The 27th Africa Cup of Nations kicks-off on Sunday and will serve as a useful measuring stick for those countries who made it through to this summer’s World Cup. For the unfortunate number who missed out on a place in South Africa, the tournament, held in Angola, provides a welcome chance to regain some pride, but every country involved will be out to impress.
First held in 1957, the initial tournament comprised just three nations – Sudan, the hosts, Ethiopia and Egypt, with a fourth, South Africa, disqualified due to Apartheid. Since then, the competition has grown to include 16 countries and is now held every two years. Egypt, winners of the original event, have gone on to become the most successful country in the contest’s history, claiming six trophies including the last two, with victories over Ivory Coast in 2006 and Cameroon in 2008. After being eliminated by near-neighbours Algeria in a World Cup play-off, Hassan Shehata’s side are looking to reaffirm their dominance over the continent with a record seventh trophy win.
Qualification for the tournament doubled as the final qualifying stage of the 2010 World Cup, giving rise to the strange situation where the hosts of the summer competition, South Africa, were only playing for a place in this tournament, while the hosts of the Cup of Nations, Angola, were focussed solely on reaching the World Cup. In the end, both were disappointed as South Africa failed to gain a place in the Angola-based series, and Angola failed to gain a place at the first African-based World Cup. Angola were guaranteed a place in the Cup of Nations as hosts and will get the tournament underway on January 10 against Mali.
The top two from each of the four groups make up the quarter-finals, with the final being held on January 31 in the Angolan capital, Luanda. The former Portuguese colony was chosen to host the festival of football as part of attempts at upgrading the country’s infrastructure, spearheaded by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and coming just eight years after the end of the civil war that ravaged the country, hosting such a prestigious event is a major coup for the oil and diamond-rich state. Future co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea were awarded the 2012 competition in the hope it brings further development to the West African territories.
This year’s tournament sees home side Angola in Group A, joined by Mali, Malawi and World Cup qualifiers Algeria. Malawi, competing in only their second Cup of Nations, are unlikely to make it through what is a tough group, but with only two places to be divided between the remaining three teams, a strong contender will be going home early. Algeria, buoyed by their progress to the World Cup, have momentum on their side and one of the continent’s best playmakers in Karim Ziani, but that might not be enough to get past a strong Mali midfield containing Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s Seydou Keita. With Angola sure to enjoy fierce home support spurring them on, Algeria may find themselves the odd men out. Pre-tournament uncertainty over the future of Coach Rabah Saadane cannot have helped either.
Group B contains two of the favourites to go all the way, Ivory Coast and Ghana, as well as Togo and Burkina Faso. Ivory Coast, finalists in 2006 and semi-finalists in 2008, have arguably the strongest squad of all the African nations but have yet to turn the talent into trophies. Unfortunate in 2006, when an aggressive home crowd roared Egypt to victory, the Elephants were hammered by the same opposition in 2008 a stage earlier. Getting out of the group should not be a problem for Ivory Coast or Ghana but both sides will be hoping to avoid a slip against a decent Togo side and an underrated Burkina Faso, who could spring a surprise, but 2010 might come too early for the Stallions. Burkina Faso can boast a hard-working, motivated group, but Ghana and Ivory Coast should have enough to see both them and Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo off.
Egypt head Group C as they aim to become the first team to win three consecutive Cup of Nations tournaments. The Pharaohs sauntered to victory in 2008, seeing off top contenders Cameroon and Ivory Coast on their way to the title and can call upon some of Africa’s most gifted players. Mohamed Aboutrika is an exceptional attacking midfielder, capable of both scoring and creating goals. With a forward line led by Amr Zaki and supplied by both Aboutrika and 34-year-old Ahmed Hassan, Egypt are the team to beat. Fighting for second spot are Nigeria, Mozambique and Benin, with John Obi Mikel’s Eagles the favourites. After showing great determination to make the World Cup, Nigeria may have finally found the right formula for getting the best out of their undoubtedly talented squad after years of underachievement. However, having drawn in qualifying with Mozambique and with questions being asked of Coach Shaibu Amadou, both Benin and the Mambas are capable of eliminating Amadou’s men.
Cameroon, Tunisia, Gabon and Zambia round off the combatants in Group D and also boast two teams who have to be considered amongst the favourites. Cameroon, led by former Rangers boss Paul Le Guen, can call upon the expert goal scoring of Samuel Eto’o, while Tunisia are fighting for their place at the top table of African football after missing out on the World Cup. Gabon twice lost to Cameroon in qualifying, but surprisingly beat Morocco to snatch a place in Angola, while Zambia managed a draw with Egypt in qualifying but a distinct lack of forward power means they are unlikely to progress past the first round. Gabon should finish above the team known as the Copper Bullets, but third place is all they should expect.
Worldwide interest in the Africa Cup of Nations grows with each tournament and this year’s is no exception. As the World Cup looms, all eyes will be on Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, but there is plenty to be excited about from the other nations. After missing out on yet another World Cup, Egypt need to impress in Angola while the remaining competitors will be eager to show how much African football is improving. 2010 is a big year for African football, and what a way to start it.