17 January 2013

Africa: Superstars and Minnows Alike Gear Up for Soccer Glory

Photo: Buanews
South African soccer fans.

The 2013 Africa Cup of Nations presents Cote d’Ivoire with what will possibly be the final chance for their so-called Golden Generation to claim the continent’s top football prize.

Certainly this will be the last time star striker Didier Drogba will grace the event, and it could well be a swansong for the likes of the Touré brothers, Kolo and Yaya, Didier Zokora, Boubacar Barry and Siaka Tiéné.

All will be some way into their 30s by the time the 2015 event is staged in Morocco, and with a watershed World Cup to be played in Brazil, it will likely be a much-changed Ivorian side that travels to north Africa.

Drogba, now 34, had intended to retire from international football after the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but was persuaded to stay on for the 2012 Nations Cup in the hope he would finish his service to his country on a high.

But the tournament ended in defeat to Zambia, a missed Drogba penalty near the end of normal time contributing to Chipolopolo's win. A deep sense of duty and a desire to be a classed a “winner” – for that is deeply ingrained in his psyche – has kept the talismanic striker going.

Having lost in the 2006 final to Egypt, when Drogba also missed from the spot – and his side was arguably Africa's best – it is quite incredible that the Ivorians have not got their hands on this trophy.

The comfortable surroundings of South Africa, with its excellent stadia and carpet-like pitches provides Cote d’Ivoire with the chance to right what they see as a great wrong.

They are definitely the favourites going into the tournament, they are the best-ranked side in Africa and are packed with genuine superstars of the African game.

They have been handed a tough Group D though and will take on north African opponents in Algeria and Tunisia, as well as unpredictable Togo. Matches will be played in Rustenburg in South Africa's North-West Province.

Algeria are ranked number two on the continent and have players who ply their trade in the top leagues in Spain and England. They must be on the list of potential tournament winners, but have in the past frozen on the big stage and flattered to deceive.

Tunisia have less quality in their squad but have perhaps greater cohesion and as ever will be an organized unit that will be difficult to break down. They were finalists the last time the tournament was played in South Africa, going down 2-0 to the hosts. Current coach Sami Trabelsi was in the Tunisian squad for that competition. How he would love to turn silver into gold.

Togo will have the talismanic Emmanuel Adebayor in their squad after he had initially decided to skip the tournament. It improves their chances of reaching the quarter-finals no end.

South Africa go into the tournament with much on their mind, not least a match-fixing scandal that threatens to expose top employees of the football association.

But perhaps most troubling for fans is the form of the national side – though coach Gordon Igesund has pleaded for patience and says it will be all right on the night when they play their opener against Cape Verde at Soccer City on Saturday.

Moreover, Bafana Bafana have proven difficult to beat at home in competitive matches during the past two decades and playing in front of their own fans is a huge advantage. Their squad is hard working with a sprinkling of outstanding talent, such as Thulani Serero, but they will miss the country’s best player, Steven Pienaar, who opted to stay in England and play for Everton.

The semi-finals are a minimum requirement for the hosts and they have the players to do it. In Igesund they have a good footballing brain too and a man who has a history of getting sides to achieve beyond expectations.

Cape Verde are appearing in their first-ever Nations Cup finals and coach Lúcio Antunes will be on leave from his regular employment, that of an air traffic controller. He spent six days in Spain with Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho last month, taking tips from the Portuguese coach, who has won trophies wherever he has been.

Many see Cape Verde as minnows in this pool, but they are actually the highest-ranked side in Group A and the introduction of players with Cape Verdean ancestry, but who have been raised in Portugal, has added quality to their squad.

Morocco were many people’s dark horses for the 2012 Nations Cup title, but disappointed greatly in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. They have shed many of their more established names for this tournament, with coach Rachid Taoussi preferring to work more with locally-based players – and with an eye on developing a squad for those 2015 finals on home soil.

Angola have been fairly regular visitors to the quarter-finals of this competition in recent times and have grown in international experience.

Their danger man remains Manucho, who now plays in Spain with Rayo Vallecano. If you can neutralize him, much of their threat is taken away.

Group B is an intriguing one that will be based down on the Eastern Cape coast in Port Elizabeth and contains Ghana, Mali, DR Congo and Niger.

Ghana have a powerful squad once more and have fond memories of South Africa, having been within a Luis Suarez handball of the semi-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

They have not won the Nations Cup for more than 30 years now though, and it is becoming a burden for them with such big expectations at home.

Certainly they will be among the leading sides again.

Mali pipped Ghana to third place at the 2012 Nations Cup, a sign of their strength. Former Barcelona star Seydou Keita remains their trump card, but they have good ability throughout the team.

DR Congo have a wily old coach in Frenchman Claude LeRoy, who has made them competitive, but perhaps still lacking the players to go deep into the tournament. Certainly he will have made them hard to beat.

Niger debuted at the 2012 finals and lost all three matches. They are a side that are close to unbeatable in Niamey, but win very few matches outside the country. It looks like an early plane trip home for them.

Group C comprises defending champions Zambia, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, and you would expect the first two comfortably to advance from this pool.

Results have not been good for the Zambians since their famous win in 2012, achieved the hard way by beating both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire on their way to lifting the trophy.

They have much the same squad, just one year older, and perhaps with some of the senior players starting to battle with the pace of international football. It was a surprise when they won the title 12 months ago, and it would be another shock were they to repeat the feat.

Nigeria are going through a rebuilding phase. Whereas in years gone by they have had household names across the continent in their squad, the Class of 2013 is less recognisable.

Coach Stephen Keshi has made some bold selections and as usual failure will be met with much angst back home, but it is hard to see them going all the way.

Burkina Faso will be competitive with their heavy French influence, but it is hard to see where they are going to get the impetus from to reach the latter stages. Indeed, they have only been out of the first round once in their previous eight tournaments – in 1998 when they hosted and finished fourth.

Ethiopia make a return to the Nations Cup for the first time since 1982 and will be considered the minnow side in this pool. That is not to say that they cannot spring a surprise and much will rely on star striker Saladin Said.

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