Giants clash in new African tournament

The first CAF African Nations Championship tournament kicks off on Sunday in Côte d'Ivoire with the hosts and Ghana seen as the likeliest winners.

Unlike its 'big brother', the biennial CAF Africa Cup of Nations, this two-week gathering of eight countries is restricted to footballers who play in their country of birth. African Football Confederation (CAF) president Issa Hayatou says the latest addition to the continental calendar is designed to showcase the abilities of stars who stay at home, and boost national leagues.

And although Europe-based stars like Emmanuel Adebayor, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Samuel Eto'o and Amr Zaki will be absent, the 16 games in Abidjan and Bouake have generated considerable interest among Ivorians. It will be the first CAF competition staged by the cocoa-producing west African state since the 1984 Cup of Nations, which signalled the emergence of Cameroon as an African force.

Cameroon failed to qualify for the Nations Championship after losing home and away to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the final elimination phase, and six of the other top 10 ranked countries also missed out. Nigeria, Morocco, Guinea, Mali and Tunisia were casualties of the regional qualifying process and Nations Cup title holders Egypt withdrew to concentrate on reaching the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.

That leaves Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal from the 'elite' at the Nations Championship with Congo DR, Libya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe completing the line-up. With the Congolese, Libyans, Senegalese, Tanzanians and Zimbabweans failed to make the final qualifying phase of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the tournament offers hope of some consolation.

The Ivorians will hope for better luck than when they hosted the then eight-team Cup of Nations as losses to Egypt and Cameroon condemned the Elephants to a first-round exit. Abidjan-based Group A seeds Côte d'Ivoire warmed up with home victories over Burkina Faso (3-0) and Equatorial Guinea (2-0) and Charles Dje Bi Trazie and Jacques Tano displayed consistency by scoring in both.

While playing at home offers an advantage to a squad including four players each from Abidjan giants ASEC Mimosas and Africa Sports, choosing which team is likely to accompany them into the semi-finals is difficult. The intensive East and Central Africa Senior Challenge Cup in Uganda last month boosted the preparations of Tanzania and Zambia while Senegal faced Oman, Gambia, Cape Verde Islands and Libya in pre-tournament friendlies.

Group B in the northern city of Bouake is similar as Ghana, who eliminated Togo and Nigeria en route to Abidjan, are the obvious favourites with a squad that includes Rahim Ayew, eldest son of legend Abedi 'Pele' Ayew. Who joins them? Libya should be strong on teamwork given 13 of the squad hail from champions Al-Ittihad, DR Congo are traditionally ill prepared but talented, and Zimbabwe have been hit by the loss of stars on trial abroad.

The opening match on Sunday afternoon at a renovated Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium features Côte d'Ivoire and Zambia followed three hours later by Tanzania and Senegal at the same venue.