Africa: Exciting Air of Uncertainty Hangs Over Africa's Premier Soccer Festival

Photo: Confederation of African Football
Malabo Stadium in Equatorial Guinea.

Bereft of some of the continent's top performing teams, the latest edition of the African Nations Cup finals has an exciting air of uncertainty about it.

The 16 finalists kick off the race for the continental title in Bata on Saturday as Equatorial Guinea and Gabon become only the second pair of countries to co-host the bi-annual event.

Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea will host the first four matches of the finals at the weekend while Gabon's capital Libreville hosts the final on February 12.

In between it is expected the tournament will dish up the usual fare of shocks and surprises, plus unveil a few new stars for African fans to admire.

Neighbours Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana will start as favourites but there is also a feeling the burden of expectation could be too much, allowing others like Morocco and Senegal to take the trophy instead.

Without defending champions Egypt, Cameroon and South Africa, the three-week competition is expected to be more unpredictable than many before.

It will be the fourth successive tournament where the Didier Drogba-led Elephants have been expected to take the honours but they have seemed to buckle under the pressure at previous editions.

It was no surprise when their coach Francois Zahoui this week suggested they would have to manage better the simultaneous psychological advantage and disadvantage of being tagged as potential winners.

The Ivorians kick off on Sunday in Malabo with their first Group B game against Sudan, who were winners back in 1970.

Ghana will be hoping to kick on from the quarter-final place they achieved at the last World Cup finals, where they became only the second African country to reach the last eight.

But with key striker Asamoah Gyan racing against time to recover from a hamstring injury and Michael Essien again missing, Ghana look a little short in key departments.

Still, captain John Mensah, who first played at the Nations Cup 10 years ago, insists team spirit will be key. "There is love and unity among the team and that is great for a group going into such a competition," said the giant centre back.

Ghana play in Group D, where Guinea and Mali will be tough opponents.

Debutants Botswana also pose a possible uncertain threat.

Senegal were the most impressive side in the preliminaries, dispatching Cameroon in their qualifying group. Their front line is among the most fearful African soccer has ever produced with Moussa Sow, Demba Papiss Cisse and Mamadou Niang leading the line.

French-born Sow was top scorer in Ligue 1 last season; Cisse came second in the scoring stakes in the German Bundesliga and Niang has a pedigree that includes winning titles in France and Turkey.

Senegal scored 16 goals in their group, which also includes the Democratic Republic of Congo. Only the Ivorians, who had a much easier pairing in their qualifying group, scored more.

Senegal play on the opening day against Zambia in Group A. The match is being played in Bata.

Morocco have shown a considerable turn of fortune and attitude since the Belgian Eric Gerets took over as coach just more than a year ago.

His charismatic presence has welded together a previously disparate group, who have the potential again to become a dominant force in the African game.

Ironically they now draw their key players from the large Moroccan community in the Netherlands, where key players Mbark Boussoufa, Oussama Aissaidi and Karim El Ahmadi were all born to Moroccan immigrant parents.

Morocco compete in Group C where they start their campaign on Monday against fellow north Africans Tunisia in Libreville. The Tunisians are also past winners of the tournament but are limited in capacity and potential in comparison to the side that won in 2004.

Outsiders for the title include Mali, Guinea, who eliminated Nigeria in their qualifying group, and co-hosts Gabon.

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