The 28th CAF African Cup of Nations kicks off this Saturday, with fans looking forward to an exceptionally close and exciting fight for the trophy. In common with the vast majority of commentators, Karim Haggui feels it is the most open tournament in years. “On paper at least, you could say Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire are the favourites, but it's really hard to say who might win this year, because so many nations have caught up in footballing terms and now play at a very good level," the Tunisia captain said.
The 6’3 defender is an important source of experience and authority, and will seek to fill the role of chief organiser for a young Tunisia side at the continental showdown in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the seasoned campaigner about his fifth consecutive Cup of Nations, and his team's chances of lifting the trophy again.
Tough start for Tunisians
The 2004 African champions have been grouped with Morocco, Niger, and co-hosts Gabon. Haggui knows a place in the quarter-finals will require considerable application and effort. “We really have to watch ourselves against all the other teams in this group. Gabon will be especially motivated as hosts, and Morocco are one of the most successful nations in Africa," the 27-year-old reflected.
The player, on the books with Bundesliga side Hannover, regards Niger as the great unknowns in the group, although he appreciates the importance of not underestimating the surprise package: “I don't know much about their team, but they finished first in their qualifying group ahead of Egypt, and that tells you everything about their quality."
The Eagles of Carthage will contest this year's tournament with a young side, so the experienced international is setting modest targets this time round. “We had a few problems in qualifying, so we’re not arriving in Gabon as one of the favourites," the centre-back insisted. “But we have a very good and young team. If we can improve from match to match at the tournament, we could yet go all the way."
It's really hard to say who might win this year, because so many nations have caught up in footballing terms and now play at a very good level.
The 2012 edition of the continental showdown will be the least predictable and most evenly-matched ever, the defender said. “Just looking at the smaller nations, they’ve caught up enormously in recent years, and they now have very high technical and tactical standards." The pressure to perform, according to be aerial powerhouse, is on the most successful teams of recent years, such as the Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire.
Little to choose between nations
“Both of them have been performing well for years, and both appeared at the last FIFA World Cup™. It means they have the experience you need at a major tournament," Haggui pointed out. He feels Morocco and Tunisia are the next most likely candidates: “The North African countries have a slightly different culture and tend to play more disciplined football."
Haggui, a key individual in the plans of coach Sami Trabelsi, could yet combine with the fresh and largely untried new Tunisian generation to spring a major surprise. Trabelsi, who took up the reins in March 2011, has been upbeat in the build-up: “We'll do everything we can to win the trophy. I know some people think we’re candidates for the cup because a number of the biggest African nations are missing this year, but there are plenty of other strong teams who can push us to the limit."
Should the Tunisians lift the trophy, it would be Haggui's second continental triumph after a maiden success in 2004, when he netted the match-winning penalty in the semi-final against Nigeria. “I'll never forget this goal. I’d only just turned 20 and it was my first African Cup. It was really special," he recalled.
On the day before this year’s opening match, Haggui will be celebrating again, this time for his 28th birthday. And as our interview drew to a close, the skipper underlined once again just how unpredictable the upcoming would be, saying: “Anything, and I mean anything, can happen at this tournament."