As most observers would agree, the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008 is shaping up to be one of the most hotly-disputed in the competition's history. Missing out on places at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ proved a bitter pill to swallow for the continent's traditional powers, and they reacted defiantly by taking a firm hold of tickets to Ghana.
As a result, the tournament kicks off in nine days with defending champions Egypt joined by a raft of big guns, including Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia and Morocco. While any one of those sides could realistically hoist the trophy aloft on 10 February, a selection of promising outsiders are lining up behind them with hopes of creating a surprise or two - and not least impressive qualifiers Guinea.
The Syli National suffered just one defeat and conceded merely three goals on the road to Ghana, singling them out as a team to watch closely when the festivities get underway. To get a better idea of their chances, FIFA.com caught up with charismatic captain Pascal Feindouno, and as ever the AS Saint-Etienne right-winger was in the mood to share a joke.
"We're at our training camp in Malaga (Spain ) and I'm trying to get some quiet in my room but the youngsters are all bothering me," he laughed. "There's no respect these days!" Together since 6 January, the Guineans appear to have built up an excellent atmosphere as they prepare for action. "It's always a pleasure to meet up," explained Feindouno. "Relaxation is practically our trademark and the coach (Frenchman Robert Nouzaret) knows it well. He knows that even though he has to impose a certain discipline, it's also our free spirit that makes us strong."
Despite the undercurrent of nonchalance, Feindouno is taking the competition extremely seriously: "Being in high spirits is just our method of preparation. For us, this Africa Cup of Nations is like a World Cup. We'll give everything we've got without hesitation."
Drawn in Group A alongside the hosts, Namibia and Morocco, Guinea will certainly need a supreme effort to progress. A quarter-final berth awaits the top two sides in the section and Nouzaret's men know they must find their best form to prevail. Feindouno is no stranger to success, though, having helped Bordeaux secure the French title in 1999, and he remains confident of Guinea's chances.
"It's true that we're starting the competition by playing in the opening match against the hosts, but it's Ghana that will be under pressure, not us," he said. "After that, we'll be well into our stride to face Morocco. There's no denying that they're a top team, but nothing's impossible. Lastly, Namibia are a side we don't know much about.
"Whatever happens, we're aiming for the semi-finals at least. I'm convinced we even have what it takes to lift the trophy. We've lost out twice in the quarter-finals in the past, but I think we deserved better. Still, we'll need to be very wary. All the teams are strong."
'You'll see the best of Feindouno'
The Guinean squad are scheduled to touch down in Ghana on 16 January - just four days ahead of the competition curtain-raiser - and between now and then they have three friendlies to occupy their attention. They represent a last chance to put their coach's instructions into practice before the serious business begins.
"Mr. Nouzaret is demanding," explained Feindouno. "But he's right to be and the squad go along with his methods. He's got a lot of experience, after all, and we respect him enormously." Following a difficult start to his reign, the former Côte d'Ivoire trainer has succeeded in imposing his own style and making the most of a group of players loaded with talent. None are more talented than the captain himself and, though his club form has been subject to criticism in recent weeks, the 26-year-old tends to rise to the occasion in a national team shirt.
"I've been through a tough time and it's good to be back with the national team," he said. "It's like a breath of fresh air for me and I feel great again. I want to silence all the critics and I promise you this: you'll see the best of Feindouno on Ghanaian soil." There could hardly be a better piece of news for a Guinea team even the most prestigious of their rivals would be foolish to underestimate.