South Africa plays host to the continent's finest
With qualification for the African Cup of Nations recently concluded, the tournament’s complement of teams is complete. Let's examine the field of competitors that will head to South Africa in 2013 to compete for the finest prize the continent offers.
Whilst the 2012 edition of the competition saw many absentees from among the continent’s major footballing nations, this time around the big guns of Africa have made it—the only exceptions being Egypt, Algeria and Cameroon. Ten of the tournament’s previous winners will be competing in the Rainbow Nation, and the majority of the continent’s finest players will be flying down to South Africa in January to take their place at Africa’s high table.
The sixteen competitors have already been seeded, and Wednesday will see the four pots drawn into four groups. As hosts, Bafana Bafana find themselves in Pot 1 along with the competition’s top seeds: Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and holders Zambia.
With South Africa fans uninspired by recent performances, few are expecting great things from the hosts. Avoiding three of the continent’s more dangerous sides in the opening group stage will be an encouragement, but dangers do await in the other three pots.
All four teams in Pot 2 are capable of causing difficulties. Tunisia won the competition as recently as 2004, and offer competitive and organised opposition, whilst Mali, led by Bordeaux striker Cheick Diabaté finished third in this year’s tournament.
Angola were a disappointment in the 2012 Afcon, crashing out in the group stage after a draw with Sudan and a defeat against Cote d’Ivoire. With Valladolid frontman Manucho, however, there is always potential that they could trouble even the continent’s most accomplished defenders.
Nigeria complete the set in Pot 2, returning to the competition after an extended absence. Traditionally they are one of the continent’s giants, but it has been a tricky few years for Super Eagles fans.
Redemption began with a 6-1 hammering of Liberia in the home leg of the qualifiers—a result which sealed their place in South Africa. Nigerians will hope that the road to salvation runs easy in 2013, and certainly no one will relish taking on the powerhouse of West Africa.
In the third pool of competitors we find two Arab heavyweights expecting success and two West African nations that struggled to assert themselves at the previous tournament. Algeria and Morocco have slipped from the continental limelight recently, with the balance of power shifting beneath the Sahara. Both squads are studded with stars however, and those in Pots 1 and 2 will be keenly hoping to avoid the Desert Foxes and the Atlas Lions. Neither will be an easy prospect.
Niger and Burkina Faso are newer faces at the continental high table; neither assembled any points at the previous tournament, as they struggled to compensate for inexperience. The steep learning curve proved too much, and both will be hoping to continue their education at the 2013 Cup of Nations, among the continent’s finest sides. Cynics will claim that the tournament comes too soon for these two to improve on their recent meagre showings.
The set is completed by the minnows of Pot 4. Cape Verde make their Afcon debut after defeating Cameroon over two legs in the qualifiers. Casual observers may well back the tiny island nation, content to make up the numbers in South Africa, but the Sharks’ display against the Indomitable Lions demonstrates that they are not a threat to be taken lightly.
The islands will be keen to show they belong with the continent’s best. Togo qualified impressively after besting Gabon over two legs. Spurs striker Emmanuel Adebayor is still one of the finest in Africa, but will he be inspiration enough to carry a squad short on quality? It will be a big ask for "Ade" to navigate his team through the group stage, let alone beyond.
Ethiopia and DR Congo complete the set. Both have previously been continental champions, although with no significant honours in the last 30 years, they are a pair of fallen giants. It’s a pleasure to see these faded greats back among the continent’s finest, although it will take a major effort for them to qualify from the taxing first round.
Players and fans associated with the continent’s football are licking their lips ahead of Wednesday’s draw. Whatever the combinations drawn up, anticipation and excitement will begin mounting for the 29th edition of Africa’s finest national competition. It promises to be a spectacle not to be missed.