Favourites rarely win at the Africa Nations Cup finals because it has increasingly become a tournament devoid of any adherence to the form book.
That is good news for the 16 teams at this year’s tournament in Equatorial Guinea, which gets under way on Saturday, because there are no obvious candidates for success come the deciding final game on February 8.
For the past five editions, countries such as Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal have, at various times, been seen as overwhelming favourites for success but came crashing down, mostly in dramatic fashion.
The Ivorians, who have been expected to lift the trophy for the past five tournaments, have developed a reputation as chokers, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at every Nations Cup since 2006. But now Didier Drogba has retired from international football and, after an unconvincing qualifying campaign, they are somewhat under the radar.
Senegal were devastatingly brilliant in qualifying ahead of the 2012 finals but, embarrassingly, lost all three games the last time Equatorial Guinea cohosted the event with their neighbours Gabon.
They have been shell-shocked ever since, but return three years later with another impressive-looking squad. Senegal are one of the seven countries in the field yet to win the Nations Cup, meaning there are nine past winners in the tournament line-up.
Algeria, Cameroon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, Tunisia and Zambia have all previously stepped on to the winners’ podium and danced with the trophy. The two Congos, plus a Zambian side in transition, will do well to get past the last eight but the rest have a legitimate shout at glory, including Bafana Bafana.
The African rankings suggest Algeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, but recent form has Cameroon and Tunisia as the sides to beat, as well as Senegal, who lost in a penalty shoot-out after a goalless draw in the 2002 final. Algeria showed a new-found fortitude in reaching the second round at the World Cup in Brazil and Ghana have been to the semifinal stage at the last four successive finals.
Cameroon’s turnaround since their histrionics in Brazil last June is nothing short of remarkable, a reward for the bravery of coach Volker Finke’s determination to rid the side of egos and instead hand confidence to up-and-coming youngsters.
There will be some clever coaches plotting and strategising for success, plus the potential for a handful of talented players to run themselves into real superstars. It has been decades since a single player played as meaningful a role in a winning squad as Abedi Pele for Ghana in 1992 or Roger Milla with Cameroon in 1986.
Yaya Touré, who last week won a fourth successive African Footballer of the Year award and is already a world star, is the dominant individual figure at the tournament. But an inkling into the testy relationships in the Ivorian camp was given in a interview recently by their coach, Hervé Renard, and explains their penchant for imploding.
“The problem in Côte d’Ivoire is to find a good team spirit. There is a lot of skill, a lot of players are playing around the world for big clubs, but maybe we have too many good players for the same positions,” he said in his French-accented English.
“It is difficult because, to build a very good team spirit in football, you need a lot of humility – to forget where you are coming from during the week. When you wear the shirt of the national team you have to forget sometimes about yourself and only concentrate on playing for the team.
“When there is a big squad like we have sometimes, especially in Africa, when they come back to their country they think sometimes they are the king. But usually there can only be one king per territory.”
Exciting midfield partnership
Algeria’s Yacine Brahimi and Sofiane Feghouli are as skilful and exciting a midfield partnership as any top African side has ever had. Cameroon have brilliant wingers in Benjamin Moukandjo and Clinton Njie.
And Tunisia possess a defensive discipline that is the envy of the rest of the continent. Their centre back, Aymen Abdennour, is among the best in the trade. They are all players capable of winning the tournament, if not single-handedly, but certainly with much impact.
Seydou Keita, now 35 but still turning it on for Roma in Serie A every week, returns for a seventh tournament with Mali. It was he who dealt the death blow to hosts South Africa two years ago when Bafana went out at the quarterfinal stage.
The challenges of putting together a tournament of this size in the space of 10 weeks has been immense but, even if a lot of the logistics are threadbare and poor in quality, the teams will make it to the field, along with the referees and TV cameras.
And, hopefully, some spectators and the watching world will be none the wiser. New pitches have been laid at the four venues. One hopes they are properly bedded in.
The stadiums in Bata, where the opening matches and the final will be played, and Malabo were renovated for the 2012 finals. Since then two stadiums have been built in Mongomo and Ebebiyín, two small towns that jut right up against the border on the eastern side of the tiny former Spanish colony.
They are on the other side of the jungle from Bata and arguably the smallest venues yet to host matches in a major tournament. Ebebiyín’s stadium has a capacity of just 8 000. But this should not be an issue because in 2012 almost no one bothered to pitch up to watch any of the games in Equatorial Guinea, save for when the home side were playing.
Thousands of free tickets are to be distributed this time around: if there will be decent crowds that can be seen, that will be a first major success for a tournament with a difference.