By Jacob Ajom
The 27th Africa Cup of Nations beginning this weekend in Angola would not have come at a better time as it presents the best opportunity for followers of African football to know which among the acclaimed giants of African football indeed deserves that tag.
Following the qualification of Ghana, Cote dâ€™Ivoire, Nigeria, Algeria and Cameroon for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, most football pundits were at peace with the roll call in the belief that the â€˜big boys of African footballâ€™ would give the continent a befitting representation at the Mundial. Except for the failure of Egypt(another big boy) after a play-off with unfancied Algeria, it was all well and good that the continentâ€™s â€˜bestâ€™ would be in South Africa.
Before hostilities begin in South Africa, the Africa Cup of Nations will give world football lovers a glimpse of what to expect from the continent at the World Cup. As the Nations Cup begins in Angola, the natural question is:Â who will cart home the coveted trophy when the tournament ends in Luanda on January 31.
Ghana hold the honour of being the first African country to qualify for the FIFA 2010 World Cup holding in South Africa. Their performance on the road to Angola was a roller coaster as the West African giants trampled upon their opponents with ease. Countries like Mali and Sudan tasted home defeats in the hands of the Black Stars. Surprisingly, the enterprising Ghanaians fell 1-0 to Benin in the last groupÂ match
The Black Stars have the second best Africa Cup of Nations record behind Egypt. 16 appearances â€“ four titles 1963, 1965, 1978 andÂ 1982.
The only unfortunate turn for the Ghanaians is the injury crisis that is threatening their chances. With the likes of influential skipper Stephen Appiah, John Mensah, John Painstil, Laryea Kingston and doubts surrounding the availability of stand-in captain, Michael Essien for the opening match, Ghana seemÂ destined for a hard road to glory.
Despite the injury scourge ravaging the Ghanaian camp, Serbian coach, Milovan Rajevac summarised the mood in camp thus: “This team is very hungry to play in the finals again. My players are aware of what they can achieve, and we have the quality to go far.â€
Ghanaâ€™sÂ World Cup opponents like Germany wonâ€™t stay back in Berlin without storming Angola if what the General Manager of German national team, Oliver BierhofÂ has said was anything to go bye, “A nation like Germany has got to set its sights on winning the title when it goes into a World Cup. OurÂ minimum aim is always the quarter-finals, but the dream is obviously to become world champions. We got close to it in 2006 and 2008.”
With an army of players from top European clubs, Cote dâ€™Ivoire, perhaps, hold the brightest prospects of lifting the trophy they have only won once, that was in 1992. The countryâ€™s footballers are being led by the dreadedÂ Didier Drogba who plies his trade with English club, Chelsea. Drogbaâ€™s composure and ability to finish half chances in front of goal make him one of the deadliest strikers in the European scene.
Solomon Kalou plays in the same club with the Ivorian captain and on a good day, their partnership up front can break any defence in the continent.
Aside the duo, The Elephants boast other notable players like Aruna Didane, who plays for Portsmouth of England, current Ivorian player of the year, Yaya Toure, a mid-fielder with Spanish and European champions, Barcelona, Kolou Toure of Man City and Arsenalâ€™s Emmanuel Ebue, among numerous others. The Ivorian team is about the most balanced in the tournament and hot favourites to lift the trophy. The only weak point in that team is the goal-keeping department. The Elephants have 17 CAN appearances and one title to their credit.
If there is any other country with hunger and the personnel to lift the 27th Africa Cup of Nations trophy, it must be Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions boast of a rich pedigree in the tournament. With their never-say-die attitude and a robust tradition behind them, and Samuel Eto providing the desired leadership, The Indomitable Lions will be the team to beat in Angola.
Cameroonâ€™s last triumph was when Ghana and Nigeria co-hosted the tournament in 2000 and by their standard, time is due for another continental trophy. The manner the Lions qualified for the South Africa 2010 World Cup speaks volumes. With youthful but hardworking players like Alexander Song and Achille Cama, the Lions look good for honours in Angola. Eto told Reuters in Nairobi Wednesday, â€œI would like to take Cameroon as far as possible, to even win the tournament.
â€œBut my first objective will be to score the highest number of goals at a single Nations Cup,â€ added the triple African Footballer of the Year. Cameroun have 15 CAN appearances â€“ fourÂ titles(1984, 1988, 2000 and 2002).
Despite their impressive history in the tournament, Nigeriaâ€™s Super Eagles are about the most under estimated team in Angola. Their current rating owes a lot to the teamâ€™s poor outing in Ghana 2008 where they were knocked out in the quarter finals. Champions in 1980 and 1994, the Eagles have an opportunity to re-establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in African football. With the likes of Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Obafemi Martins, Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi and John Obi Mikel in their line up, the Nigerian team look set to reposition themselves among the comity of African football giants.
Throughout the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers, the Eagles never lost a match. Angola therefore presents a perfect ground for their rebirth as Africaâ€™s most dreaded team.
Notwithstanding their current rating, Nigeriaâ€™s group opponents at the 2010 World Cup are sure to send emissaries to Angola. Coach Maradona of Argentina cannot afford to ignore the Nigerians who stretched his Argentina, then as player in a group match at the USA â€˜94 World Cup. Other coaches like Otto Rehhagel of Greece and Huh Jung-Moo of Korea wonâ€™t be sleeping either while CAN 2010 is on.
Nigeriaâ€™s CAN appearances 15â€“ two titles(1980 and 1994).
Angola caused a stir when they qualified for Germany 2006 ahead of super power, Nigeria. If we take into consideration that Manuel Jose de JesusÂ replaced Oliveira GonÃ§alves, who guided the team in Germany then one can say there have been changes. Striker Fabrice Akwa, who is both Angolaâ€™s most capped international and top goal scorer is out of the squad, while other units were passed over to give place to younger and promising footballers.
Among those who will be expected to lift high the flag of Angola during the tournament are Lama (Goalkeeper), veteran defender Yamba Asha, Jamba, Kali, AntÃ³nio MendonÃ§a, AndrÃ© Macanga, FlÃ¡vio, Manucho and Mantorras. . FlÃ¡vio was, of course, the scorer of the only Angolan goal at the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals with Iran.
Although Angola did not qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the country has an opportunity to relaunch its climb to prominence in African football.
Angola continue to utilise their football team in a bid to also change the country’s image. And the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations is a door opened for this African nation to show the world its worth.
Coach: Manuel JosÃ© de Jesus (Portugal)
Manuel JosÃ© is a Portuguese who has coaching stints with Sporting Portugal, Boavista FC.Â He is credited for discovering LuÃs Figo.
The defending champions and six titles in their belt, the Pharaohs of Egypt have won the African title more than any other country. They are still embittered over their non-qualification for the 2010 World. As a result,Â the Egyptians would not spare anything to ensure they cling unto the trophy they won in Ghana as consolation for the World Cup miss.
Coach Hassan Shehata, whoÂ led the Egyptians to back-to-back victories in 2006 and 2008, is still very much in the driving seat . Expectations are high on the Zamalek legend to deliver the title again. The experience of veterans, goalkeeper Essam Al-Hadary, captain Ahmed Hassan will be crucial and so will the exuberance of middle-class Hosny Abd-Rabou, Mohamed Zidan and Emad Moteab.. Even the absence of Mohammed Aboutrika, Amir Zaki and loquacious Mido has not dampened the morale in camp. More than anything, the Egyptians want to use CAN 2010 to make a statement. They are hot favourites among the â€˜big boysâ€™ for the trophy.
Egypt CAN appearances 21â€“ six titles (1957, â€˜59, â€˜86, â€˜98, 2006, 2008)
The Carthage Eagles of Tunisia lost the opportunity to go South Africa 2010 on the last day of the qualifiers as they failed to beat Mozambique in Maputo while Nigeria overwhelmed Kenya in Nairobi. That did not take away anything from the North Africans who earned for themselves a lot of respect from the global football audience.
Angola 2010 is a perfect stage for Coach Faouzi Benzarti to make amends and build on the recent gains made by the team.African Cup appearances: 13 (first being in 1962)â€“ title, one in 2004.
Final appearances at the AFCON without victory: In 1965 in Tunis , and 1996 in South Africa
The country was drawn in Group C of the combined qualifiers for the 2010 African Cup of Nations and World Cup alongside Rwanda , Zambia and Egypt . Algeria went on to beat Zambia 2-0 in Chililabombwe and 1-0 in Blida . The country played a (0-0) game in Rwanda and defeated them (3-1) in Blida . Algeria then beat Egypt (3-1)Â in Blida and got beaten (0-2) in the return leg to qualify for the AFCON in January in Angola .
Algeria is one of the countries that qualified for the 2010 World Cup and they got it the very hard way. After tying on points and goal difference with Egypt, the Algerians were ordered to take Egypt on a play-off to determine who would pick the ticket. The match was played in Sudan and the Algerians edged their more successful opponents with a 1- 0 victory.
Coach: Rabah SaÃ¢dane
Rabah SaÃ¢dane is an icon of football in Algeria and the most titled coach in the North African country. He qualified andÂ managed the Algerian Junior team during the 1979 World Championships in Japan . He also led Algeria to World Cup qualification in 1982 in Spain .
Mali will be participating for the sixth time in the final phase of the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola, a competition which had earlier smiled at them even though the team has never won the trophy. TheirÂ first participation in 1972 took them to the final in Yaounde where they were beaten by Congo, while they were considered favourite before the match. For their comeback, twenty-eight years later, they were defeated at the semi-final by Zambia before being defeated by Ivory Coast for the third place (1994). The fourth place was theirs again in 2002 at home and in 2004 in Tunisia. During their last outing two years back, Mali, for the first time, failed to go beyond the first round.
Coach: Stephen Keshi (Nigeria)
Former emblematic figure of Nigeria with which he played the 1994 World Cup, Keshi started his career as player in Lagos before signing in Ivorian clubs, Stade Abidjan and then Africa Sport also of Abidjan. He later on proceeded to Belgiumâ€™sÂ Lokeren and to Anderlecht where he wore the jersey for four seasons, before moving to StrasbourgÂ in France. After a brief return to Belgium, he found his way to the United States before ending his professional career in Malaysia.