So, if the only time you’ve ever come across this tournament is when certain Premiership managers whine about it, let me welcome to you to one of World Football’s best kept secrets. Over the years, the African Cup Of Nations has grown and grown to be one of the most respected tournaments in World Football. So, as the tournament kicks off in Angola on Sunday, welcome to an overview for the 27th competition.
The influx into European football of African players over the last 20 years has seen the profile of this once derided competition rise far above what even the most biased supporter of African football could have hoped for. My first experience of seeing an African side was Algeria’s incredible defeat of West Germany in 1982 and as I’ve watched football, its reputation has grown and grown. Now it’s a fantastic tournament and one you really need to catch so here’s who to look out for in my first article about it.
This year’s tournament is being held in Angola for the first time and as such will give us the first glimpse of some of the teams who have also qualified for the World Cup in June this year.16 teams participate in the finals, drawn in to groups of four, with quarter finals, semi finals, a 3rd/4th play off and the final.Running over 20 days, this looks set to be the biggest African Cup of Nations yet.
The qualification for this years tournament also doubled up as qualification for the World Cup, which saw the odd spectacle of South Africa entered even though they’re the World Cup hosts along with Angola to try and earn a double qualification. Ironically, Angola haven’t qualified for the World Cup and South Africa failed to reach the African Cup of Nations.
Favourites for the second tournament in a row are of course Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast but in 2008 they were humiliated in the semi final by Egypt 4-1. They’ll be desperate to try and add to their solitary title won in 1992.With a squad featuring the Toure brothers, Drogba, Eboue, Zakora and Dindane, they’ll certainly be there or there abouts, The Elephants will be certainly one of the teams to beat. Drawn in Group B they’ll be one of the two fancied teams in that group.
The other side in Group B with ambitions to win the tournament will be the Black Stars of Ghana. Ghana are a team that we should have seen so much more of over the last 20 years, especially as they gave us one of the greatest ever African players of all time, in Abedi Pele, who like George Weah of Liberia never made it to a World Cup. They finished 3rd last time, so they’ll be desperate to go at least one better but they lack a clinical striker. With Michael Essien, John Mensah, Kingson, Addo and Amoah in the squad they’ll try and cope with the loss of talismanic captain Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari’s enforced passing over.
Group A should be a walk in the park for one of England’s forthcoming World Cup opponents, Algeria. With a fine international pedigree, they’ll be in with an outside shout of getting to the last four this time round. Since bursting on to the world stage in the 1982 World Cup, Algeria have lost their way a little since following it up with qualification for the 1986 World Cup and winning the A.C.O.N in 1990.
Since winning that title, they’ve been disqualified once, gone out in the first round three times and failed to qualify since 2004. Familiar names to watch out for in the Desert Foxes team are Hassan Yebda and Nadir Belhadj of Portsmouth, Kamel Ghilas of Hull City, Hamuer Bouazza formerly of Fulham and Madjid Bougherra of Rangers. They need a good tournament to reaffirm their place in African football.
Group C sees the power of African football, Egypt and the former star, Nigeria drawn together. Egypt who were pipped for World Cup qualification by Algeria, which saw such scenes of sportsmanship for them, have a lot to live up to . As defending champions since 2006, it remains to be seen just how much of a hangover they’ve retained from missing out on South Africa. Yet, without the injured Amr Zaki and the unpicked Mido, Egypt would seem to have it all to do to retain the trophy. Spurs fans will certainly remember Hossan Ghaly and Dortmunds Mohamed Zidan is one to watch for the Pharaohs.
Nigeria qualified for both Angola and South Africa, but they are not the side they once were. The Super Eagles were one of the key sides in African football’s modern growth but the generation that got them there are slowly retiring. Yet the squad is still packed with familiar names. Yobo, Yakubu, Kanu, Obi-Mikel, Martins, Shittu, Taiwo, Etuhu and Olofinjana will all be in the squad and will be looking to try and re-affirm their place at the head of modern African football. An outside chance of winning the title certainly.
Which leads us to another favourite, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. Lead by one of the worlds greatest strikers, Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon have been one of Africa’s leading lights over the last two decades. After missing out for the 2006 World Cup, they were in danger of missing out on both tournaments this year, but after sacking the manager, former Rangers, Lyon and Paris Saint Germain manager Paul Le Guen rode to the rescue.
Surprisingly though, Le Guen has opted not to pick the impressive Sebastain Bassong for the tournament but joining Eto’o will be Rigobert Song, Geremi, Alexandre Song, Jean Makoun and Andre Bikey. If they can keep Eto’o up the field, then anything can happen and after the 2006 penalty shoot out marathon against Ivory Coast and losing the last A.C.O.N final on penalties, they’ll be hoping to avoid more shootout heartache.IN Carlos Kameni, they’ve probably got the best goalkeeper in Africa. He could be key.
So they’re the main 6 contenders, but there are two outsiders that may catch the eye. Imagine a team with a midfield of Seydou Keita of Barcelona, Real Madrid’s Mahamadou Diarra and Juventus’s Momo Sissoko with Freddie Kanoute upfront. Well, that’s Mali’s main foursome and with a squad with a wealth of European experience and the Eagles have a team with bags of potential still unfulfilled. Of course, Togo also qualified and whilst the side seem to lack quality overall, if a certain Emmanuel Adebayor fancies it, then the Sparrow Hawks could cause some real shocks.
So there you have it. Over here in Europe, Eurosport will be showing every match, with the BBC disappointingly only showing the semi finals and final this time. If you’ve never watched it before, I recommend it highly and it’ll give you a real taste of what’s to come in June this year when the World Cup gets underway. I’ll be dropping another more articles throughout the month for you to keep up to speed with the tournament, so feel free to leave me your comments and questions.