It promises to be a memorable return for Africa's top footballers during the next few weeks as the CAF African Cup of Nations Egypt 2006 prepares to get underway.
These days, the big name African players rarely get the chance to compete on home soil. The cream of the continent are plying their trade further afield, breaking new ground with the world's top clubs. Indeed, it is only every two years that they return home to verify their credentials in front of a home audience.
The Africa Cup of Nations 2006 finals in Egypt will offer arguably the best collection of talent since the tournament first started almost 50 years ago, in 1957. Leading the pack of star players is Barcelona and Cameroon ace Samuel Eto'o, yet his position as the continent's top striker is under threat from a posse of pretenders.
Eto'o's international profile has flourished during the past 18 months - this was clearly emphasised by the third place he achieved in the recent FIFA World Player of the Year 2005 awards. But in Africa there are several strong candidates looking to usurp him.
One contender for Eto'o's crown as Africa's best is Côte d'Ivoire striker Didier Drogba, whose career is going from strength to strength. His success, first in France with Olympique Marseille, and now with English champions Chelsea, has been matched by his international form with Côte d'Ivoire, who are first time qualifiers for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ finals in Germany later this year.
Drogba has a prodigious scoring record for his national team and his inclusion in the Elephants' line-up at the CAN 2006 finals is one of the reasons why Cote d'Ivoire are many pundits' tip for the title. Drogba's team mates Aruna Dindane, who could miss the opening match of the tournament in Egypt because of injury, and Bonaventure Kalou complete their collection of stars.
With all five FIFA World Cup qualifiers present at the tournament - the likes of Angola, Tunisia, Ghana and Togo are keen to use the Cup of Nations as a forum to prove their qualification for Germany was by no means a fluke.
Togo's chances rest firmly on the shoulders of Emmanuel Adebayor, the statuesque striker has just completed a high profile move from Monaco in France's Ligue 1 to join English giants Arsenal.
Angola will be relieved that Fabrice Akwa and Pedro Mantorras are back in their prime with both players finding the net in their last warm-up match against Morocco on 17 January. Akwa was previously hailed as the 'new Eusebio' while Mantorras has fought his way back from a horrific knee injury to help his club Benfica qualify for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.
The Cup of Nations will also provide the stage for Nigeria to show off their newly assembled attack. Obafemi Martins and Stephen Makinwa, both currently playing Italy's Serie A, have all the necessary credentials to emerge as new superstars of African football.
Martins missed the last Cup of Nations finals, opting instead to try and secure a regular starting place at his club Inter Milan. Since then he has established himself as one of most exciting talents in European football. He has more than proven his potential with nine goals in 10 matches for the Super Eagles and will certainly be one of the players to watch at the tournament.
For all the young talent in Egypt there are also many veterans who will be attempting galvanise their reputations. The likes of Morocco central defender Nouredine Naybet and Egyptian pair Ahmed Hassan and Hossam Hassan are already members of the FIFA Century Club.
Hossam Hassan, at 39, is poised to equal the record for the most number of Cup of Nations finals appearance with seven tournaments while Naybet, is close behind having competed at the last six finals. For the hosts Egypt, captain Ahmed Hassan, was part of the team when they last won the tournament back in 1998. Meanwhile it will be the swansong for Nigerian captain Austin 'Jay-Jay' Okocha, who has decided to retire from international football immediately after the tournament. Okocha was voted best player at the last Cup of Nations in Tunisia and Nigeria will be looking to him for inspiration when they take to the field for their opening game against Ghana in Port Said on 23 January.
For the latest news on the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Egypt 2006, visit the tournament's Official Website by clicking here .