THE AFRICAN CUP of Nations gets underway on Saturday but rather than look forward to the talent on show, much of the pre-tournament talk has revolved around the teams who won’t be there.
Of the seven African nations who are ranked inside FIFA’s top 50, only three have qualified to compete in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea as seven-time winners Egypt crashed out at the qualifying stages along with fellow heavyweights Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria.
That means we are guaranteed to have a new holder for the first time in eight years come February 2 as the Pharaohs have dominated the last three biannual competitions.
While Samuel Eto’o misses out with Premier League players such as Aiyegbeni Yakubu, Alex Song and Peter Odemwingie, English football is the most strongly-represented of Europe’s four major leagues with 12.
Ivory Coast’s ‘golden generation’ are favourites and will take some stopping as their squad possesses the likes of the Toure brothers, Cheick Tiote, an ageing but effective Didier Drogba and CSKA Moscow’s Seydou Doumbia, who has five goals in the Champions League this season.
Ghana were a Luis Suarez handball away from a World Cup semi-final appearance in 2010, and the Black Stars will no doubt be in the shake-up.
They are missing two influential midfielders in Michael Essien, who returned from a long lay-off against Sunderland over the weekend but is still short of match-practice, and Milan’s Kevin Prince Boateng, who retired from international football at the age of 24 last November.
Senegal boast an abundance of talent in attack with Lille’s Moussa Sow, Mamadou Niang, Papiss Demba Cisse of Freiburg in Germany and, of course, Newcastle United’s Demba Ba.
The 26-year-old has been in phenomenal form since joining the Magpies with 15 league goals and if he continues in similar vein he could cement himself as one of the continent’s finest players.
From today ’til Friday, we plan to give you a rundown on each of the four groups. First up is Group A:
It’s 10 years since El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Papa Bouba Diop made history with a 1-o win over holders France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup.
After reaching the quarter-finals, the majority of that squad earned lucrative moves to European clubs but in more recent times, they failed to qualify for 2010’s AFCON and have been going through a transitional period.
They arrive this year as dark horses. Their strike force must be the envy of the other nations as Ba is joined by last season’s top scorer in Ligue Un Moussa Sow, Newcastle’s new signing Papiss Demba Cisse, and former Marseille hitman Mamadou Niang, who plies his trade in Qatar these days.
Other familiar names include QPR full-back Armand Traore, Marseille defender Souleymane Diawara and Wigan’s Mouhamed Diame.
Expect them to finish top of Group A and a semi-final appearance. Ba scored in a warm-up game with Sudan on Thursday. This goal handed them a 1-0 win:
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Nickname: Teranga Lions
Player to watch: Demba Ba (Newcastle United)
He has shown the he is a class act in the Premier League this season and is second only to Drogba as favourite for the Golden Boot.
Outright betting: 11/2
Best previous performance: Runner-up in 2002
The co-hosts will be competing in their very first AFCON having qualified automatically and, according to the FIFA rankings, are the weakest team ever to stage the competition.
French manager Henri Michel, who knows African football inside out having taken charge of Cameroon, Morocco, the Ivory Coast and Tunisia in the past was set to lead them into the cup until he resigned last month.
Paulo Gilson, a former director of sports at Brazilian club Vasco De Gama, was brought in and has continued Michel’s policy of choosing a number of naturalised players including Deportivo La Coruna’s Rodolfo Bodipo.
It would be a miracle to see them get out of the group, but the heavy support they are bound to get from home fans could prove to be a real advantage.
Nickname: National Lightning
Player to watch: Javier Balboa (Beira-Mar)
The Spanish-born winger came up through the ranks at Real Madrid and made a handful of first team appearances before being shipped off to Benfica.
A couple of loan spells saw him move to fellow Portuguese side Beira-Mar.
Outright betting: 66/1
Best previous performance: First appearance
Considering the revolutionary change Libya has witnessed as a nation in the past year, making it to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea is a remarkable achievement.
At the begining of the qualifiers, they played under an all-green flag but have replaced it with a red, white and green one since the death of Muammar Gaddafi.
Their home games were played outside the country because of civil war and a number of players even missed their important fixture with Mozambique in Cairo back in September as they were caught up in fighting back in Tripoli.
Unfortunately, current Airtricity League Player of the Year Eamon Zayed has been left out of the final squad after he declared for them in 2010.
They are also managed by a Brazilian coach in Marcos Paqueta and will probably battle it out with Equatorial Guinea for third spot.
Nickname: Mediterranean Knights
Player to watch: Samir Aboud (Al-Ittihad)
Libya’s 39-year-old goalkeeper is the most-decorated player in the squad and has been with Tripoli-based Al-Ittihad for 20 years.
He’s won nine domestic Premier League’s and six cups.
Outright betting: 40/1
Best previous performance: Runner-up in 1982
The Copper Bullets have reinstated French coach Herve Renard after oddly sacking Italian Dario Bonetti immediately after qualification was ensured.
They were actually beaten by Libya last year but recovered well to top their group and Renard led them to a surprise quarter-final appearance last time out.
Back in 1993, a plane carrying the Zambian players crashed off the coast of Equatorial Guinea on its way back from Europe, killing almost all of the squad so there will be an added incentive to remember those victims with a couple of wins.
Should be runners-up to Senegal but a quarter-final spot is probably the best they can hope for.
Nickname: Copper Bullets
Player to watch: Isaac Chansa (Orlando Pirates)
The 27-year-old midfielder had a stint in Sweden with Helsingborgs before returning to his previous club Orlando Pirates in South Africa.
He is a consistant performer in the middle of the park and has said this week that Zambia’s work ethic is their main attribute.
Outright betting: 40/1
Best previous performance: Runner-up in 1974 and 1994