The absence of Egypt ends a unique era but the inheritor of the crown is far from certain.
After Egypt’s total dominance of the Cup of Nations over the last three editions, the tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon offers connoisseurs of the continental game the opportunity to see a fresh page being turned in its 55-year-old history.
The absence of the reigning champions, as well as four-time winners Cameroon, two-time champions (and serial bronze medallists) Nigeria, South Africa and Algeria from the 2012 tournament, has given it an unknown complexion, which could set the stage for one of the most open competitions in recent times.
Just eight out of the sides that qualified for Angola 2010 have made it to this year’s party. Tunisia, of all the teams in the tournament, is the most recent winner. And that was on home soil, eight long years ago.
Ghana, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, regarded as the tournament favourites, on paper, will be fancying their chances of becoming the first side, south of the Sahara, to win the Cup of Unity since Mali 2002, with their usual arch-rivals out of the way.
And the three teams making their debut on the Nations Cup stage – co-hosts Equatorial Guinea, Botswana and Niger, will be determined to prove that they are no cannon fodder for the favourites.
The draw in Malabo, at the end of October, was a lengthy, long-winded affair, with the co-hosts joining Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire as top-seeded teams.
But the taste of the pudding will certainly be in the eating, as the fans look forward to a vintage edition of the tournament, which could prove that the quality of football in the continent’s supposed backwaters is fast improving and taking any country, no matter how “small”, for granted, is at one’s peril.
EQUATORIAL GUINEA, LIBYA, SENEGAL, ZAMBIA
Playing out of Bata on the mainland, this is a group without any past winners, thus giving Equatorial Guinea, managed by the former France coach Henri Michel, a small chance of satisfying the host team’s fans and reaching the knockout stages.
Libya, Senegal and Zambia – all past losing finalists – should be expected to contest the group leadership, with the North Africans appearing under a new flag and bravely qualifying, for the first time since 2006, despite the absence of league competition, as a result of the horrors of the recent civil war that toppled former leader Muammar Gathafi.
Libya were, at the time of writing, unbeaten in their last ten internationals, the best run of any of the finalists and so, the hosts should not expect an easy game from the side managed by the experienced Brazilian coach, Marcos Paqueta.
Defensively sound, with their veteran goalkeeper Aboud managing five clean sheets in six qualifiers, they conceded just one goal. But their attack does not possess the same cutting edge.
Senegal’s Lions of Teranga come to the tournament armed with potent goal scorers, managed by Amara Traore, a former international player. Young stars like Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse and Moussa Sow, besides the experienced Mamadou Niang, head up a potent force, good enough to instil fear in opposing defences, while USA-based keeper Bouna Condoul backs up a competent defensive unit that gives little away.
They qualified unbeaten, from a difficult group containing DR Congo and Cameroon and would be the outside bet to go all the way at this edition.
Zambia’s Chipolopolo, which reached the quarter-finals at the last edition in Angola, hope to go a step further under French coach Herve Renard, who returned in late October for his second spell in charge.
Renard initially left Zambia to take up a job with Angola, which left many questioning his loyalty to a country that had given him his first major job.
The Southern Africans have the edge in past finals experience, finishing runners-up to Libya in their qualifying group. But it was regarded as an unsatisfactory run that cost Italian coach Dario Bonetti his job.
With a bit of experience in the squad, plus some emerging youngsters, Zambia will be looking to acquire sufficient points to push Senegal and Libya for the two spots available for the knockout stages.
Equatorial Guinea’s Nzalang National, the host team, are made up of Spanish lower league players and a few naturalised Brazilians, along with a local complement. Coach Henri Michel had resigned his post just before the draw, citing a lack of support. But he was convinced to continue, after the government intervened.
Admitting every match would be “an Everest”, it is hard to envisage their presence in the knockout round, after tough contests against streetwise and far more experienced opponents.
IVORY COAST, BURKINA FASO, SUDAN AND ANGOLA
The Ivorian Elephants square off against some tricky opposition in what is, perhaps, the best balanced of all the groups.Francois Zahaoui’s side qualified with a 100% record from what could be described as an undemanding group. But no finalist could better the 19 goals shared among nine players and that razor-sharp edge should help Africa’s highest-ranked side to finish top of this group and make a serious challenge for the title they last won in 1992. Defending, however, has often proved to be their Achilles heel.
With a number of players over 30, this could be the last chance for some of the players to add a trophy to their cabinet.
Sudan, despite their low ranking and fielding a team of completely local players, held favourites Ghana to two scoreless draws in qualifying.
The Falcons of Jediane have raised their status over the past few years, largely due to the efforts of the two country’s top two clubs, El Merreikh and Al Hilal, both regular campaigners in the African club competitions. Under their experienced coach, Mohamed Abdullah, Sudan do not share the problem of other teams, who have their players scattered across several European and African clubs. This has given the team sufficient time to forge itself into a hardworking and difficult unit to beak down.
Hosts and runners-up at the 2011 CHAN tournament, Sudan could spring a few surprises. Winners back in 1970, the side have not won a match at their last three finals (1972, 1976 and 2008), a record they’ll be determined to bring to an end.
Burkina Faso, with the sole European coach in the group, Portuguese Paolo Duarte, has welded a squad drawn from diverse European leagues. They have quietly climbed the FIFA rankings, off the back of an unbeaten qualifying campaign, with Auxerre striker Alain Traore in a good run of form for club and country. Backed up by a good cast of professionals, like midfielder Charles Kabore and Jonathan Pitroipa, the West Africans have realistic possibilities of reaching the knockout rounds.
Angola had looked out of the qualifying picture, but pipped Uganda and Kenya at the qualifying post to clinch their tickets, with Manucho rediscovering his goal touch.
The Palancas Negras, hosts at the last finals, strung together three straight wins to book their finals spot, much to the relief of coach Lito Vidigal.
With a squad drawn from the local GiraBola and the Portuguese league, their chances of making an impact at these finals look doubtful.
GABON, NIGER, MOROCCO, TUNISIA
Gabon, the co-hosts, who defied the pundits to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Football Tournament – their very first global tournament – will have an equally huge mountain to climb in a group where Morocco and Tunisia are present.
Ending November with a run of three straight defeats, to Equatorial Guinea, Brazil and Ghana, wins over Congo and Niger were their last before going into final camping preparations. But French coach Gernot Rohr can take consolation in the fact that the Black Panthers have proved difficult opposition for all three group rivals in the recent past. Striker Eric Moloungui, with French club Nice, leads for a country that will be hoping for a good start against Niger in their opening game in the capital Libreville.
Aware of the enormity of the task ahead, Rohr hopes for unceasing home support, in order to give his players “the high motivation to drive them through the group stage”.
After winning the last Championship of African Nations (CHAN), Tunisia would be keen to earn their first Nations Cup title away from home, which they won in 2004. Although they failed to top their qualifying group – that honour unexpectedly went to first-timers Botswana – the North Africans can point to managerial instability, allied to the political troubles earlier last year, as destabilising factors.
Former national captain Adel Sellimi, who managed the country to last year’s CHAN title, did a great job of restoring confidence in the team, after the shock of home and away losses to supposed minnows Botswana in group qualifying. With experienced striker Issam Jema’a spearheading their attack, they have the potential to do well. But their opening game against regional arch-rivals Morocco could be decisive.
Morocco, under Belgian coach Eric Gerets, arrive at the finals with justified confidence, after eliminating Algeria in the qualifiers and conceding just two goals overall. Talented individuals like strikers Mbark Boussoufa, Youssef El Arabi and midfielder Adel Taarabt, are capable of imposing themselves to great effect. But the recent injury to established keeper Lamyaghri of Wydad Casablanca could make things tough for the Atlas Lions. He was missed as they hosted a November mini-tournament, where they lost to Uganda and drew with Cameroon.
A berth in the tournament’s knock-out stagesis expected for them but where they finally end up is anyone’s guess.
Newcomers Niger debut at the finals in hope rather than expectation. After losing all their qualifying games away from home, without managing to score a single goal, the Menas hardly look like a side capable of springing any surprises, despite eliminating South Africa and 2010 holders Egypt in their qualifying group. Coach Herouna Doula has a squad drawn from disparate African leagues, with just a handful of Europe-based men. The element of surprise that they had during the qualifiers will be absent, as supposedly superior sides will certainly not be taking them for granted.
GHANA, BOTSWANA, MALI, GUINEA
Many observers are already predicting that the Black Stars of Ghana have only to turn up to advance to the 2012 final. But fellow West Africans Mali and unbeaten Guinea, who eliminated Nigeria, will certainly have something to say about that in Franceville.
But there is no question that Goran Stevanovic’s Black Stars are definitely the team to beat in this group, and will be all out to achieve their first Nations Cup triumph since 1982 (see story on Ghana, pp. 56-8).
Guinea’s Syli Nationale qualified unbeaten to return to the finals, after missing out on a place at Angola 2010. Coached by Michel Dussuyer, the side put up a bold display to hold Nigeria to a 2-2 draw in Abuja, in order to clinch their finals spot. They will certainly need the same level of resilience to earn a ticket into the knockout stages. Quarter-finalists in their previous three finals outings, reaching the last four would be a tremendous improvement.
Mali certainly limped through the qualifiers after losing away against Cape Verde and Zimbabwe. Former France midfielder Alain Giresse, now in charge of the Eagles, has the task of wielding together a side without the influence of players like Frederic Kanoute and Momo Sissoko. Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita is expected to be the lynchpin of the side, desperate to shake off their unfortunate run at the 2010 finals, where they were eliminated in the group stages. Giresse’s side should not be underrated, but they do not appear as strong as their 2010 squad.
Tournaments debutants Botswana complete the section and they will be hard-pressed to take points off any of their group opponents, despite their enviable record of being the first team to qualify for these finals. With a mainly home-based pool of players, boosted by a handful of exports to South Africa’s PSL, the Zebras will find themselves battling superior forces.
The goals of striker Jerome Ramalthakwane, from Vasco da Gama in South Africa, paved the way to the finals for the manager, Major-General Stanley Tshosane, who believes his side will not be making up the numbers. “We have confidence because when we started [qualifying] we were underdogs, just like we are now… if you prepare well for your examinations, you will pass,” Tshosane said. But they might need a wee bit more schooling before graduating to the next class of the African game.