Africa’s leading home-based footballers are assembling in Sudan ahead of the weekend opening of the CAF African Nations Championship, a bid to showcase the best players based on the continent. It is the second edition of the recently-introduced tournament and the number of finalists has been increased from eight in the inaugural finals, hosted in Côte d’Ivoire two years ago, to 16 this year.

The teams are quasi-national sides, for which only home-based players qualify, and it is likely to be an event closely followed by scouts from around the globe. Africa has been a prodigious exporter of talent to the top leagues of the world and as result its national teams have benefited greatly, becoming more competitive, professional and combative in their outlook. But for the players who have not had the opportunity to play abroad, the CHAN, as it is also known, offers a valuable chance for international exposure.

The favourites

The Democratic Republic of Congo were the inaugural winners of the event, beating Ghana 2-0 in the final in Abidjan, and the Congolese will be among the hot favourites again. Eleven of the 23-man squad come from CAF Champions League winners TP Mazembe, who last Saturday won a second successive CAF Super Cup to further confirm their current dominance of the African game. They will start out in Group C against Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali and will be looking for one of the top two spots for a place in the quarter-finals.

Ghana and the fourth-place team from two years ago, Senegal, are back again as well, although bronze medallists Zambia did not qualify as they were eliminated by South Africa in the preliminaries. The Black Stars, who have been on a run of achievement at a range of international levels, have been training at altitude in Kenya for preparation, but coach Herbert Addo and five players from league winners Aduana Stars did not participate as they went to Morocco for a Champions League assignment at the weekend.

Arguably the most powerful squads will come from Algeria and Tunisia, where their domestic championships have a better reputation than most on the continent. “We’ve had excellent preparations,” said Algeria coach Abdelhak Ben Chikha. “Our goal is to get to the final. And once you get to the final, you have to not only play it, but win it.”

The outsiders
The tournament is also a reference point, offering a chance to work closely with and test up-and-coming talent. Angola’s new coach Lito Vidigal has been training his side in Brazil for the last month to prepare, while Sudan’s squad have been warming up in Zambia with a series of matches against local club sides. The hosts have identified a place in the knockout rounds as their goal, but their draw in Group A against Gabon, Uganda and Algeria looks tricky.

For Gabon, the tournament presents a perfect chance for many of their A international squad members to fine tune ahead of their hosting of next year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Zimbabwe drew all three of their matches at the CHAN two years ago, and coach Madinda Ndlovu is aiming to do one better this time around by escaping their group. The former national team player has called up a young group with an eye on potential. “By the time we return from Sudan we should have either done well or laid the foundation for the future national team,” he said. “It will also show us where we are with our league.”

Players to watch
Of the 11 Mazembe players DR Congo coach Santos Mutubile Ditunga can call on, one sure to drive the attack is Alain Dioko Kaluyituka, who finished joint-top scorer in the Champions League this past season and was one of the nominees at the recent CAF awards for best home-based player of 2010. At the other end of the pitch, colourful goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba will mind the Congolese net as he does for the FIFA Club World Cup runners-up. The ‘Leopards Locaux’ also have eight players returning from the victorious 2009 CHAN squad.

The defeated finalists from that event have only one returning player, striker Stephen Manu, who is set for a move to Tunisia after the tournament. The Ghana attack will also feature the promising Berekum Chelsea quartet of Emmanuel Clottey, Bismark Idan, Emmanuel Osei Banahene and Obed Owusu, while veteran goalkeeper Sammy Adjei will be charged with keeping things tight at the back in Group B against South Africa, Zimbabwe and Niger.

Ambitious Rwanda have been named hosts of the 2016 CHAN, but coach Sellas Tetteh is looking to make in-roads sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, Tetteh has called up two members of Rwanda’s U-17 team, which qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup last month by finishing second on the continent, and he will be hoping Emery Bayisenge and Faustin Usengimana can help out their more experienced team-mates in Group D against Angola, Tunisia and Senegal.