When the 27th Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) kicks off in Angola on January 10 superstars such as Côte d’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon will be aiming to leave impressions as gargantuan as the craters that pockmark the streets of the capital, Luanda.
Captains and warriors both, their teams are favoured to win the oldest continental football tournament in the world, followed closely by Michael Essien’s injury-ravaged Ghana and back-to-back defending champions Egypt. Hosts Angola, with Mali, Tunisia and a Nigeria team in the middle of a rebuilding process, make up the decent outside bets.
Of the six African representatives who will compete in the World Cup, only hosts South Africa failed to qualify for Angola 2010.
But expectations in Angola are not merely constrained to the football pitch. The country’s government is touting the tournament as an instrument to effect social and infrastructural change. There is also that similar desire to announce the country on the global stage: the Afcon is the coming-out ball for Africa’s largest oil producer and one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent.
With vocal home support, Angola’s national football team, affectionately known as the Palancas Negras (Black Antelopes), appear primed to emerge from a Group A also containing Algeria, Malawi and Mali. Whether they can embark on a giant-killing knockout run will depend on Dinamo Bucharest midfielder Ze Kalanga and the goals of Manucho Gonsalves, who plays at Spain’s Real Valladolid.
The opening match, pitting Angola against Mali, will prove instructive and possibly decisive in the final group table. Mali, managed by former Nigeria captain Stephen Keshi, are a strong outfit, boasting a midfield including Barcelona’s Seydou Keita, Real Madrid’s injury-troubled Mahamadou Diarra and Juventus’s Momo Sissoko. Up front, Frédéric Kanouté is still lethal.
Algeria are also strong contenders to emerge from a group, the two qualifiers of which will meet those from a Group B containing favourites Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, as well as the resilient Togo and Burkina Faso.
Côte d’Ivoire coach Vahid Halilhodzic is intent that his team will take the honours. Drogba, Chelsea’s indefatigable striker, leads a trophyless golden generation of Elephants who believe their time has come.
The Elephants have intimidating strength running through the team with Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué in defence, Didier Zokora and Yaya Touré in midfield and Salomon Kalou, Aruna Dindane of Portsmouth and Marseilles attacker Bakari Koné vying for starting positions alongside Drogba in attack. Many are tipping 22-year-old attacking midfielder Gervais Yao Kouassi, aka Gervinho, to provide the creative impetus in the hole behind the strikers.
Ghana, weakened through injury of talismanic captain Stephen Appiah and English-based defenders John Mensah and John Panstil, are hoping the inclusion of eight of the Black Satellites team that recently triumphed at the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt — an African first — will stand them in good stead for not just this tournament, but also the World Cup later this year.
The possibility for coach Milovan Rajevac to test and integrate the youngsters into his team with one eye on South Africa makes a mockery of former Safa chief executive Raymond Hack’s claims that Bafana Bafana’s failure to qualify for the tournament was a ‘blessing in disguise” — nothing hardens and helps separate the men from the boys more than competition.
Maintaining discipline and focus both on and off the field will be vital to success in Angola, which is why Cameroon, who are experiencing a turnaround under the stewardship of disciplinarian French coach Paul Le Guen, also remain firm favourites.
Le Guen has instilled a culture of professionalism in the behind-the-scenes operations of the Indomitable Lions since taking over last year and rejuvenating their World and Nations Cup qualifying campaigns. This has allowed the likes of Eto’o, Betis midfielder Achille Emana and Monaco defender Nicolas N’Koulou to shine during qualifying. Based in Lubango, Cameroon are expected to emerge with some ease from group D, which also includes a Tunisia made up largely of locally based players.
There is the possibility of a mouth-watering quarterfinal clash between Cameroon and the Super Eagles of Nigeria or Egypt’s Pharaohs, who are in Group C with Mozambique and Benin.
The defending champions will be hampered by the absence of their metronome midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika (who has a broken foot) and strikers Amr Zaki and Mido. They will rely heavily on the rapacious Mohamed Zidan of Borussia Dortmund and the wiles of veteran coach Hassan Shehata to make it three titles in a row.
The Super Eagles of Nigeria meanwhile are reliant on Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel in midfield and on two strikers recently returned from injury: Everton’s Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Obafemi Martins of Wolfsburg.
With African footballers some of the biggest stars in Europe and the Afcon’s reputation for teams providing an aesthetic interpretation of the beautiful game, it is hoped that Angola’s ruling elite — routinely accused of corruption and klepto-cracy — will be paying attention.