AI predicts Senegal most likely to triumph at AFCON

16 January 2024 3 min. read

An artificial intelligence model has been used to predict the outcome of the African Cup of Nations, set to take place in January. According to Opta and the BBC, Senegal are best placed to defend their AFCON crown, with the Côte d’Ivoire second favourites to take home the title.

Each year, artificial intelligence and quantum computing are said to become more advanced, more accurate than ever before – crunching vast siloes of statistics in seconds to come up with analysis and predictions of all manner of business conundrums. And yet, whenever companies try to demonstrate this, by leveraging the power of technology to predict the outcome of sporting events, the results still read like the performance of England’s men’s team at international tournaments: one glowing victory amid a sea of botched operations.

Oddly enough, of the recent predictions thrown out by computing models, England’s women succeeding in the 2022 Euros is that lone victory – though Gracenote’s model did follow it up by suggesting the US would win the women’s world cup in 2023. Beyond that, other woeful efforts to use technology to anticipate sporting outcomes have included OptaJoe forecasting Liverpool winning the Premier League in the 2022/23 season – the Reds went on to finish fifth – and the AI model of Boston Consulting Group suggesting Roger Federer would triumph at Wimbledon in 2018, only for him to crash out in the quarter-finals.

AI predicts Senegal most likely to triumph at AFCON

In spite of this, 2024’s ‘2023’ African Cup of Nations has seen another contender look to prove the prowess of its data-churning machinery, this time in the shape of Opta. Collaborating with the BBC, the statistics firm used its AI prediction model to suggest holders Senegal are most likely to lift the trophy again this time out. The odds and rankings are based on historical and recent team performances – something which tends to weigh in favour of incumbent champions – and suggest that Senegal have a 36% chance of reaching at least the semi-final, and a 13% of winning the whole thing.

Other contenders

The previously noted predictions suggest that past performance is no guarantee of future results – especially in the world of sport – but before writing this off, it is worth keeping in mind that Senegal would be the fourth team to have won consecutive AFCON tournaments. There is clear precedent for this to happen, and it last occurred when Egypt won three in a row from 2006 to 2010.

By Opta’s reckoning, Egypt are distant prospects when it comes to reviving those glory years. Despite a team featuring Liverpool star Mo Salah, Egypt are attributed just a 30% chance of reaching the semi-finals, and 9% of going on to win the tournament.

Following the World Cup heroics of last winter, you might expect Morocco to be the closest rivals to Senegal in Opta’s ratings. But the first African nation to reach a men’s World Cup semi-final are also notoriously volatile, and historically known for in-fighting – with playmaker Hakim Ziyech having previously entered and exited international retirement, depending on who is coaching the Atlas Lions.

Instead, Opta suggests that the most likely challenger will be the Côte d’Ivoire. With a team stacked with Nottingham Forest players (Serge Aurier, Willy Boly, Ibrahim Sangare), this might seem like a strange choice on paper – but as hosts, the team will take a home advantage into games that saw them prevail in the tournament in 12% of Opta’s scenarios.

Looking at some of the more distant odds, Opta does not seem to hold out much hope for a first-time winner – although that is what Senegal was in 2021. The best chances of that appear to come from Mali, which Opta found would win in 3.7% of its simulations. But whatever happens, it seems the odds are stacked against Opta’s computer when it comes to predicting the winner. With just 5.4% separating the top seven teams, it really does seem to be anyone’s game at present.