The Africa Cup of Nations: the premier intra-continental soccer tournament for...well, the name tells you everything you need to know about its geographic focus.
AFCON, as it is sometimes called (sometimes, you'll see it referred to as CAN, the acronym of its French name - Coupe d'Afrique des Nations), pops up every two years bringing with it an interminable whine from European clubs, who like to sign African stars and then complain about those players having the impertinence to want to play for their country.
No such problems for the New York Red Bulls, thankfully. AFCON is a January tournament; traditionally, RBNY doesn't do much in January other than torment its fan base (with increasingly cruel and unusual zeal, but that is a discussion for another day).
This January -- while RBNY tries to see whether it is possible to survive after replacing its own heart with a 300-slide PowerPoint presentation -- AFCON isn't just a potentially pleasing diversion from the demolition-crew management style favored in Harrison, it is also an important moment in the career of a young Red Bull: Ambroise Oyongo.
The tournament started on January 17 and will finish on February 8. It features 16 teams, but this guide is for RBNY fans, which means it is focused only on the part of the tournament featuring a Red Bull: the part involving Cameroon.
AFCON has been running since 1957, and has been a biannual event since 1968. This year's edition is notable for featuring neither the most successful team in the tournament's history - Egypt - nor the defending champion, Nigeria.
Oyongo's Cameroon is one of the more historically successful sides in the competition: four titles (last in 2002), twice runner-up (most recently in 2008). All told, the Indomitable Lions have reached the semi-finals of AFCON eight times and kicked on to win it all on half of those occasions.
AFCON divides 16 teams into four groups of four. The top two in each group advance to the knockout rounds. Quarterfinals (January 31 - February 1), Seminfinals (February 4 - February 5), and a Final (February 8) follow the group stage. The losing semifinalists will have a third-place playoff (February 7).
Tiebreakers in the group stage prioritize head-to-head record between the teams concerned before considering overall goal difference and goals scored. If all else fails, we'll see the never-satisfying drawing of lots.
In the knockout rounds, tied teams play extra time followed by (if necessary) penalty kicks - except the third-place playoff, which will just roll straight to penalties after 90 minutes, if required.
vs. Mali - January 20
vs. Guinea - January 24
vs. Ivory Coast - January 28
Oyongo and Co. are technically the third seed in the four-team group, and that appears generous when you consider Cameroon's dreadful record at international tournaments in recent years: 31st in the 2010 World Cup; 32nd (i.e. last) in the 2014 World Cup; failed to qualify for the 2012 and 2013 (back-to-back tournaments were necessary to flip the tournament out of clashing with World Cup years) editions of AFCON.
But the Indomitable Lions most recent form - in qualifying for this competition - has been impressive. Cameroon won its qualifying group with a 4-0-2 record: 14 points from a possible 18; no losses; nine goals scored and just one conceded. The highlight of the qualifying campaign was a 4-1 thrashing of group favorite Ivory Coast in Yaounde (Cameroon); the low point was arguably the 0-0 home draw with Sierra Leone, which gave the Leone Stars their only point of the six-game final qualifying stage.
None of that was sufficient to compensate for Cameroon's lamentable past performances over the last few years, which is why the Lions find themselves with a relatively tough draw: Guinea, Ivory Coast and Mali each finished second in their respective qualifying groups (Ivory Coast, of course, finished second to Cameroon) but none is without merit.
Nevertheless, the Lions should be disappointed if they do not at least get out of their group. They won a group including Ivory Coast to get to this tournament, and the Elephants still look like the best team on paper in this particular set of AFCON contestants.
The secret to Cameroon's turnaround after the summer's embarrassing pratfall in Brazil is an abrupt departure from the conventional wisdom on how national soccer teams should deal with failure: head coach Volker Finke was retained after the World Cup, and he jettisoned a great many of his squad's senior players, favoring a younger, less well-known selection for AFCON qualifying.
Those players kept winning, so Finke kept picking them - and he's pretty much stuck to the formula for the main event. The Cameroon squad for AFCON is very different from the 23-man roster that went to Brazil. Samuel Eto'o and Pierre Webo have retired from the international game; Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Alex Song, Landry N'Guemo, Joel Matip, Allan Nyom, and Jean Makoun are out; so too are all three of the goalkeepers who represented the Lions in the summer.
In their place, Finke turned to a new generation. Fabrice Ondoa is a 19-year-old 'keeper on Barcelona's B team - and he was perhaps the major reason the Lions only conceded one goal in their qualifying group. The attack is now largely carried by Porto's Vincent Aboubakar (22), Lyon's Clinton N'Jie (21) and Schalke's Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting (25). The midfield, led by team captain Stephane Mbia (28; Sevilla), is where most of the squad's international experience lies. In defense, 24-year-old Nicolas N'Koulou is the most capped player (he's racked up 57 appearances for his country already), leading a group primarily comprised of national team neophytes. If 18-year-old, uncapped, Marseille defender Brice N'Late had not suffered the misfortune of a car crash, the squad would not have had room for 29-year-old Aurelien Chedjou.
This team represents an attempt to usher in a new era of Cameroonian football: one its architects hope will have more in common with the national program's illustrious past (four AFCON titles, a World Cup quarterfinal, and a Confederations Cup runner-up medal) than its record since 2010.
And Ambroise Oyongo has been a surprisingly important part of the plan. He started the Lions first two games of their qualifying group at left back, but dropped to the bench when Henri Bedimo returned from injury. His absence lasted one game, and Oyongo was subsequently deployed as a right back. He's looking a lot like one of Finke's favorites at the moment.
That will last as long as the team's form holds up. Oyongo is 23, and still figuring out his best position (for his club, he's looked most impressive as a left winger, but has made creditable contributions from both full back spots). He will doubtless face some challenges in his international career, and the latest one is retaining his place in Cameroon's starting lineup for whatever period the Lions remain in this tournament.
The Lions preparations for AFCON have been punctuated by a series of distractions: Alex Song's petulant retirement from international football (he was not called up for AFCON after being identified as one of the team's World Cup troublemakers); captain Mbia was injured in early January and his fitness is uncertain; Jacques Zoua was left out of the final 23 due to allegations that his age was misrepresented earlier in his career.
Oyongo is part of a promising young group of players, but they are in one of the tougher groups in the competition and will do well to meet the expectation that they will be one of Group D's quarterfinal representatives.
vs. Cameroon - January 20 @ Nuevo Estadio de Malabo, Malabo
Les Aigles have never won AFCON, but they were runners-up in 1972 and have made the semifinals of five tournaments since 1994, including the last two editions.
Mali struggled a little in qualifying: winning three and losing three to squeak out of its group as the second-placed team, thanks to a final-round win over Algeria (no small achievement: the Fennecs are one of the favorites to win this year's title). But it has retained some bona fide stars of African football: Seydou Keita is 35, but made the AFCON team of the tournament in 2012 and 2013, and he has as many Serie A appearances for AS Roma so far this season as Gervinho and Francesco Totti; left back Adama Tamboura plies his trade for Randers in Denmark, and was in the AFCON team of the tournament in 2012.
Coach Henryk Kasperzcak is Polish, but a veteran of African soccer. He coach Mali to fourth place in AFCON 2002, and has also guided Ivory Coast and Tunisia (runner-up in 1996 under his management) to deep runs in the tournament.
Mali is not one of the top-tier teams in AFCON 2015, but it will be expected to be competitive in every game it plays.
vs. Cameroon - January 24 @ Nuevo Estadio de Malabo, Malabo
From a Red Bulls' fan perspective, this is the team that beat Ibrahim Sekagya's Uganda to a place in this tournament - so if you're looking for a side to root against...
Guinea's preparations for AFCON 2015 included a 5-2 thrashing by Senegal, which is an ominous sign for a side kicking off the competition against Ivory Coast, an opponent not short of attacking strength.
The high point of the nation's AFCON achievements to date is an appearance in the final in 1976 (lost to Morocco), and it would do very well to match that run in 2015. The squad lacks any out-and-out stars. Ibrahima Traore is an attacking player with considerable Bundesliga experience; captain and most-capped player in the squad, Kamil Zayatte is a sturdy defensive player who has been bouncing between the Turkish and English leagues for the last few years (he is also injured and will miss his team's opening match).
vs. Cameroon - Jan 28 @ Nuevo Estadio de Malabo, Malabo
Group favorites by a considerable distance, second-place finish to Cameroon in qualifying notwithstanding. The Elephants are star-studded: Yaya Toure (African Footballer of the Year for the last four seasons); Salomon Kalou may have fallen off many radars since leaving Chelsea, but he had 30 goals in two seasons for Lille, and has five in 13 league appearances for Hertha Berlin so far this season; Gervinho is having a good time for AS Roma; Wilfried Bony just got picked up by Manchester City after proving himself a reliable "one-in-two" striker for Swansea; Lacina Traore is trying to get his career back on track at Monaco, but he can be guaranteed to stand out - he's 6' 8".
And those are just the better-known attacking players. The squad doesn't look quite so strong in defense, and African football is well accustomed to watching highly-rated Ivorian national teams not quite live up to their promise (Ivory Coast was AFCON runner-up in 2006 and 2012, and a semifinalist in 2008; it has won the tournament once, in 1992).
Still, this is the team to beat in Group D.
After the Group Stage
Cameroon is in the tougher half of the draw: getting out of its group will bring a quarterfinal against a team from Group C, the tournament's Group of Death. Algeria, Ghana and South Africa won their qualifying groups; Senegal bagged the most points (13) of any qualifying group runner-up, impressive since they had to play Egypt twice (and beat the Pharaohs on both occasions).
Should the Indomitable Lions make it to the knockout rounds, the expectation is they will play either Algeria or Ghana and lose, since those two teams are among the favorites to win the tournament (Senegal, however, has opened up its AFCON with a win over the Black Stars...Group of Death etc). If they make it past whichever Group C hurdle is presented, they will go on to play a representative of Groups A or B in the semifinals. Tunisia and Zambia are arguably the strongest teams in that half of the draw, but Burkina Faso finished second in the 2013 AFCON tournament. Ultimately, any opponent in the latter stage of the competition has sufficient form and momentum to be a threat.
But this is an AFCON guide for RBNY fans, which means it concerns itself with Cameroon (because Oyongo) and the knockout rounds are only of great interest if the Lions get that far.
Once A Metro will provide coverage of Cameroon - and Ambroise Oyongo - for the duration of its latest AFCON adventure. And it is to be hoped that will include opportunity for a more detailed discussion of knockout round opponents and scenarios.