faso side made it to the final before narrowly losing to Nigeria.
When the AFCON expanded to 24 teams in 2019 it allowed more minnows to qualify for the tournament which brought about the incredible Madagascar team that beat both Nigeria and the DRC on the way to an historic first quarter-final appearance.
This year, more small nations have qualified than ever before, including two debutants in the Comoros and Gambia. Here are the three smaller sides set to impress in Cameroon.
The East African giants are one of the few teams made predominantly of locally-based players. Only two players in their squad are based in North Africa with the rest playing in the Ethiopian Premier League.
Traditionally seen as a negative thing, the Walias are challenging that conception. The league, having recently signed a historic TV deal with South African broadcasters SuperSport, has professionalised and is now thriving. The rapid growth of the Ethiopian Premier League has propelled the national team forward.
Young, exciting players like Amanuel Gebremichael and last season’s league top scorer Abubekir Nassir have emerged and they have combined well with established veterans like Shemilis Bekele and record national goal-scorer Getaneh Kebede.
The other advantage of having a locally-based squad is that it allows the side to play the same kind of football in the Premier League, highly technical football. African football is often lauded for the physicality of it, but the Ethiopian national side runs against that narrative.
The team is physically one of the smallest at the tournament, but they play some of the most attractive football on the continent when on the ball.
They have a tradition of playing a short passing game heavily reliant on good technique that long predates Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team and the Walias are continuing that tradition.
Thy are often over-zealous in their desire to play out from the back, notorious for conceding soft goals, but they are sure to be one of the most enjoyable sides to watch.
Regardless of if they get out of their group, matches where Ethiopia are involved are sure to be exciting.
One of two debutants, the Comoros have no right to be at the Cup of Nations and have performed a miracle in making it to Cameroon.
But it is no accident. The Coelacanths are a product of a strategy that has been years in the making.
In 2014, Marseille-born Comorian Amir Abdou took over and pushed the FA to reach out to the diaspora for players, a wise move considering that there is not a national league on the archipelagic nation.
Abdou began bringing in players from the sizeable diaspora in France and has put together a tight unit tinged with class. The top 10 most capped players in Comorian football history are all a part of this Cup of Nations squad. Football is about putting together cycles of team’s and Abdou has built a cycle for the last 7 years up to this point.
The Comoros play very organised football, keeping it tight defensively, and relying on a number of individual talents to get the goals.
In midfield, everything goes through Youssouf M’Changama. The Guingamp midfielder has been at the heart of the project, is the most capped player for the Comoros and is their second top scorer.
Ahead of him, the goal threat comes from El Fardou Ben Nabouhane. The centre forward is the Comoros top scorer with a seriously impressive return of 13 goals from 25 games. The striker stars for Red Star Belgrade and is the top scoring foreigner in the Serbian League.
Any kind of result from the tournament would be a success for the Comoros, but if they get anything out of their group, it will come from these two players.
The final team on this list is another minnow that have found a different route to success than the Comoros or Ethiopia. Without a strong local league or a large diaspora, The Gambia have relied on their incredible youth structure.
Despite being a tiny nation, Gambia has a track record of producing excellent talents at youth level. They appeared at the 2007 U-20 World Cup and in March 2021 they came 3rd at the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations.
In recent years, they have coupled their production line with connections to agents and clubs in Europe. Talented players now have a route to playing in some of the biggest leagues in Europe, particularly Italy.
Omar Colley plays for Sampdoria, Musa Barrow has been excellent for Bologna, Ebrima Colley has impressed at Spezia, and Ebrima Darboe is just breaking into Jose Mourinho’s Roma.
Modou Barrow, formerly of Swansea and Reading, leads the line along with Assan Ceesay, who is currently the top scorer in the Swiss top-flight with Zurich.
A crop of young, exciting players along with the appointment with coach Tom Saintfiet in 2018 has led to a team building a strong unit and developing a long-term Gambian football project.
The Gambia’s inclination is to play vertical attacking football and use the talents they have up front, but they have shown themselves capable of playing tight, counter-attacking football against bigger opposition.
Gambia, along with the Comoros and Sierra Leone, had the unique challenge of being knocked out of World Cup Qualifying in the preliminary round.
This meant that while the rest of AFCON teams spent the last three international windows playing competitive matches, they have had to play friendlies against other teams who didn’t qualify.
Added to this, the disruption that late releases of players from Europe and COVID-19 disruptions have heavily affected Gambia’s preparation. But if Tom Saintfiet can put together his team at their pre-tournament camp in Saudi Arabia, they will be an exciting prospect.