One Cup, Four Favourites

Zambia National Team

The 29th edition of Africa Cup of Nations, Afcon, football tournament, begins in South Africa, January 19, with four prominent football teams picked as favourites. But the real champions will emerge February 10

|  By Olu Ojewale |  Jan. 21, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

AGAIN, as it was in the past three editions, Cote d’Ivoire still tops the list of favourites to win this year’s edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, Afcon, football tournament, holding in South Africa from January 19 to February 10. Following closely on the list is Zambia, the defending champions. Then, there is Ghana and, of course, South Africa, the host nation. Coming a distant fifth is the Nigeria team. Those predictions are based on the calculations of sports’ watchers and analysts. The remaining 11 teams are regarded as dark horses.

But football is no mathematics. Analysts have also agreed, that any of the participating 16 nations can write its name as winner when the champions of the 29th edition of Afcon are crowned at the Soccer City in Johannesburg, February 10. Will Cote d’Ivoire prove the bookmakers right by clinching the title this time around?

Nigeria National Team
Nigeria National Team

Analysts say they should have learnt their lessons by now. Besides, they have a squad that can do it. The country currently parades the best of African exports in European football, including, Yaha Toure, arguably the most talented African player in the Premier League and currently Africa’s player of the year for a second time in succession. Toure is a match-winner and an enterprising footballer, who has demonstrated industry, and leadership qualities in the field of play. Didier Drogba, a striker, who won many trophies playing for Chelsea Football Club in England, but now plies his trade in China, would seek to use the tournament to redeem the blunder he made throwing away a penalty that would have given his team victory over Zambia, the eventual champions, at the last edition. Knowing full well that this is the last opportunity he has to lift the cup for his country, Drogba, would like to write his name in the history book. A fully fit Drogba is a danger to any defence any time.

Another thing that has been working for the Ivoiren team is not only their individual talents, but the fact that they have been playing together for a very long time. Although a good number of the players are also ageing, they are still lumbering along. One of their last friendly games, was against Russia. It ended in a 1-1 draw, which earned them an accolade from many quarters. The players who took part in the game were those who had been in the team in the previous edition of Afcon, which showed that they are still capable, agile and a force to reckon with.

Cote d’Ivoire is billed to play their last warm-up friendly match against Egypt on January 14, before flying to South Africa two days later for the opening showpiece set for kick-off on January 19. The Ivoirens have come agonisingly close to winning the tournament twice in the past. Seven years ago, they lost in penalty shootouts to hosts, Egypt, and last year, to Zambia in Libreville, Gabon. The other two attempts ended in semi-finals and quarter-finals exits. Cote d’Ivoire has been champions only once when it defeated Ghana in Dakar 21 years ago in another final settled by penalty shootouts.

But the tournament which also offers winners a place at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, is viewed as not being overly kind to the Ivorien ‘Elephants’. They are drawn in Group D alongside former champions, Algeria and Tunisia, and Togo, a team regarded as a potential trouble for the title favourites.

The Elephants had lost two of three previous Africa Cup meetings with Algeria; lost the only meeting with Tunisia, and managed only one win in three meetings with Togo. “It is unquestionably the most difficult group and we got three fearsome opponents,” Sabri Lamouchi, coach of Cote D’Ivoire, said, adding: “We were favourites before the draw and still are. Now we must deliver on the pitch.”

Analysts are, however, worried that having been the favourites in the past three editions and failed to live up to the billing, more pressures are being placed on the team to perform. If, indeed, the team were in its best last year when it was also favourites and still could not get the job done, analysts now wonder what the Elephants would do now that they have passed their prime. But failure is what the aging team would not like to contemplate as it fights for honour in South Africa.

Placed second on the favourites list is Zambia. The Chipolopolo of Zambia, who confounded bookmakers to win the last edition, will definitely like to repeat the feat at this year’s championship. The Zambians were definitely the best team last time around and, playing close to home, they will be out to prove that they were not a flash in the pan. Hence, they are expected to offer a fight that would make it not easy for any team that may want to dethrone them. But fighting to retain the title is not going to be easy either.

Until the friendly match between the defending champions and Tafa Stars of Tanzania, it was very difficult to assess the real strength of the reigning African champions. Their one goal shock loss to the Tanzanian team added to the previous four losses and four wins in all competitions in 2012. Analysts say the defeat was very crucial to what would happen to the team in the tournament. “That defeat speaks volumes. It could bring the Zambians down to earth and to the reality and enormity of the task ahead, or serve as a wake-up call for the team not to take things for granted and assume that they could ride on the back of their 2012 victory to win again in 2013,” Segun Odegbami, former Nigerian captain said. Another warm-up match against Morocco ended in a barren draw with the champions wasting many scoring chances. The result was a big relief to Herve Renard, French-born coach, who had come under media fire after losses in Saudi Arabia and Tanzania last month and to Angola in Johannesburg Saturday January 5.

Ghana National Team
Ghana National Team

As the team must have found out, fighting to keep the top spot is not going to be easy. But the team is not a pushover either. Renard, who has been Zambia’s head coach for two separate times, between 2008 and 2010, and from October 2011 until now, knows how to get the team to work. Having been a defender at Stade de Vallauris in France, where he enjoyed a long playing career, Renard brings that immense experience as a footballer to bear on his management job. The coach is regarded as a hard taskmaster who puts the team ahead of the individual, and always expecting one hundred percent performance from every one of his players. A hard fighter, Renard has taken Zambia to three Afcon tournaments.

Among the key players to prosecute Zambia’s ambition is Christopher Katongo, current BBC African Footballer of the Year, and an inspirational captain. He showed leadership quality in the 2012 Afcon when he led the team against all the odds, defeating tournament favourites such as Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to rubbish bookmakers’ prediction to claim a dramatic victory. Katongo is reputed to be a very hard working midfielder who relies more on his instincts and determination than skill. He has a great deal of playing experience which he garnered in South Africa, Germany, Denmark and Greece. He now plays in China, where he is immensely popular among Chinese fans. He scored three vital goals in the 2012 Afcon campaign, including a priceless winner against Ghana in the semi-finals.

Emmanuel Mayuka, 21, was named the top goal scorer at the 2012 edition of the Afcon. He joined Southampton in the English Premier League in August last year, having played in the Swiss League for BSC Young Boys, where he scored 32 goals in 55 appearances for the club. He has been a consistent goal scorer for the Chipolopolo since his excellent campaign in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. An exceptionally gifted striker, Mayuka’s age also works in his favour. He is expected to do well in the current campaign.

The Zambians, who are seeking to add to their medals in Afcon, have only won the tournament once. They were runners-up twice in 1974 and 1994, and won bronze thrice in 1982, 1990 and 1996. In the current campaign, Zambia is in group C, where it will slug it out with Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Nigeria for qualification to the next round.

Following on the heels of Zambia as favourites are the Black Stars of Ghana. Going by this year’s tournament, Ghana is one of the most successful. The Black Stars have won the tournament four times, placed second once in 2010, won bronze in 2008, and came fourth in 2012. Although their records in pre-tournament friendly matches were not impressive, they have the capacity and determination to rise to any occasion.

Leading the team to achieve the feat, is James Kwesi Appiah, the national coach. Appiah got the job after having worked as an assistant to three Serbian coaches who trained the Black Stars in the past. Appiah, a former Ghanaian captain, was part of the team when the nation lifted its fourth Afcon trophy 30 years ago. That past accolade would be on his mind as he leads the national team in the hope of repeating the feat.

Asamoah Gyan, the new captain of the Black Stars, will like to lead the nation to glory after such a long time. The ‘Baby Jet,’ as he is fondly called, is currently Ghana’s top striker. He has scored 28 goals in 59 games since he debuted for the Black Stars against Somalia nine years ago.

The team will also depend on the services of Christian Atsu, 20, who plies his trade for Porto, Portugal. He is a new addition to the Ghanaians team. Atsu made his debut in the 2014 Brazil World Cup qualifying match against Lesotho in Kumasi, Ghana, and just 10 minutes after coming on the pitch from the substitute bench, he scored a superb goal to show his skills.

Since then, Atsu has displayed fantastic performances for the senior national side with both games against Malawi in the 2013 Afcon qualifiers. Nicknamed ‘Ghana Messi’, Atsu has shown skill, flair, pace, strength and ability to score goals. Atsu has a partner in another youngster called Boakye Yiedon. The 19-year-old has been in fantastic form for his side Sassuolo, an Italian side, where he is on loan from Juventus. He has 10 goals to his credit and he is believed to be in dazzling form to damage to opponents.

With the present crop of young stars in the squad, Ghana is good enough to win the cup, but its inexperienced youngsters will need a little bit of luck and grit determination to succeed. Even if they fail in their bid, they would have shown enough to tell the world that they are no pushovers!

South Africa’s Bafana Bafana has continued its steady, little heralded preparations. Although the national team has not been doing very well since the disappointment of not making it past the first round of the 2010 World Cup, which the country hosted, analysts say it could ride on the tide of emotive support if it gets off to a good start and win over sceptical fans.

Also working in the team’s favour is the fact that South Africa hosted the tournament in 1996, and won. Coach Gordon Igesund said the crop of players he has assembled could still perform the feat, notwithstanding injury setbacks in the camp. Little wonder analysts say the Bafana Bafana are the surprise team to beat in the championship. The success of the team itself will determine the future of Igesund as the national team coach.

Igesund was appointed last June, after the country’s poor start to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. He was given six months to get ready for the Nations Cup and ordered to at least make a semi-final appearance if he wants to keep his job after the tournament. Igesund, 56, has been the most successful coach in the nation’s domestic football with four league titles with four different clubs since 1997.

To succeed on his job, Igesund is counting on some key players such as Thulani Serero, a midfielder who plays for Ajax Amsterdam. The 22-year-old playmaker, moved to Ajax after being crowned South Africa’s best footballer in 2011. Serero is just recovering from a groin injury suffered in September, but coach Igesund, says at 60 percent fitness, Serero is still a potential match winner for his team since the exit of Steven Pienna of Everton FC in England who has since retired from international football.

Another match winner for the host nation is Siphiwe Tshabalala, 28, who plays for Kaizer Chiefs in the local league. As a winger, he is arguably the most popular footballer in the country right now. Tshabalala scored a cracking goal to open the 2010 World Cup finals, which makes him a force to reckon with. With his smiling face and dreadlock hairstyle, his face is among those adorning advertising billboards across major cities in South Africa. Although his form has been a source of concern in recent times because of pressure, he is still seen as one of those who can propel the team to deliver the goods.

South Africa National Team
South Africa National Team

Anele Ngcongca, 25, who plays for Racing Genk in Belgium, is another rookie in the South African squad. A utility defender, Ngcongca was virtually unknown in his home country until he emerged at Belgian club Racing Genk, which won the league in 2011. He also competed in the group phase of last season’s Uefa Champions League. South Africa’s success in the championship has been modest. It has won it once in 1996, and was the runners-up in 2010 and placed third in 2012.

Leading the pack of dark horses in the tournament is Nigeria. For the first time in decades, Nigeria did not qualify for the 2012 edition jointly hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The Super Eagles of Nigeria are now back in contention with a new technical crew headed by Coach Stephen Keshi, who replaced Samson Siasia, after he failed to qualify Nigeria for the last Afcon.

Nigeria’s preparation for the tournament has been smooth and focused but not been short of its own problems. Perhaps, the most controversial is the dropping of Osaze Odewingwe from the team and then the refusal of Shola Ameobi, who plays for Newcastle United in the English Premier League. Ameobi chose the club ahead of representing the country.

To really appreciate how far the nation’s team has developed, one can only see that through its pre-tournament friendly matches. The Eagles’ friendly match against a Barcelona FC-loaded Catalonian team, January 2, which ended in a 1-1 draw, earned the team great commendation, which analysts say could signal the return of the Super Eagles to contention. The team had a barren goalless draw against Cape Verde, a fellow contestant, in their last friendly match. It is interesting to see that Keshi, the Nigerian coach, is sticking to his policy to include players from the domestic league in his emerging team, particularly in the defence, where the team appears to have some weakness. Nine names from the local league are included in his list of 23 players to feature for Nigeria in the championship. The team is believed to be solid from the midfield upwards, which could produce serious problems for its opponents.

Defender Joseph Yobo, who holds the national record of being the most capped in Nigerian colours, is the captain of the team. He took over from Nwankwo Kanu after the 2010 World Cup where Nigeria bowed out at the group stage. The Fenerbahce defender has already won three bronze medals at the Afcon. In South Africa, Yobo will be hoping to finally win the coveted trophy in order to justify the length of time spent in the country’s service.

Keshi is also relying on the services of Mikel Obi, 25, who has won many laurels with Chelsea FC alongside Drogba, to hold the midfield. Mikel has had a chequered history in the service of his nation but the midfielder returned to the national team with a goal in the last qualifier against Liberia. If there’s any player that Nigeria will be looking forward to for inspiration at the Afcon, Mikel will surely be on the top of the list. He is expected to be the catalyst to a new era of dominance by Nigeria if he can be as committed to his games for the country as he has been for his club.

Victor Moses, 22, could have been a player for England player, but he has chosen to play for Nigeria. Having featured in England’s youth teams, Moses has enough international exposure to know what he needs to do. In fact, he played a key role in the Super Eagles’ qualification series by scoring two goals in the 6-1 demolition of Liberia in Calabar. Moses is now a dependable player ever since he moved to Chelsea in the summer of 2012. He has the speed and can dribble, which makes him an exciting player on a good day. He is seen as one of the emerging talents to grace this year’s Afcon.

Up to the time of their departure from Portugal, where the team had its training camp, the Super Eagles has become stronger, more coordinated and impressive. Notwithstanding the problem created by the dropping of Odemigwe and Ameobi’s snub, Segun Odegbami, former Nigerian international said, “The Eagles will storm Afcon 2013 as the real dark horses of the championship – unknown, mysterious, difficult and dangerous!” Nigeria has won the championship twice in 1980 and 1994, and was the runner-up four times and a bronze seven times.

Prominent among other underdogs are North African giants, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Ethiopia. All these nations have each won the cup once in the past. Tunisia’s win was about eight years ago in 2004. It had been runner-up twice in 1965 and 1996, and came third in 1962. Algeria last won the cup in 1990, and runner-up in 1980, and placed third twice in 1984 and 1988. Morocco was the champion in 1976, the runner-up in 2004 and placed third in 1980. It will be hoping to add to its tallies in this year’s Afcon tournament. After missing from the tournament for three decades, Ethiopia will not mind repeating the feat that made it the champion in 1962. The country was the runner-up in 1957 and placed fourth in 1968.

Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo should not be written off either, leaving Burkina Faso, the Cape Verde Islands, Niger and Togo as the five teams without realistic ambitions of going all the way.

Winners and runners-up in the four mini-leagues usually advance to the quarterfinals and Group A should be a three-way fight between Angola, Morocco and South Africa despite the shock elimination of Cameroon by Cape Verde.

Mali and Ghana, which came third and fourth respectively at the 2012 finals are the obvious favourites to progress from Group B, but the DR Congo poses a threat because of the formidable credentials of Frenchman Claude le Roy, who handles the team.

Zambia and Nigeria appear too powerful in Group C for Ethiopia, who has just returned to the championship after a 31-year absence, and Burkina Faso, the only country to be eliminated three times without securing a point at the Cup of Nations. The opening-day clash between Algeria and Tunisia is crucial to the outcome of Group D, with the Maghreb neighbours boasting rising stars in Sofiane Feghouli of Valencia and Youssef Msakni of Esperance.

Usually staged biennially, the Africa Cup is being played in successive years for the first time since 1963 because of a move to uneven-number years, designed to avoid every second tournament being hosted six months before a World Cup championship. Paul Bassey, a Nigerian journalist, and CAF communications officer, said although Nigeria is not among the favourites, it would be a disaster for any opponent to underrate the team. For Nigeria to have a better chance, the Super Eagles must do well to top the group. “If we top group C, it gives us a lot of a chance to avoid Cote d’Ivoire in the quarter final, and if we can do that we are likely to get to the final,” Bassey said in a telephone interview.

Bassey, who expressed satisfaction in the way the team has been preparing for the tournament, said the first match would be crucial as to how the team would eventually perform. “We are ranked five going to the tournament. I am very optimistic that if we can come first in the group matches, we have a good chance,” he said.

Joe Erico, former coach of the Super Eagles, is also impressed with the preparation for the Afcon going by the number of friendly matches the team has played. According to Erico, every country that qualifies for the game is a potential winner. Hence, he said it would be too dangerous to regard any team as an underdog because any team participating in the game could spring a surprise.

Although the former Super Eagles coach believes Nigeria would do well in the game, he could not state categorically that Nigeria would win. “I will not bet on whether Nigeria will win or not but I can tell you that Nigeria will do well in the game,” Erico said. He said a lesson should be learnt on how Zambia, which nobody had given a chance, won the championship. Erico also believes that Cape Verde, which eliminated Cameroon, former champions, would do well in the tournament. “In the game of football, it is risky to underrate the strength of your opponent,” he warned. Erico commended Keshi for getting the team to qualify for South Africa 2013, and his strategy of combining local and foreign-based players to build a formidable team.

While Matthew Edafe, a sports presenter with Brilla FM, is also impressed by Keshi’s approach of blending local and foreign players together, he is not impressed with the level of Nigeria’s preparation for the tournament. He said while countries like Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, and Zambia started preparing for the tournament shortly after the last edition, Nigeria was not ready to raise a team. “If luck will be on our side, we will go a long way in the tournament, but the most important thing is that the coach had been able to eliminate ego and pride from the team. The mixture of home based and foreign based players is the best approach for the team now. I think we are prepared, let’s see how our first two games will go,” Edafe said.

The sport presenter does not rank Nigeria among those that are likely to win the tournament, but would be grateful to the coaching crew if they can perform the feat. Indeed, all the favourites and the so-called dark horses, have a chance to win the tournament, but whoever wins the championship on February 10, would have gone through the grit, anxiety to produce spectacular performances with a bit of luck. As for the host country, the world expects nothing short of another great show, after it successfully hosted the 2010 World Cup. That memory is still fresh.

AFCON Fixtures
AFCON Fixtures
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