African elite set to do battle
Every two years, the CAF African Cup of Nations sheds a vibrant light on the passions roused by the beautiful game in Africa. Tucked in at the start of the calendar year, the upcoming edition in Angola could almost be mistaken for a late Christmas present, with former winners Algeria, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria and Tunisia all eager to boost their trophy tally when the actions gets underway between 10 and 31 January.
Adding spice to the mix, the first ever FIFA World Cup™ to be held on African soil now lies just five months away, all of which should make for a special atmosphere around the host cities of Luanda, Cabinda, Benguela and Lubango.
FIFA.com now takes a closer look at the five South Africa 2010 contenders gearing up to vie for honours in Angola, a list of sides that excludes Bafana Bafana themselves after they failed to seal their place. From favourites to outsiders, all will be hoping to make an early statement.
Tipped for glory
Cameroon: The highest placed African team in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the Indomitable Lions nonetheless struggled before finally sealing their passage to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, having lived through a difficult spell after losing the 2008 African Cup of Nations final 1-0 to Egypt. They took just one point from their first two outings in the last round of qualifiers and opted for a change of coach, replacing Otto Pfister with Paul Le Guen and earning reward for that decision when the former Lyon trainer helped them end their campaign with a run of four impressive wins.
With Samuel Eto’o at the summit of his art and captain of a side boasting gifted and combative youngsters like Alexandre Song and Stephane Mbia, the Lions can certainly afford to be optimistic. “You can’t say that the African Cup of Nations is a warm-up for the World Cup,” explained Le Guen recently. “It’s a competition you need to go into with a lot of ambition. We want to do well, go as far as possible and why not come out winners?”
Ghana: Since marking their first ever FIFA World Cup finals appearance with some eye-catching displays in Germany four years ago, when they ultimately fell to Brazil in the Round of 16, the Black Stars have continued their upward trajectory. Hosts of the African Cup of Nations under Claude Le Roy in 2008, they came in third – their best finish since losing the 1992 final – and the appointment of coach Milovan Rajevac in the wake of that tournament further fuelled their progress.
Led by European-based talents such as Michael Essien, Asamoah Gyan and Richard Kingson, Ghana were unstoppable in qualifying and were one of the first teams to stamp their ticket. That was shortly followed by a global title for their U-20 squad, which will be well-represented in Angola with adidas Golden Ball and adidas Golden Shoe winner Dominic Adiyiah joined by seven of his team-mates from Egypt, including Daniel Agyei, Samuel Inkoom, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Andre Ayew.
Eager to impress
Algeria: Until a few months ago, the once-regal Fennecs (Desert Foxes) still seemed to be hibernating. Absent from the two previous editions of the African Cup of Nations, they had only memories of their heyday in the 1980s to give them hope, but that all changed with their almost perfect route through qualifying for South Africa 2010, which culminated in a dramatic duel with Egypt, continental champions twice in a row.
“It won’t be easy because all of the qualified teams are excellent,” explained coach Rabah Saadane. “We want to go as far as we can in this competition, which will be a crucial preparation for the World Cup.” Once their bid in Angola begins, the likes of Madjid Bougherra, Nadir Belhadj, Karim Matmour and Abdelkader Ghezzal will set out to show why they have been making such a name for themselves of late.
Côte d'Ivoire: A quick glimpse at the list of players available to coach Vahid Halilhodzic makes it obvious why the Elephants are considered among the true heavyweights of African football. Emmanuel Eboue, Yaya Toure, Salomon Kalou, Didier Drogba: all ply their trade at powerhouse European clubs. Getting those illustrious individuals to function as a team is a different matter altogether, however, as the 2008 African Cup of Nations highlighted all too clearly.
Tipped to go all the way and impressive on their route to the semi-finals – winning their first four games, scoring 13 goals and conceding just one – Gerard Gili’s men then suffered a heavy 4-1 reverse at the hands of Egypt and were promptly beaten 4-2 by Ghana in the match for third place. Their supporters unsurprisingly expect better this time out and the players themselves are motivated to deliver. “We’ll fight with honour and dignity to win,” said Drogba.
Desperate for encouragement
Nigeria: The third highest African team in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and the only side from the continent along with Cameroon to have reached four of the last five FIFA World Cup finals, Nigeria have nonetheless lost much of their lustre in recent years. The likes of Rasheed Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh have given way to Onyekachi Apam, Taye Taiwo, John Obi Mikel and Obafemi Martins, a skilled crop of players who have yet to find any sort of consistency.
There is a lack of competition for places too, best illustrated by the continued importance of 33-year-old Nwankwo Kanu to coach Shaibu Amodu’s plans, and the Super Eagles needed to dig deep to attain their place at South Africa 2010, having missed out on Germany 2006 and finished uninspiring quarter-finalists at the 2008 African Cup of Nations. Angola therefore represents a perfect chance to silence the critics, with the under-pressure Amodu daring look no further ahead than the continental showcase, which Nigeria have not won since 1994. “My principal concern is the African Cup,” he said. “Only after that will I think about the World Cup.”