Two weeks from now the best of African stars from around the globe will take a break from their clubs and fly to South Africa to represent their nations in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations starting from January 19 to February 10, 2013. The tournament was originally awarded to Libya, but due to the security situation in the country, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) moved it to South Africa. Libya will now hold the 2017 edition.
Already, the 16 nations that qualified for the championship including hosts South Africa have been split into four groups of four teams each and the top two finishers in each group are expected to proceed to the knockout stages.
In group A, hosts South Africa will battle it out with Angola, Morocco and debutants, Cape Varde for a place in the round of eight. South Africa ranked 76th in the monthly world soccer ranking by the world soccer ruling body, FIFA won the biannual soccer showpiece in 1996 on a home soil and they also were first and second runners up in the 1998 and 2000 editions respectively.
Though Bafana- Bafana has lost its prime in African football with most of its players African based, except England based duo of Kagisho Dikgacoi of Crystal Palace and Davide Somma of Leeds United, the team will miss the services of Everton midfielder, Steven Piennar who has announced his retirement from international football. South Africa hopes for a successful campaign on home soil, the way they did in 1996 when the likes of Andre Arendse, Mark Fish, Sizwe Motaung, Lucas Radebe and others brought the country's football to global reckoning by lifting the African Cup of Nations title in their maiden appearance. This time, they will depend on the duo of Katlego Mphela and Bernard Parker who are banging in goals in their clubs.
Seventeen years after their heady triumph, the current generation of Bafana Bafana players have a chance to emulate their predecessors' feat in 1996 with the biennial African showpiece which comes back to Johannesburg this January. South Africa has been a pale shadow of its former self since it last qualified for the World Cup in 2006. It missed out of last year's AFCON qualification and only made it to this one by virtue of being the hosts.
Angola, the Palancas Negras' best performance in this competition has been two quarter final finishes in 2008 and 2010 in Ghana and on home soil respectively. They qualified on away goals for this competition after they drew 3-3 over the two legs with Zimbabwe. Most of their players for this competition are drawn from domestic leagues and few selected ones from Europe like Manucho, who is now with Villarreal in Spain and was joint top scorer of this competition last year in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
But Angolan sports minister, Angelo Veiga, believes the Southern African country will make it to the second round of the competition. "Certainly, such as on other occasions, our team will feel the warmth and the support of all the Angolans. Therefore, due to the preparation work that it has been carrying out it will reach the second phase," he said.
Morocco, which won this competition in 1976 and will host the next edition of the tournament in 2015, is presently ranked the 75th soccer nation in the world in the monthly FIFA Rankings. The Northern African nation qualified for the biannual championship beating Mozambique 4-0 in the second leg after losing the first 2-0. Arsenal forward, Marouane Chammakh is probably the most well known player as well as Ossamsa Assaidi and Karim El Ahmadi of Liverpool and Aston Villa.
But the team's coach, Rachid Taoussi while announcing his final squad for the tournament left out Queens Park Rangers forward Adel Taarabt and Marouane Chamakh. Dutch-born striker Mounir El Hamdaoui returned to the squad for the first time since September after reviving his career on loan at Fiorentina from Ajax Amsterdam. The list includes Aston Villa midfielder Karim El Ahmadi and Liverpool forward Oussama Assaidi.
The first match against Angola will be crucial for the qualification to the quarter-final from group A.
The last but not the least in group A is Cape varde. The small African nation's qualification for the tournament ahead of four-time champions, Cameroon has been tagged 8th wonder of the world and they have nothing to lose should they fail to go beyond first round.
In FIFA's football rankings for December 2012, Cape Verde came in at 57th place, ahead of traditional soccer-playing nations such as Austria and Scotland and their three opponents in Group A, Morocco, South Africa and Angola. That makes Cape Verde the favorites in Group A. Cape Verde's media say the unexpected punch that the national team is now delivering is due largely to the work of coach Lucio Antunes and that of Mario Semedo who has done much to put the national football association on a more professional footing. Antunes has even been compared to coaching greats such as Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho or Brazil's Luiz Felipe Scolari.
To prepare for the African Nations Cup, Antunes spent a week shadowing Mourinho in Real Madrid. The famous Portuguese coach thought very highly of him. "Antunes is an intelligent coach. He has his own ideas, is well organized, methodical and ambitious. He's a very good coach!
Blue sharks often swim slowly when on the surface of the water. They have plenty of stamina and are strong swimmers, covering vast expanses in a single stretch. "We are dreaming of reaching the quarter finals," said Antunes. "And then, who knows, we might even get to the semi-finals," he added.