Every two years it comes along and splashes joy, spectacle and drama all over the continent. The African Cup of Nations is great, spellbinding and a time when we can pick out football as the ultimate unifying factor.
Over the years, it has been an immense football showpiece and one every African ticks on the calendar as it approaches.
Way back in 1957, the first edition was held in Khartoum, Sudan but it is difficult not to pick out how much progress the continent has made in football since then. With Zaire at the World Cup in 1974 as an exception, African countries have gone to the World Cup, and changed naïve perceptions of many football fans worldwide.
The quality of players has also improved over the years with players from the southern hemisphere regarded as legends in European clubs, adored and revered by hordes of fans across the globe. Talk of George Weah for AC Milan, Didier Drogba for Chelsea and Abedi Pele for Olympique Marseille only to touch on a few. After 30 editions of which Egypt have dominated greatly with seven titles to their name, the continental football showdown is in Gabon for a 31st edition.
The build-up to the tournament has been dominated by doubts over where it will be staged as aftershocks of the Gabonese presidential election continue to resonate across the continent. The continent’s football governing body, though, is adamant the competition will go ahead in the country which is dissected equally by the equator.
To stake a solid claim that the tournament will go ahead as planned, the groupings went ahead Wednesday night in Libreville and as always the match-ups are just as exciting. Group A houses host nation Gabon, four-time winners Cameroon, 2013 finalists Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau.
Everyone’s pick of a big game in this group should be when Gabon go toe-to-toe with Cameroon. The host nation is the home of the African Player of the Year. Borussia Dortmund man Pierre Emerick Aubameyang will be looked at as the star man in this. He is one of those figureheads who can turn a game on its head and on a good day deliver finishes that will only leave the average football fan some lip-smacking moments to savour.
The captain Pierre and 23-year-old Mario Lemina – who started off at Juventus – are the only known names in their ranks but as always you underestimate them at your own peril. Cameroon, on the other hand, is a big name in African football. Touting a match between these two teams as one on the heavyweight clashes just shows how far Gabon have come as a football loving country. Cameroon will count on Besiktas forward Vincent Aboubakar to provide the goods at the tournament.
It will be a meeting of Africa’s most talented but underachieving guys. For many years Africa has awaited the day both teams will rattle the established order to put themselves up there with the best. They have tried several times and failed. After not qualifying for AFCON in 1996 and 1998, the Teranga Lions showed their faces again in 2000 when they were booted out in the quarter finals. Two years later, they became runners-up to Cameroon (4th title) and that has since been their best ever try at the tournament. Algeria, on the other hand, have won the tournament just once – in 1990 – one many Algerians will remember basically for how grand it capped 10 years of a Rabah Madjer led golden generation. This matchup will be exciting for all the talented players who will be on show. Algeria finished top of Group J ahead of Ethiopia, Lesotho and Seychelles, finishing as the team with the most goals. Senegal, on the other hand, ended their qualifying campaign as the team with the most points. Easy, free-flowing, ostentatious football will be the mantra of this game. It might prove to be one of the best games at the tournament.
A North African derby like no other. Intense and feisty. These two teams know themselves too well. Algeria has won 20 out of their 51 meetings, 20 draws and 2 AFCON titles between them. An ardent believer of homegrown talent, Tunisia coach Henryk Kasperczak has improved the team immensely. Tunisia will also look to better their record from the previous AFCON when they left in the quarter final stage.
This will be one the headliners in Group B. Tunisia’s enviable record of qualifying for every AFCON since 2004 might play a major part in the game. Senegal though will need to be very compact and move quickly to accommodate the pace of the Tunisians. Teranga Lions’ talisman Sadio Mane proclaimed just after the qualifiers that his country is in it to win it. It sets up for a fascinating game.
Morocco- Ivory Coast
This will certainly be one of the biggest matchups ahead of the tourney. Littered with stellar names, this game will be one many football fans will love. Another connection to this game will be the prospect of Herve Renard reuniting with the side he took to Nations Cup glory in 2015 – winning it at the expense of Ghana in the penalty shootout on 8th February. Out of 17 meetings, the Elephants have won 6 – the most recent one registered in October last year. Ivory Coast will also count on the good form of Manchester United defender Eric Bailly, the expertise of coach Michel Dusseyer and thoughts that they are heavily backed by history. But as they say, you are only as good as your last result in football.
Ghana vs Mali is a familiar one. Both countries have played so many close games together with huge credentials on the African continent. It will be a close game. In the last four AFCON meetings there have been 2 wins apiece. Tough one. Mali will look to pip Ghana in this one and qualify from a group many have termed the Group of Death. The Malians have an eclectic mix of youth and experience. Crystal Palace’s Bakary Sako and Modibo Maiga might spearhead the attack but the most exciting will be what 21-year-old Adama Traore has up his sleeve. Both countries have seven semi-final placings between them in the last five AFCONS. It is a country Ghana might comfortably beat but if there is anything we need to be weary of as a country then is should be how we have lost our fear factor. Mali will definitely want a piece of us.
25th January 2017 is a date various football fans might have ticked on their calendars. Both teams have won a staggering 11 AFCONs between them. Although Egypt have not played at AFCON since they beat Ghana in 2010 to win the trophy, they come into this one as big winners and perennial challengers of the Ghanaian force. It will be a totally different game from what ensued in 2010 – just three of the men in that team that won in 2010 are still in the team. It will also be a replay of the anticipated World Cup qualifier in November. Egypt coach Hector Cuper admitted on several platforms that he had been monitoring the Black Stars on various platforms across the continent. Looking at the rate at which Avram Grant stays out of Ghana claiming to be monitoring players, it will be a tough test for the Black Stars. Star man Mohammed Salah will be influential for the Pharaohs. With Ghana’s Andre Ayew returning to full fitness, there are a few things Grant can smile at but he won’t entirely be the change we seek in the team. It will take colossal action from all parties to scale this hurdle.
By Yaw Ofosu Larbi|3news.com|Ghana