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19 Jan 2008 09:58
The West African state of Ghana is about to take its place in the international spotlight as hosts of the 26th Africa Cup of Nations.
It’s been a bit of a scramble, but the former British colony is all set for the biggest show of its short life, one that promises to upstage even last year’s celebrations to mark 50 years of independence.
Sunday’s opening match between the Michael Essien-led hosts against neighbours Guinea raises the curtain on what many people are predicting will be the toughest and best Nations Cup staged to date.
The squad lists of the 16 teams read like a who’s who of footballing A-list stars, their clubs reluctantly letting their prize jewels answer the call of Africa at the expense of their domestic calendar.
And here to see them are tens of thousands of supporters keeping the baggage handlers busy at Accra airport.
One fan arrived on Thursday with five friends from London. “I shouldn’t be here as I’ve just had eight months off work with a bad back, my boss and my wife are mad at me, but I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he confided.
Local hopes are high that Ghana can continue the good run enjoyed by countries that have acted as hosts, with Egypt and Tunisia thrilling their home crowd in 2006 and 2004 respectively.
“Everyone says we’ll win, but they’re probably just trying to be polite,” said Godwin, one of Accra’s taxi drivers who over the next three weeks will have his foot to the floor ferrying tourists from the city’s stadium to their barely finished hotels.
Ghana themselves won the biennial competition twice on home turf and are looking to repeat the magic under the canny managership of Frenchman Claude le Roy.
But they will have to do so without their injured captain, Fenerbache’s Stephen Appiah.
Ghana, though, are so much more than a one-star team, as they can also call on the expertise of Portsmouth’s Sulley Muntari and Udinese’s young attacking phenomenon Asamoah Gyan.
The 2008 Nations Cup is being played out at four venues—Accra, Sekondi, Tamale and Kumasi.
Sharing the billing with the Black Stars as favourites are west-coast neighbours Côte d’Ivoire with Didier Drogba, Nigeria, and Samuel Eto’o's always dangerous Cameroon.
But it would be a mistake to suggest the three-week footballing feast can be reduced to a shortlist of this quartet if the lessons of the 2006 World Cup are to be learned.
In Germany, the natural African order of things was turned on its head with traditional heavyweights such as Nigeria and Cameroon making way for novices Angola, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.
It promises to be an eventful footballing safari.—Sapa-AFP
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