The 30th Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on Saturday with hosts Equatorial Guinea taking on Congo in the opening match in Bata, the country’s largest city.
Both teams are drawn in Group A alongside South Africa 2013 Africa Cup of Nations finalists Burkina Faso and Gabon, who face each other in the second group encounter later in the day at the same venue, in the 16-nation tournament.
Other teams are 1968, 1974 champions DR Congo; 1972 champions Congo; 1984, 1988, 2000, 2002 champions Cameroon; 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982 champions Ghana; 1990 champions Algeria; 1992 champions Ivory Coast; 1996 champions South Africa; 2004 winners Tunisia; and 2012 champions Zambia.
The rest are Cape Verde, Gabon, 2002 runners-up Senegal; 1976 runners-up Guinea; and 1972 runners-up Mali.
Although defending champions Nigeria and record seven-time champions Egypt are missing from the continental party, the tournament still commands a huge amount of attention across the world following the glittering array of stars who will be on parade.
Despite the retirement of superstar Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast boast a side capable of firing the Elephants to the title.
The Elephants manager Herve Renardhas has at his disposal four-time African Player of the Year Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony, who completed his reported £28m transfer from Swansea to Manchester City on Wednesday, Roma’s Gervinho, Newcastle enforcer Cheick Tiote, PSG’s Serge Aurier and veteran Liverpool defender Kolo Toure.
Borussia Dortmund forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is Gabon’s biggest player but Les Panthères (The Panthers) coach Jorge Costa will rely on Nice defender Lloyd Palun and Celta Vigo midfielder Levy Madinda as he looks to make an impact in Equatorial Guinea.
Other stars who will be on parade are United Arab Emirates-based Asamoah Gyan (Ghana), Papiss Cisse (Senegal), Porto’s Yacine Brahimi (Algeria), Sporting Lisbon’s Islam Slimani (Algeria), Ajax Capet Town’s Rivaldo Coetzee (South Africa), Sibusiso Vilakazi (South Africa) and Sevilla’s Stephane Mbia (Cameroon).
The rest are Monaco’s Aymen Abdennour (Tunisia), West Brom midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu (DR Congo), Crystal Palace forward Yannick Bolasie (DR Congo), Valencia defender Sofiane Feghouli (Algeria), Parma’s Afriyie Acquah (Ghana) and Marseille defender Nicolas N’Koulou (Cameroon).
Following the Super Eagles’ failure to qualify for the tournament, Chelsea midfielder Mikel Obi, Lille goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, CSKA Moscow’s Ahmed Musa, Fenerbhace striker Emmanuel Emenike, Lazio midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, Villarreal forward Ikechukwu Uche and Stoke City forward Victor Moses have been denied the opportunity to showcase their talents on the continent again.
Other stars missing from the pack – after their countries failed to qualify for the championship – are Southampton midfield star Victor Wanyama (Kenya) and West Brom attacker Stephane Sessegnon (Benin) and Chelsea midfielder Mohamed Salah (Egypt). West Ham’s Alex Song and veteran Everton striker Samuel Eto’o will stay with their Premier League side as they have retired from international football with Cameroon.
Former Barcelona forward Eto’o is the tournament’s leading all-time scorer with 18 goals followed by former Ivory Coast star Laurent Pokou (14) and the late Nigeria striker Rashidi Yekini (13). DR Congo’s Ndaye Mulamba holds the record for most goals in a single tournament with nine.
After representing his country in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups – and playing the final of the Africa Cup of Nations twice – 2006 and 2012 – in five appearances, Yaya Toure, 31, perhaps has the last chance to win a trophy for his country. The box-to-box midfielder won the Spanish La Liga twice with Barcelona as well as the 2008 UEFA Champions League. He has won Premier League twice with Manchester City.
Ghana’s all-time top scorer Gyan will also get lots of attention in Equatorial Guinea, although the Black Stars are not one of the tournament’s favourites.
With the team’s confidence boosted by the appointment of former Chelsea manager Avram Grant as coach, Gyan believes Ghana can win the tournament for the fifth time.
With Nigeria unable to make it to the tiny West African nation to defend their title, some pundits and commentators have labelled Algeria, South Africa and Cameroon favourites for the title.
Algeria are the highest ranked African team in the latest FIFA rankings (18th) following their impressive showing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Although the Desert Foxes are drawn in the Group of Death, the former champions could pick up one of the tickets to reach the quarterfinals.
Cameroon missed the 2012 finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and the last edition of the tournament in South Africa.
The Indomitable Lions exited the Brazil 2014 World Cup at the group stages after suffering defeats at the hands of Mexico (1-0), Croatia (4-0) and hosts Brazil (4-1).
Like Cameroon, South Africa failed to qualify for the 2012 finals – and only qualified for the 2013 edition as hosts. They have yet to qualify for the World Cup since their first round exit at the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup.
However, the Indomitable Lions and Bafana Bafana have showed promising signs they are out to regain lost glory following their performances in the Equatorial Guinea 2015 qualifiers. Cameroon bagged an automatic ticket to the competition after topping Group D – having Ivory Coast, DR Congo and Sierra Leone – on 14 points, while South Africa sealed their place in the championship with qualification guaranteed with one game to go in Group A – having Nigeria, Congo and Sudan.
Bafana topped the group standings with 12 points followed by Congo in the second place on 10 points. Nigeria came third on eight points followed by Sudan on three points.
The South African team have changed a lot since Shakes Mashaba came on board. Itumeleng Khune, Tsepo Masilela, Bongani Khumalo and Siyabonga Sangweni are no longer part of the squad. Mashaba has built a formidable team with Eric Mathoho, 18-year-old Coetzee, Bernard Parker, Dean Furman, Reneilwe Letsholonyane and Vilakazi showing great understanding.
With the likes of Eto’o Pierre Webo, Rigobert Song and Alex Song, Cameroon manager Volker Finke has built a new team with Mbia and N’Koulou marshalling the side from the deep.
Meanwhile, Algeria coach Christian Gourcuff has warned his charges to focus on the task ahead.
“We must guard ourselves from any excess of confidence. It would be a major mistake to listen to such predictions,” Gourcuff was quoted by AFP as saying during the week.
Bafana coach Mashaba, whose side went unbeaten in the qualifiers, said, “I have told the players not to fear anybody because we have no reason to feel inferior.”
Equatorial Guinea offered to host the competition in mid-November when Morocco’s hosting rights were withdrawn by CAF.
Morocco had asked the CAF to postpone the event to avoid any risk of a spread of the Ebola virus.
However, that request was dismissed, and Morocco were thrown out of the competition.
Source: Punch News