Ivory Coast is all set to host the inaugural edition of the WAFU Women’s Cup, where eight nations will compete to be crowned the first ever West African champion.
The West African showpiece will also be the first series of matches for the newly-appointed gaffers: Thomas Dennerby (Nigeria), Sellas Tetteh (Ghana) and Tomety Kaï (Togo).
The tournament has been scheduled right outside the FIFA international break (27 February–8 March), though.
Therefore a number of the participating nations’ star players abroad might be unavailable.
The tournament in brief:
- When: 14–24 January
- Where: Abidjan, Ivory Coast
- Who: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger (Group A); Nigeria, Mali (replaced Benin), Senegal, Togo (Group B).
Reigning African champions, Nigeria, are the continent’s top dogs, thus super favourites to claim the title.
However, with the tournament scheduled outside the FIFA international break, Nigeria will most likely have to make do without their stars based abroad.
The last time this happened—the 2015 All African Games—Nigeria finished a distance fourth, behind both Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Super Falcons will also be under Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby, appointed just weeks to the tournament to prepare a team that has not played for over a year.
All in all, Nigeria should advance to the knockouts, as on paper, only Senegal can give them a tough challenge in Group B.
The Senegalese proved a hard nut to crack for Nigeria in the last AWCON qualifiers.
They held the perpetual African champions to a one-all draw at home before falling 2–0 in the return leg.
Ghana, ranked second in the continent, are one of just two sided in the tournament to play a match in the last 12 months.
Though still smarting from that France whacking last October, Ghana are the other favourites to go all the way.
They will have a good sum of their abroad-based players who are in offseason, including Europe-based Portia Boakye.
The Black Queens will target a top finish in Group A to avoid meeting in the semi-finals the runaway favourite to finish top of Group B: Nigeria.
Their biggest obstacle towards this aim are the hosts—a side they have never lost to, with their last win against the Ivorians coming in the 2015 All African Games semi-finals.
The hosts remain a heavy favourites to go all the way despite their prolonged inactivity in recent times, resulting in being axed from the FIFA World Rankings.
Ivory Coast can beat the best of them as was evident when they dismissed South Africa in AWCON 2014 third-place match to qualify for the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
They followed their World Cup debut with a rarity: defeating Nigeria twice in the same competition: the 2015 All African Games.
But inconsistency remains their Achilles’ heels as the majestic 2015 was followed by a forgettable 2016 where they fell to Egypt in the AWCON 2016 qualifiers.
The Ivorians may also miss a number of their top players abroad, likes of Nadège Essoh in France.
The Spain-based duo of Ida Guehai and scorer of that legendary 2015 World Cup beauty Ange Koko are likely to be unavailable as well.
But they still have enough quality in abroad-based players such as Ines Nrehy and Josee Nahi who are in offseason and available, plus home advantage is on their side.
Guest nation Senegal are favourites to join the “big three” in the knockouts, though they too might miss their top players abroad, likes of France-based Marème Yally.
Last ranked 16th in the continent before falling off the FIFA rankings due to inactivity, Burkina Faso are the other darkhorse in the tournament.
They are also the other nation in the tournament to have seen a pitch in the last 12 months, a 4–0 defeat to South Africa in a friendly last October.
Earlier, Burkina Faso and Senegal were the two sure darkhorses but Mali joins this fold after replacing Benin who withdrew.
Mali arrives at the tournament at the back of qualifying for the last AWCON in 2016.
The thus are in fine form and should give Senegal a run for their money in the battle to at least finish second after Nigeria in Group B to advance.
Though their chances of reaching the knockouts are slim, the tournament will be a welcomed opportunity to get back into the game for Niger and Togo.
Niger played their last FIFA-recognised match a decade ago and interestingly, it was a double-digit defeat to Group A mate Burkina Faso.
Both Benin and Niger will be returning to the international scene after close to a decade of inaction.
Unlike the rest of the nations who will using the tournament to fine-tune for AWCON 2018 qualifiers, Niger and Togo will not feature in the qualifiers.
Niger have not entered the qualifiers while a CAF sanction for withdrawing from the 2016 AWCON qualifiers excluded Togo from the 2018 qualifiers.