18 January 2013

Africa: 29th African Cup Kicks-Off

When Egypt beat Ethiopia in Khartoum in the finals of the first African Cup of Nations in February 1957 to claim the Abdel Aziz Salem Cup, the very first trophy offered for the staging of Africa's show-piece football tournament, only two matches were honoured, involving three national teams.

To the glory of the game and its impact on the 53 nations on the continent, as many as 32 matches will be played, involving 16 of the best national teams on the continent, when the 29th African Cup of Nations opens on the turf of the 90,000 capacity Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, tomorrow afternoon.

South Africa will take on first-time qualifiers Cape Verde after the opening ceremony, to be followed at 19:00 GMT with a mouth-watering clash between Manucho's Angola and Morocco.

It is only natural that while officials and players of Cote d'Ivoire, Zambia and Ghana, for instance, are already dreaming of lifting the cup in the grand final in Johannesburg on February 10, Cape Verde are just happy to be counted among the elite of the African game, who have gathered around the Cape of Good Hope.

"We are happy to be here," said Lucio Antunes, national coach of Cape Verde, who is leading his team to the championship for the first time. "There is no pressure to play good football. We qualified for this tournament. That is a big deal for our country."

Lucio added: "We have worked hard to be here. We don't have top players in our team. All the same, the players are determined to write their names in history." This is Cape Verde's first appearance in the championship, which makes it a big achievement for the small island nation.

The representative of this Western Africa's island nation will struggle against South Africa, Morocco and Angola. South Africa, though, have failed to impress since winning the African Cup of Nations on home soil, with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of the famed Black Stars of Ghana in 1996. They were particularly disappointing when they hosted the World Cup in 2010.

One thing going for them is that they rarely lose at home. Records indicate that since coming out of isolation as apartheid crumbled in 1992, the Bafana Bafana have lost only five matches at home in 21 years. Angola and Morocco will battle it out for the second slot in Group A.

On the other hand, the likes of Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria are looking forward to the grand final. To them, anything short of the trophy would be considered a failure. Cote d'Ivoire, for instance, has reported in South Africa with a star-studded team, drawn from the major leagues in Europe.

Skipper Didier Drogba reckons that this is the time the Elephants will come good. Short of a catastrophe, the Elephants look like booking a date with destiny to contest the quarter-final berth.

In Group B, all attention would be on the Black Stars of Ghana, who are up in arms against DR Congo, Mali and Niger. The Black Stars zoomed into Port Elizabeth early yesterday morning, and booked themselves into the plush Garden Court Kings Hotel, after a long trip from Abu Dhabi, where they trained for 11 days.

During those days, they beat Egypt 3-0 and defeated Tunisia 4-2 in friendly matches. The Ghanaian national team, certainly one of the favourites to win the African Cup of Nations, were among the last batch of players to report for African Cup duty.

They were given a boost on Wednesday, when they moved four places on the FIFA world ranking, from 30 last December to 26. The 24 million population of Ghana expect nothing short of the Cup from the exploits of the Black Stars, something that cannot be lost on skipper Asamoah Gyan and his collection of twinkle twinkle little stars.

Apart from the trophy, one innovation that would inspire the Black Stars on is the announcement that the winner of the 29th African Cup of Nations will represent Africa in the 2013 Federation Cup in Brazil. The African winners are expected to compete in Group B, with Spain Uruguay and Tahiti for company.

Mali, with Seidu Keita and new goal sensation Cheick Diabete, will prove a mouthful of opposition to the Black Stars. So are Congo with Claude le Roy directing from the bench.

In Group D, the Elephants of Cote d'Ivoire are undoubtedly one of Africa's best national sides, having come close and yet so far in the last decade. They face Togo, Tunisia and Algeria. The Elephants were beaten on penalties by host Egypt in the 2006 final of finals in Cairo's National Stadium in February 2006. Since then, the Elephants have been tagged as favourites for the African Cup of Nations without taking home the glittering trophy.

In the 2008 championship in Ghana, they had no peers in the preliminaries, virtually walking over Nigeria and Benin in Sekondi. They swept their way to the semi-finals only to be stopped in their tracks by eventual winners Egypt in Kumasi. To add insult to injury, the Ivorians were whipped 4-2 in the third playoff game by a determined Black Stars, who were licking their own wounds after a disappointing 1-0 loss to Cameroon in the semi-finals at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra,

In 2010, the Ivorians fell by the way side in Angola, before they were surprisingly beaten on penalties by Zambia in the 2012 grand final in Libreville, Gabon. The Ivorians are making their 20th appearance in the competition since coming to the table of Africa's elite national teams in Tunisia in 1965.

They have a solitary triumph to their name, when they accounted for the Black Stars of Ghana 11-10 on penalties in Dakar in 1992. With the reigning African Footballer of the Year, Yahaya Toure, marauding from the middle and feeding Didier Drogba, and Salamon Kalou leading the attack, the Ivorians stand favourites in South Africa, no doubt.

The Elephants would be based in Rustenburg, where they will fight their way to the knock-out stage against Togo, Tunisia and Algeria. The Ivorians are currently the best ranked African national team, followed by Algeria and Mali, before Ghana.

One expects Cote d'Ivoire to comfortably make it through the group stage, with Algeria and Tunisia battling for the other slot.

Togo may have Seyi Adebayor back in their fold. But, one swan, to quote the British, does not make a summer. The Togolese are making their seventh appearance in the Africa Cup. Unfortunately, they have never gone beyond the preliminaries. I do not believe they have established any case to convince anyone that they have the fire-power to go beyond the group stage in South Africa.

If the Ivorians are favourites, do not tell that to the likes of the Black Stars of Ghana, the Super Eagles of Nigeria, and defending champions - the Chipolopolo of Zambia. Zambia defeated Uganda on their way to the defence of their title in South Africa.

The defending champions are grouped alongside Ethiopia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. I expect Zambia to have a close battle with Nigeria and Burkina Faso to come out of the group.

On the whole, it is going to be a very tough battle in South Africa. I expect the Black Stars to be in the reckoning for the ultimate trophy. 31 years is a long time to wait. Football, though, is not a matter of wishes. It is what happens on the turf that determines the fortunes of a team. This one looks like a close field, where four nations realistically have the chance of winning.

As a Ghanaian, my heart yearns for the Black Stars to bring home the ultimate. As a writer with several years of following the game, I am a realist, which is why I would not really worry too much if the wait for the Africa Cup continues after February 10.

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