Countdown begins for Afcon hopefuls

Ghana and Cape Verde Islands get the ball rolling in Lisbon on Tuesday followed by 15 fixtures Wednesday from Miami, who host Nigeria and Venezuela, to Johannesburg, where South Africa confront Cup of Nations title holders Zambia.

Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cape Verde, South Africa, Angola, Morocco, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Tunisia and Togo are qualifiers who will be in action.

That leaves Mali and Ethiopia as the only two of the 16 challengers for the Cup of Nations in South Africa between January 19 and February 10 who are not playing, according to fixtures released by world football governing body FIFA.

Côte d’Ivoire tackle Austria in Linz minus injured Arsenal midfield flier Gervinho and a January warm-up against DR Congo is the only other friendly planned before facing Togo in the opening series of Africa Cup fixtures.

The title has eluded the Ivorian 'golden generation', led by Didier Drogba and including Kolo Toure, Didier Zokora and Boubacar Barry, since 2006 and South Africa is seen as the last-chance saloon for the ageing stars.

With a 53-place advantage in the world rankings, the Ivorians are expected to follow up an August draw in Russia by defeating the modest Austrians, even if the low night-time temperature will not be to the liking of the west Africans.

Ghana captain and leading scorer Asamoah Gyan misses the trip to the Portuguese capital after the death of his mother in an Accra road accident, and coach Kwesi Appiah plans to test some fringe players.

Among those called up are striker Abdul Warris, who has quit Swedish side Häcken for a five-year contract with Spartak Moscow, and teenage Inter Milan midfielder John Duncan.

Previously anonymous Cape Verde make their Cup of Nations debut next year and the Blue Sharks want to prove that a qualifying victory over four-time African champions Cameroon was not a flash in the pan.

Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi could make his debut for Nigeria at 31 – 10 years after turning down another approach to switch allegiances having played for England at age-limit level.

Good form for Spanish La Liga side Levante has earned striker Obafemi Martins a recall with coach Stephen Keshi scanning a large talent pool as the Super Eagles seek a winning formula ahead of a tournament they last won 18 years ago.

Zambia bring the starting 11 from the 2012 final victory over Côte d’Ivoire to Johannesburg for a clash with Cup of Nations hosts South Africa, a team getting used to life without retired captain and Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar.

Out-of-favour Collins Mbesuma and injured Jacob Mulenga missed the Libreville penalty shootout triumph in the final and the strikers could get a chance against Bafana Bafana (The Boys) to impress France-born coach Herve Renard.

Egypt miss South Africa having suffered a stunning qualifying loss to the Central African Republic and Georgia are one of many opponents as the Pharaohs prepare for 2014 World Cup eliminators next year.

Cameroon are in a similar situation after flopping against Cape Verde and record four-time African Footballer of the Year Samuel Eto'o and Barcelona midfielder Alex Song are among those chosen for a Geneva friendly with Albania.

The pair do not get along with Eto'o from expensively assembled Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala telling reporters he is "one of the best players in the world and Song is not even among the best in Cameroon". – Sapa-AFP

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