It is ten days since the curtain fell on the 2008 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, but the afterglow is yet to fade on a tournament marked by Egypt's superior team ethic and the excellent showing of the continent's biggest names. Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto'o and Michael Essien all lit Ghana up with displays worthy of their talent as they gladly embraced their roles as leader of their respective sides.
Most people seem to agree that the 26 th edition of the tournament was the most highly competitive ever, but it was not just the performances of Africa's established stars that guaranteed superior standards. An exciting generation of new faces left their own stamp and seem destined for great things in a future increasingly dominated by the thrilling prospect of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. FIFA.com runs the rule over the players you can expect to hear a lot more of now between now and the next global showcase.
Having successfully defended their title against expectations, African champions Egypt certainly deserve to be looked at first. No one stood head and shoulders above the rest in the Pharaohs's skilled line-up, but a few hit consistently high levels to power their team to a sixth title, and midfielder Hosny Abd Rabou clearly belonged to that group. The Ismaily playmaker drove Egypt onwards thanks to his competitiveness, technique, dead-ball finesse and goalscoring instincts, two of his four efforts coming in the opening-day win over Cameroon that set the tone for Egypt's entire campaign. Elected Player of the Tournament, the 23-year-old could very well find himself travelling back across the Mediterranean soon, following a disappointing previous spell with RC Strasbourg.
For beaten finalists Cameroon, the name Song is already the stuff of legend courtesy of emblematic defender Rigobert, who took his tally of caps to 119 in Ghana. The Galatasaray man is now 31, but it looks certain that there will be at least one Indomitable Lions shirt sporting his moniker for years to come after his nephew Alexandre made a truly stunning impression. The 20-year-old Arsenal youngster came on at half-time during the dispiriting loss to Egypt in Cameroon's first outing, and he seized his chance to rack up top-notch performances in every game, operating just in front of the defence. Injury ultimately caused him to leave the pitch 16 minutes into the final, and it remains debatable who would have left with the trophy had he stuck around.
Black Antelope awaiting Red Devils chance
Eliminated by the eventual winners at the quarter-final stage, Angola gave further evidence that they must be considered one of the continent's leading powers after gracing their first ever FIFA World Cup two years ago. The Palancas Negras(Black Antelopes) travelled to Ghana without injured Benfica ace Mantorras, but they quickly filled the breach with another glittering prospect in the shape of imposing striker Manucho.
Standing 1.88m (6ft 2") tall, Manucho showed a whole range of abilities to emerge as the tournament's greatest find, starting with the power and aerial prowess that helped him notch three goals in the group stage. Two of those were ferocious headers, and they stood in stark contrast to the strike he conjured up against Egypt in the next round. After dribbling the ball forward in sublime style, the 24-year-old unleashed a thunderbolt with his left foot that flew 20 metres before nestling high inside Essam al-Hadary's goal.
It seems odd now to think how many eyebrows were raised when Sir Alex Ferguson signed the gifted marksman from Atletico Petroleos Luanda just a few weeks back. The Manchester United coach has clearly been vindicated by events elsewhere. "We brought in Manucho on a three-week trial and we were impressed," explained the Scotsman. "That's why we offered him a three-year contract. He's agile for his height and he's quick." The Angolan striker must nevertheless await his chance before stepping out on to the Old Trafford turf, as the English champions have loaned him out to Panathinaikos until the end of the season.
For the hosts, meanwhile, the magical trio of Michael Essien, Gyan Asamoah and Sulley Muntari used all their experience of Europe's headline leagues to power the Black Stars to third place on the podium. But despite their contribution, former international Anthony Baffoe was most taken with a pair of newcomers.
"Junior Agogo and Anthony Annan impressed me," he told FIFA.com. "I didn't expect much from them and they carried our team." The former is no youngster at 29, yet he should soon be adding to his tally of seven strikes from 15 appearances after his confident CAF Africa Cup of Nations displays. As for Annan, he is just 21 and many Ghana fans are convinced he is the ideal partner for Essien and Appiah in midfield.
Several other up-and-coming talents had to bid farewell to the tournament after the first round, but proved more than capable of revealing their potential over the course of three games. Morocco's Soufiane Alloudi needed less than one, in fact, firing in a hat-trick in the opening 30 minutes of his team's 5-1 triumph over Namibia. The striker for Al Ayn in the United Arab Emirates then left the field with an injury on the hour-mark, and had to watch from the treatment room as the Atlas Lions went on to fall at the first hurdle.
Zambia's Jacob Mulenga will cherish nothing but good memories of the competition, on the other hand, and provided a few of his own making too. The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) may have finished third in their section, but they were only beaten to the top spots by the eventual finalists and conveyed the strong impression of a team on the rise. With one goal and an assist, Mulenga shone out as their finest individual. "Most of our players are between 23 and 25," he told FIFA.com. "We have a young team and we're already thinking about the next edition. We're going to concentrate on the qualification campaign for the next World Cup."
The Zambians are hardly alone, of course. The 2010 FIFA World Cup features heavily in the dreams of every African player, offering as it does the mouth-watering prospect of the planet's most prestigious football competition visiting Africa for the first time. For each of these promising new talents, that means a chance to go down in history and thrill global audiences with feet dancing on home soil.