Since the first African Cup of Nations tournament was held in Sudan in 1957, host countries have failed to reach at least the semi-finals on only four occasions. In 1976, hosts Ethiopia were eliminated were knocked out in the first of two group stages. Morocco were the eventual winners after humbling Guinea in the final game. Nigeria and Egypt were the other semi-finalists.

In 1984, 1992 and 1994 the host countries again failed to make the last four. In the 26 previous stagings, the hosts have won the tournament 11 times, whilst two further home sides have been beaten finalists.

This impressive performance by the host countries begs the question; how far will this year’s hosts, Angola, go in the tournament which kicks off next Sunday? The Palancas Negras’ (Black Antelopes) past history in international tournaments can partly answer the question. They have qualified once for the World Cup, in 2006, but didn’t make it past the group stage. They have qualified four times for the continent’s premier tournament, but have never advanced beyond the quarter_final spot they achieved in the last tournament in Ghana.

If their performance at the continental or world football stage is a consideration, then Angola has a mountain to climb before making any historical imprint by the end of the 2010 CAN competition. Apart from shutting Nigeria out in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, the Black Antelopes have been too inconsistent to warrant a place as one of the continent’s elite football teams alongside the likes of Egypt, Cameroon or Nigeria.

Nonetheless, Angola appears ready to spring a surprise in the 27th edition of the games. After being confirmed as the 2010 host, Angola, which had just emerged from a debilitating 27-year civil war, immediately hit the preparation road. Whilst other teams were sweating hard to qualify for the finals, Angola got an automatic qualification and started earlier preparations in earnest by playing in a number of friendlies. They took on both African teams and others from outside the continent, posting some reasonable results on the way.

They beat Togo 2-0 and drew with superior teams like Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon in a string of remarkable performances. On Wednesday, before the Sunday tournament kick-off against Mali, the team will play Estonia in a warm-up friendly on the Portuguese Algarve. With the expected massive home support, Palancas Negras couldn’t have dreamt for a better time to stamp their authority on the continental stage than now.

Already their main Group A opponents Algeria have shown signs of nerves, with claims that the Black Antelopes will reach to the quarters coming out of thrie came even before a ball has been kicked. Retired Algerian international midfielder Rabah Madjer has predicted that, as the host, Angola will start the tournament in the quarter-finals. “Angola are going to benefit from everyone’s support.

Their people and their leaders, even CAF officials, won’t accept a precocious exit of the hosts. Everything will be done so that Angola will get through the group stage,” the veteran reasoned.

The anticipated multi-faceted support notwithstanding, Angola have a squad that can get the job done. Benfica’s Pedro Mantorras is one of the best strikers in the Portuguese league, former Manchester United forward Manucho, who now turns out for Real Valladolid in Spain, is as lethal as the Drogbas or Eto’os of African football. In the rearguard, Dias Caires of Sagrada Esperanca, Jamuana of Petro Atletico and Rui Marques of Leeds United will be expected to hold tight in the defence while Petro Atletico’s Davids, Al Ahli’s Gilberto and Ze Kalanga of Dinamo Bucharest may not be household names, but can close the midfield for opponents whenever duty calls.

When the draw was announced last month, Angola’s coach Manuel Jose told Al Jazeera Sport, “I am satisfied with the draw. It is a balanced group. It will not be easy. All our adversaries are known to be combative. Algeria are with us, and they are doing well currently. Mali will be a difficult competitor. We will try to get one of the first two places to qualify.” Algeria, Mali and Angola are billed as the top contenders for the two places available for qualification to the last eight. The coach may have failed to mention Malawi; but The Flames, who are the group lightweights, may well spring a surprise.

Angola’s opening match against Mali will define their group standing. A win will give them great momentum when they face Malawi in the second match, when a second victory would then guarantee them qualification to the quarters. Achieving this feat doesn’t look too difficult. The Black Antelopes will meet their waterloo at the knockout stage where, depending on the group standings, they will either meet Ivory Coast or Ghana (if they manage to elbow Togo and Burkina Faso, as anticipated). If they manage to jump this elephantine quarter-final obstacle, Angola will likely face Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt or Tunisia in the semi-finals.

With the World Cup just around the corner, so much is at stake for five teams taking part in the Angola tournament, who will carry the African flag in South Africa together with the host. For players, it will be an opportunity to prove why they should be on a plane heading to South Africa in June. As for the other teams, it will be a chance to build their stature ahead of the global bonanza, and cultivate fear within their opponents.

The pride of being crowned 2010 African champions will bolster the continental elites Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Ivory Coast to ride roughshod over emerging sides like Mali, Gabon and hosts Angola. But these smaller footballing nations are dreaming of upsetting the apple-cart.As for underdogs like Benin, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Togo, Zambia and Malawi; the obituary books are already out of the closet.


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