As the first round of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations comes to a close, half of the original 16-team field is facing a disappointing trip home. But for the neutral, it has been among the more exciting continental championships in the last decade, full of shocks and upsets, passionate support for surprising co-hosts, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, and some superb finishing.
The last ten days have also offered up new names for football fans to enthuse over, plus elevated other better-known players to a status among the continent’s playing elite. Here are the new young stars to emerge at the CAN.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon)
The 22-year-old striker is not exactly a new discovery. He is now established in Ligue 1 with St Etienne, and he played at the last Nations Cup finals in Angola. Two years ago, he had just committed himself to the Gabon cause after previously playing for France at under-21 level. His father Pierre captained Gabon at their first Nations Cup finals appearance in 1994 and is considered one of the country’s greats, but even he never experienced the same level of raw adulation heaped upon his son over the past week or so. Aubameyang’s goals in each of the three group matches - against Niger, Morocco and finally an emphatic winner against Tunisia - ensured easy qualification for the co-hosts to the last eight and underlined his emergence as one of African football’s new superstars. Aubameyang began his career at AC Milan as a junior and has played at Lille, Monaco and Dijon before establishing himself with the Stephanois.
Younes Belhanda (Morocco)
Although results have not gone with the Morocco side and their early exit is something of a shock, if there has been one player who has consistently thrilled with his pace and skill, it is Belhanda. The 21-year-old’s ability to swerve and glide through defences, his importance as a link man behind the front two and his passion have been all too evident. The France-born youngster also endeared himself to Moroccan supporters by breaking down in tears at a press conference after Morocco had been eliminated by a thrilling 3-2 defeat to Gabon. He rebounded and added to his reputation by lifting his team to their only victory with a late goal against Niger in their final group contest. Despite the setback at the Nations Cup, Moroccans can take heart in a rising young generation - epitomised by Belhanda - that could realistically propel them through the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers.
Abdoul Razzagui Camara (Guinea)
It was just weeks before the start of the tournament that Camara received clearance to play for Guinea after having lined up for French youth teams. His debut came as a substitute against Mali in the first game of the Nations Cup for Guinea in Franceville, and almost immediately his pace and guile on the left side lifted the Syli National’s furious comeback attempt. Coach Michel Dussuyer had no hesitation in inserting the 21-year-old into the starting line-up for the second game against Botswana, where he made two of the goals and scored one of his own as he swept relentlessly up the wing. Born in Guinea, Camara went to France as a young child. Now he has rediscovered his African roots and the continent has certainly discovered his talent.
Cheick Tidiane Diabate (Mali)
The lanky forward has been an effective target man for the west Africans at the tournament and confirmed the credentials he has already established in France at club level. Now 23 years old, he was just 17 when he made his senior debut, fresh out of the Mali side that competed at the African U-17 Championships in 2005. But it was only in the 2012 CAN qualifiers that he established himself as a regular for Mali’s Aigles after missing out on selection for the last tournament in Angola. His almost 2-metre frame provides Mali with the prefect target man, but he has also proven full of running and capable of a neat touch in one-on-one situations with defenders.
Youssef Msakni (Tunisia)
It’s testament to Msakni’s ample ball skills that some have taken to calling him ‘Leo’, in reference to FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi, after his stellar turn against Niger in Libreville. A mesmerising performance by the 21-year-old left winger culminated in his scoring arguably the goal of the tournament, which came at the end of a long run that showed great strength and agility. Msakni has been linked with several clubs in Italy and France in the wake of the goal, where he weaved past five defenders before placing the ball wide of the outstretched goalkeeper. Although taken to the last Cup of Nations finals as an uncapped teenage prodigy, he has had to wait two years to make his impact. There is a bittersweet side to the trip, though. His elder brother Iheb, who is set to join him at CAF Champions League winners Esperance, just missed out on selection, cut from the squad on the deadline day.
Nathan Sinkala (Zambia)
The 20-year-old looked to be a gamble on the part of the Zambia coach Herve Renard when he was named in midfield for the key opening game of the tournament in Group A against Senegal. It proved anything but as Sinkala quickly assumed control of the game. His passes proved decisive as the Zambians played the perfect counter-attack game to upset their more fancied opponents. The defensive midfielder from army club Green Buffaloes made his international debut only in November against India and won two subsequent caps before being included in the CAN team. Sinkala has the right footballing genes, his elder brother Andrew played for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and is still active in Germany with newly promoted FC Augsburg.