Star-saturated Ivory Coast are the team the other 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers will want to avoid when the first round draw is made in Durban Wednesday. Only hosts South Africa, title holders Zambia and four-time champions Ghana are sure of dodging the 'Elephants' during the initial 24-fixture phase as they are the other top seeds based on results from the past three tournaments.
Ivory Coast may have lifted the Cup of Nations only once - and that was 20 years ago - but the team won enormous respect this month by going to Dakar and leading Senegal 2-0 before crowd violence halted the qualifier. Then there is the star factor with captain Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure and Didier Zokora desperate to end years of frustration, including two final defeats after penalty shootouts in the last four tournaments.
Mali, Tunisia, Angola and Nigeria are the second seeds, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco and Niger the third seeds, and Togo, newcomers Cape Verde Islands, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia the lowest seeds. When the late-night draw is complete in the Indian Ocean city there will be four pools consisting of a first, second, third and fourth seed, and, theoretically, the strongest sides should stay apart until the knockout rounds. However, no draw would be done and dusted without a particularly strong mini-league -- and Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Algeria or Morocco and DR Congo would certainly fit that bill.
Nigeria are on the comeback trail after failing to qualify for the tournament this year and the introduction of exciting young Chelsea midfielder Victor Moses has boosted the 'Super Eagles'. Algeria are annoyingly unpredictable, coming fourth in 2010 only to miss qualification in 2012, while Morocco are long overdue a good showing having won their lone title 36 years ago. Countries from the north of the continent can never be ignored as four of the last five winners came from that region with Egypt completing a title hat-trick after hosts Tunisia won the 2004 competition.
DR Congo return to the African football showcase after missing the last three and wily French coach Claude Le Roy is blending a potent mix of local talent and Europe-based stars like Anderlecht striker Dieumerci Mbokani. Many coaches boast before draws that they do not care who emerges from the glass bowl to face their team, but recently appointed South Africa handler Gordon Igesund has opted for a more honest approach. "I do not want Nigeria in our group -- I would prefer to avoid them," he said of a country that humiliated Bafana Bafana (The Boys) 4-0 in the 2004 Africa Cup and consistently have the edge when the nations clash.
"It would be a lie if I said I do not care who will be in our group. I want a favourable draw," stressed a coach given a challenging mandate to reach the semi-finals or face the axe.
A favourable draw for Igesund would mean Angola, Niger and Ethiopia. The east Africans are back after a 30-year absence despite not winning a qualifying tie -- they eliminated Benin and Sudan on the away-goal rule. South Africa will be involved in the January 19 opening double-header at the 90,000-seat Soccer City stadium in Soweto before moving to Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban for two other Group A fixtures.