15 April 2019

Africa: 'We Can Surprise Africa'

BRAVE WARRIORS head coach Ricardo Mannetti backed his charges to make Africa Cup of Nations history at this year's finals after Namibia were drawn in the group of death alongside former continental winners Ivory Coast, Morocco and South Africa.

Reactions to the draw held in Cairo on Friday night for the continental showpiece, which takes place between 21 June and 19 July this year, suggest Namibia are no-hopers, and will do well to avoid a battering against the big boys in Group D.

The Elephants, Atlas Lions and Bafana Bafana have won the Nations Cup four times between them, and rank among the leading contenders for the title in Egypt.

Additionally, their experience at the finals reads Ivory Coast 23 appearances, Morocco 17 and South Africa nine, to Namibia's impending third-ever participation.

But that is no deterrent to Mannetti, who guided Namibia to the quarter-finals at the African Nations Championships in Morocco last year. The Brave Warriors upset Ivory Coast 1-0 in the group stage before coming unstuck 2-0 in their last-eight clash with the hosts, who went on to win the tournament which exclusively feature players who ply their trade in the domestic league of their home country.

Mannetti is hoping for a repeat inspired performance in Egypt.

"I would dub this as the perfect draw for the underdog. If you ever want to be a giant-killer in Africa, this is the opportunity. If you want to surprise people, this is the position to be in," Mannetti told The Namibian Sport the day after the draw.

"We want to win a game during the group stage. We will use this Afcon to gain experience against big teams," the 2015 Cosafa Cup-winning coach said.

With Morocco and the Ivory Coast expected to finish in the first two spots, one of Namibia or South Africa could still advance to the next stage, as four of the best third-placed teams from the six groups will also go through to the last-16 in Egypt.

"If you're at the Nations Cup, you expect a tough draw. We're not blinded by the fact that we are piled in a group with three big teams. Everyone is focusing on those three and forgetting about Namibia, and that's how we want to keep it," he noted.

Namibia's history against their three rivals at Afcon tournaments is unfavourable.

In their debut appearance at Burkina Faso 1998, where they were grouped with the Elephants and Bafana Bafana, Namibia, with Mannetti as midfield enforcer, played out a 4-3 thriller against Ivory Coast before getting overrun 4-1 by South Africa, while Morocco hammered the Brave Warriors 5-1 in their Afcon group opener in Ghana 10 years later.

But Namibia are not in the group to add numbers, a confident Mannetti said.

"We want to go about our business and take things step by step; one game at a time. With proper intense preparations and good investment, I think we can surprise Africa," the gaffer added. "I know how to prepare players psychologically. As a former player, I would advise my team better, and they can count on my experience. It is unbelievable what we have accomplished. We have been working on this project for many years."

The quality of Namibia's rivals is well-documented, with especially the Ivorian and Moroccan teams riddled with Europe-based stars.

Ivory Coast can call on the likes of Crystal Palace flying winger Wilfried Zaha, Manchester United defender Eric Bailly and AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie, while Morocco have in their ranks the crafty Ajax Amsterdam playmaker Hakim Ziyech, experienced defender Mehdi Benatia of Juventus and coach Herve Renard, who guided Zambia and Ivory Coast to Afcon glory in 2012 and 2015.

Egypt - who are likely to have Liverpool star Mohamed Salah in their team - open the tournament against Zimbabwe on 21 June at Cairo Stadium.

Draw in full - Group A - Egypt, DR Congo, Uganda, Zimbabwe; Group B - Nigeria, Guinea, Madagascar, Burundi; Group C - Senegal, Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania; Group D - Morocco, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Namibia; Group E - Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Angola; Group F - Cameroon, Ghana, Benin, Guinea-Bissau.

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