Fireworks sure to light up Africa
© AFP

The 29th edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations begins Saturday with the world ready for another exciting and surprising finals. A year ago in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Zambia shocked the world by beating Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire en route to their first-ever title, and the Chipolopolo join their vanquished foes as favourites – this time looking to claim a spot in the summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. Also eyeing a possible run to the final at Johannesburg's Soccer City on 10 February are two-time champions Nigeria, third-place finishers from last year Mali and hosts South Africa, who lifted their only AFCON trophy at home in 1996.

The favourites
Zambia
are once again led by inspirational French coach Herve Renard, and if anything his side is stronger than last year. However, they have won only three of their 11 matches on the pitch since last January's penalty shootout victory in the final over the Ivorians. They only just qualified to defend the AFCON via another dramatic shootout with Uganda that ended 9-8 in their favour, so the experienced team will fear no side at the business end of a match. The holders open Group C against Ethiopia, who are returning to the event for the first time in 31 years, before facing off with Nigeria in a battle expected to determine the group winner.

Any slip by the Zambians will surely be pounced upon by Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the continent's two most experienced and lauded teams. Both have reached the last two FIFA World Cups™ as well as three AFCON semi-finals in the last four events, but there is a whiff of desperation surrounding the giants. The Elephants, now led by Frenchman Sabri Lamouchi in his first managerial job, are anxious to win an international trophy for 34-year-old Didier Drogba in what might be his final go-round, while the Black Stars have not added to their four continental laurels since 1982.

The outsiders
Mali
finished third at the last event, but The Eagles are used to flying under the radar despite a side bursting with talent. The Malians have only qualified for eight of the 29 events but have reached the last four in five of those, and they are likely to challenge for Group B with Ghana and Congo DR, who open the event against the Black Stars. Looking to match Côte d’Ivoire in Group D will be the North African duo of Tunisia and Algeria. The Tunisians have not reached the semi-finals of the AFCON since winning the event at home in 2004, but they have escaped the group stage in three of the last four finals. After a heyday in the 1980s that culminated in Cup of Nations glory in 1990, again at home, Algeria did not reach the penultimate stage again until 2010 – the same year they returned to the FIFA World Cup – when they shocked the Ivorians in the quarter-finals.

Fellow North Africans Morocco are inexperienced but talented darkhorses in Group A, where South Africa and coach Gordon Igesund have the weight of expectation on their shoulders despite Bafana Bafana only qualifying automatically as hosts after Libya pulled out. Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi was a linchpin on the last Super Eagles team to win the event in 1994, and 'Big Boss' has stamped his authority on the sometimes nervy west Africans in the hope of reaching their first final since 2000.

Players to watch
Player of the last tournament, Christopher Katongo is once again captain and the key attacking figure for Zambia, who also get firepower up front from Jacob Mulenga, Emmanuel Mayuka and Rainford Kalaba. At the opposite end, goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene was an inspiration in 2012 as was defender Stoppila Sunzu, who converted the winning penalty in the final. Côte d’Ivoire are also led from the front by Drogba, who combines with Gervinho and Salomon Kalou, but a steely, veteran spine underlies the side's success. The Toure brothers are vital, as are Cheick Tiote and Didier Zokora in holding midfield roles and Boubacar Barry in goal.

Midfield graft is equally important for Ghana, who will rely on the Italy-based duo of Kwadwo Asamoah and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Osasuna's Anthony Annan in the absence of Michael Essien, Andre Ayew, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari. Captain Asamoah Gyan is the main man in attack, while John Paintsil is the veteran at the back alongside a group of talented up-and-comers. Jon Obi Mikel is back in the fold for Nigeria. and his Chelsea team-mate Victor Moses is expected to make waves up front, while in defence captain Joseph Yobo will compete in his sixth AFCON.

Steven Pienaar is a no-show for the hosts, who boast many familiar names from the last FIFA World Cup including young defender Bongani Khumalo, who is now captain. Competing in his sixth Cup of Nations will be Mali legend Seydou Keita, leading a midfield that will miss injured Mahamadou Diarra but can call on the returned Momo Sissoko. Up front, the Malians will feature Cheick Diabate as well as Modibo Maiga, and other strikers to watch for will be Togo's last-minute inclusion Emmanuel Adebayor, Angola captain Manucho, Niger playmaker Moussa Maazou, DR Congo's TP Mazembe duo of Tresor Mabi Mputu and Deo Kanda and Tunisia's Issam Jemaa.

The stat
10 –
The number of times Nigeria have reached the semi-final stage in their last 11 AFCONs.

What they said
“It would be great to win the trophy finally. Honestly, we are getting tired of losing out each time after getting close,” Côte d’Ivoire's Didier Drogba.

Have your say
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