Big names, big games. For three weeks, between January 10 and 31, Angola hosts the biggest sporting event of the continent: the African Cup of Nations.
Twenty-one days of football, amid joy and tears, during which Angola will witness feats from African football greats. They’ll all be there: Drogba, Eto’o, Martins, Zidan, Muntari, Meghni, Adebayor, Touré… All of them with one dream, to lift the trophy on January 31 in Luanda. Here’s your guide for the coming weeks.
Group A: Angola, Mali, Malawi, Algeria
Tough draw for host Angola as they face a World Cup qualified Algeria and African heavyweights Mali. Backed by the entire country, the Palancas Negras (The Black Antelopes) will aim for the quarters. With players such as former MU striker Manucho, Malawi should be a walk in the park for Angola. But Mali with the “Spaniards” Keita (Barcelona), Diarra (Real) and Kanouté (Sevilla) will prove a real test for José Manuel’s mens before taking on a very skillful Algeria. Meghni (Lazio), Bougherra (Rangers) and the Portsmouth boys (Yebda and Belhadj) have beaten six time winners, Egypt, to qualify for the World Cup and will want to continue their streak.
Group B: Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo
Probably the most difficult group. Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast were all present in Germany for the 2006 World Cup with the latter having booked a ticket for South Africa this summer. Burkina may rank as outsiders for overall honours at the 2010 African Cup of Nations, but don’t write The Stallions off just yet. They can boast the joint top scorer from World Cup qualifying anywhere in the world and have never been ranked so high in the FIFA Rankings. Drogba’s men, however, are among the favourites to win the competition and will want to stand their ground. Coach Halilhodzic has brought some discipline to a side that boast many of the best players in the world (Drogba, Eboué, Kolo and Yaya Touré, Zokora, Kalou…). Ghana, on the other hand, dropped its most famous players (Paintsil, Mensah and Appiah) in favour of the future Black Stars, U20 world champions. Adebayor’s Togo is the odd man out but they have a few aces up their sleeves.
Group C: Egypt, Nigeria, Mozambique, Benin
The question is not who will qualify, but in what order? Title holders from Egypt or the Super Eagles of Nigeria? Mozambique’s first qualification in ten years is testament to the significant improvement made by the country under coach Mart Nooij but the Mambas lack the experience to defeat the African giants. Benin may have a say with a horde of French-grown players. PSG’s Sessegnon, an attacking midfielder with the eye for the flamboyant, has helped Benin qualify but will it be enough? The Pharaohs have come to Angola to hit the hat-trick with practically the same team that won the last two tournaments. An ageing squad that will face the test of time. Nigeria and its youthful team led by Chelsea’s Obi Mikel and former Newcastle striker Martins is ready to take its chance.
Groupe D: Cameroon, Gabon, Zambia, Tunisia
Arguably, the main contenders to look out for are Ghana and the Ivory Coast, but Cameroon will be expected to remain involved right to the very end of the 2010 African Cup of Nations under new boss Paul le Guen. After a rocky qualification stage, the Lions seem ready to take on anyone with Eto’o’s confidence. The Tunisians will have a mind to say sorry to their fans for not reaching the World Cup for the first time in four attempts. They would, nevertheless, do well not to write off Gabon. One of the most inexperienced teams at this level, the Panthers may fancy their chances of causing an upset after surprising a few better known sides during the qualifiers. Zambia seems destined to the fourth place of the group after qualifying for the African Cup of Nations with the second lowest points tally. The Copper Bullets will have their work cut out to make an impact at the tournament.
Luanda: Estádio 11 de Novembro (50,000)
Cabinda: Estádio National de Chiazi (20,000)
Benguela: Estádio National de Ombaka (35,000)
Lubango: Estádio National de Tundavala (20,000)
Did you know?
The youngest player is Zambia’s defender Emmanuel Mbola, only 16 at the kick off of the African Cup of Nations. The oldest is Mozambique’s midfielder Nelinho, aged 38.
Each squad has called up 23 players, save from Burkina Faso who arrived in Angola with only 22. Forward Aristide Bancé had a fallout with his coach Paulo Duarte and refused to play.
66 of the 367 players play in France, the African Cup’s number 1 provider. OGC Nice reluctantly sent 8 of its players to Angola: Poté (Benin), Bamogo (Burkina Faso), Faé (Ivory Coast), Mouloungui (Gabon), Traoré and Bagayoko (Mali), Apam (Nigeria), Ben Saada (Tunisia).
Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o is the African Cup’s top scorer with 16 goals.