The sense of occasion has not been lost on Ivory Coast, who know this may be their Golden Generation's final chance for international silverware.
They might as well have called it the West Africa Cup of Nations and included South Africa, the hosts, just for fun.
Never before in the tournament’s history has one region so dominated the makeup of the quarterfinals. But for South Africa, who finished atop Group A, the entire round hails from West Africa, which means the eventual champion likely will as well.
It has been 19 years, in which nine Cups of Nations have been played, since Nigeria last claimed the title for the region. Five of the quarterfinalists in 1994 were West African—a number that was never again equalled until Nigeria and Burkina Faso booked their places on Tuesday. They were joined a day later by Togo, who along with Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali and Ivory Coast completed the last eight.
So we have two West African derbies (Ivory Coast v Nigeria and Burkina Faso v Togo), an intriguing contest between Ghana and tournament debutants Cape Verde and a toss-up involving South Africa and Mali coming up this weekend.
Like much of the tournament has to date, each of the four ties promises to deliver something unexpected. There are no clear favourites in any of them, and if the semifinals ended up involving the precisely opposite roster selected on the next four slides no one would be all that surprised.
But that’s what makes this competition—and this instalment of it, in particular—especially compelling. You don’t know what you’re going to get; you can’t say with confidence that this side or that will lift the trophy in Johannesburg on February 10.
Seydou Keita (right) was Mali's best player during the Group Stage.
South Africa first qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 and went on to win the whole thing. Two years later they were finalists in Burkina Faso and in 2000 they came third in Ghana and Nigeria.
In 2002 they reached the quarterfinals; in 2004, 2006 and 2008 they went out at the Group Stage; they failed to qualify at all in both 2010 and 2012.
You can see the pattern of decline.
That said, Bafana Bafana have given a good account of themselves the past few weeks and come into their quarterfinal match with Mali in good spirit. And rightfully so.
Manager Gordon Igesund hasn’t shied away from making tough decisions with his squad (such as benching the popular Siphiwe Tshabalala) and the team he selected for the Group A match against Angola seemed particularly inspired.
In Itumeleng Khune, South Africa have one of the continent’s best goalkeepers, and defender Siyabonga Sangweni has mysteriously hit a purple patch of goalscoring form at this Cup of Nations.
On the other side of the ball Mali arrive in Durban as Group B runners-up. They scored just two goals in the Group Stage but also conceded only two—their midfield organization and general sturdiness making them an extremely difficult side to break down.
If they’re to progress to the semifinals for the second tournament in a row (they came third in 2012) they’ll need to coax some more production from Mamadou Samassa—who scored in the 1-1 draw with Congo DR—and get an overall better performance from Cheick Diabaté, who has struggled in South Africa.
If they can find two goals you just feel South Africa won’t have enough to find a way through one of the best defensive groups in African football.
Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba will turn 35 in March and may not have another opportunity to win an international title.
Ivory Coast’s time is now.
Since Didier Drogba made his international debut 11 years ago the Elephants have been to two World Cups, four Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals and two finals.
For all that success, however, they have yet to win a single piece of silverware, and with Drogba soon to turn 35 and teammates Boubacar Barry, Kolo Toure, Siaka Tiene and Didier Zokora also on the wrong side of 30 the national team will likely look considerably different two years from now.
Judging by their play so far in South Africa, the sense of occasion has been lost on no one. Ivory Coast were held to a competitive 2-2 draw against Algeria in their final Group D match, but by then they had already won the section thanks to wins over Togo and Tunisia.
Yaya Toure has bossed the midfield and looks an early candidate for Player of the Tournament honours while Gervinho, who is so often so inconsistent at Arsenal, has scored twice and is Ivory Coast’s in-form forward.
Looking to become just the latest side to topple much-hyped Ivory Coast is Nigeria, who earned a pair of 1-1 draws against Burkina Faso and Zambia in Group B before beating Ethiopia on Monday.
Two goals in the final 11 minutes from Victor Moses ensured the Super Eagles’ progression to the quarterfinals—a stage they have reached in five of the last six Cups of Nations.
Unlike many of his predecessors, manager Stephen Keshi has selected his teams based on form rather than fame at this tournament. Captain and all-time appearance leader Joseph Yobo found himself on the bench against Ethiopia, for example, as did highly-rated winger Ahmed Musa and Lazio midfielder Ogenyi Onazi.
The result has been better organization and a tighter midfield, which John Obi Mikel has marshalled exceptionally well in South Africa.
The likes of Fegor Ogude, who plays for Valerenga in Norway, and Sunday Mba, who represents Nigerian side Enugu Rangers, have been given opportunities in the first team and have vindicated Keshi’s faith. Up top, Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike has two goals so far.
Where previous Nigeria sides might have crumbled against an opponent such as Ivory Coast this one will be no pushover. Unfortunately for them, they might just be standing in the way of destiny.
Prediction: Ivory Coast
Emmanuel Adebayor has helped Togo reach the knockout stages at a major tournament for the first time.
Burkina Faso, who have only once before progressed beyond the Group Stage at the Africa Cup of Nations, have been one of the surprise stories at this tournament.
Drawn into the competitive Group C alongside Nigeria, Zambia and Ethiopia they looked, on paper, to be destined for a third-place finish in South Africa.
But Zambia’s failure to replicate their competition-winning form of a year ago and Nigeria’s struggles in front of goal opened the door wide to the Stallions, who obliged by galloping through it.
Alain Traore’s heroics in the dying moments of their opening match against Nigeria allowed Burkina Faso to snatch an unlikely point in Nelspruit, and the Lorient striker’s brace against Ethiopia helped ensure his side would have a place in the quarterfinals.
Unfortunately, Traore will play no further part at this Cup of Nations, having picked up a thigh injury during Tuesday’s match against Zambia. It’s a massive loss, and in his absence manager Paul Put will have to look elsewhere for offensive production.
Moumouni Dagano, Burkina Faso’s all-time top goalscorer and a national icon, is likely to shoulder much of the burden, although the likes of Jonathan Pitroipa will be counted on to contribute from midfield as well.
Togo meanwhile will have to make do without towering defender Dare Nibombe after the 32-year-old picked up a pair of yellow cards in Wednesday’s controversial 1-1 draw with Tunisia.
South African referee Daniel Bennett made several questionable calls during the match and the Togolese Football Federation could still appeal the decision.
In any event, the Sparrow Hawks have every reason to feel good about their performance in South Africa so far.
Never before have they progressed to the knockout stages of a major competition, and it was just three years ago that they were forced to withdraw from the Cup of Nations in Angola after their convoy was attacked by rebels in the breakaway enclave of Cabinda, leaving three of their contingent dead.
Togo’s most impressive showing at this competition to date was a 2-0 win over Algeria in Rustenburg that put them on course for the quarterfinals.
Emmanuel Adebayor opened the scoring for his side in that match and will be central to Togo’s chances against Burkina Faso.
In Jonathan Ayite and Serge Gakpe, both of whom have scored at this Cup of Nations, manager Didier Six has a decent supporting cast in the attack as well.
Asamoah Gyan (right) scored once and assisted twice in Ghana's 3-0 win over Niger.
No doubt Ghana will go into Saturday’s quarterfinal match against Cape Verde hoping midnight strikes on the Blue Sharks' Cinderella story.
The islanders made their debut in a major competition at this Cup of Nations, and after draws against South Africa and Morocco ensured their place in the last eight by coming from behind to beat Angola in Port Elizabeth.
Ghana, meanwhile, beat Mali and Niger after playing Congo DR to an entertaining 2-2 draw in their opening match en route to a first-place finish in Group B. The 3-0 win over Niger, in particular, showed off the Black Stars’ strengths and vindicated their status as a legitimate, pre-tournament favourite.
Asamoah Gyan, who has rather fallen off the radar in the United Arab Emirates with Al Ain, is enjoying a terrific tournament and set up a pair of goals against Niger having opened the scoring himself after just six minutes.
He has formed a dynamic partnership with Porto winger Christian Atsu, while on the opposite flank Kwadwo Asamoah has been effective as well.
As Gyan is his side’s only significant threat in the centre of attack Ghana’s wide play will be vital to breaking down the opposition—something Cape Verde will surely be aware of.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for Cape Verde will be avoiding the mentality that just by making it this far they have accomplished what they set out to do.
Their celebrations after beating Angola (they belted out the national anthem in front of the press corps following the final whistle) had a certain charm but may also have revealed a side already content with their achievement. If that’s the case they’ll be handed a lopsided defeat by Ghana.
For the match to be competitive, midfielder Platini will need to replicate the form he showed demonstrated against Morocco, where he not only scored the only goal of the match but consistently drove his side forward.
Djaniny is also in line for a place in the starting 11 after beginning the Angola match on the bench. After being introduced at the restart he was one of Cape Verde’s livelier attacking players as they turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win in the final minutes.