A football fiesta

The three weeks of action will bring the likes of Kwadwo Asamoah, Christian Atsu, Victor Moses, Emmanuel Mayuka and Emmanuel Adebayor back to their native lands and showcase the talents that they have honed, playing in top European leagues. By Amitabha Das Sharma.

The European influence is likely to play a big role when the 16 best national sides of Africa lock horns for the bi-annual soccer duel, the Africa Cup of Nations. With the finals slated to be played from January 19 to February 10 in South Africa, the contest for African supremacy will be grabbing the attention of the world.

The three weeks of action will bring the likes of Kwadwo Asamoah, Christian Atsu, Victor Moses, Emmanuel Mayuka and Emmanuel Adebayor back to their native lands and showcase the talents that they have honed, playing in top European leagues. The English Premier League alone will contribute 23 players while many more will come from top professional leagues in Italy, Portugal and France.

Defending champion Zambia and last year’s runner-up Ivory Coast are definitely two of the favourites for the title. The two countries have been able to maintain their strength as the powerhouses of Africa and will no doubt make matters difficult for other aspirants.

“I would put Ivory Coast as a firm favourite because of the quality of its squad and Zambia because of its consistency and continuity. South Africa and Morocco will be the outsiders,” says Mohun Bagan coach Karim Bencherifa. The Moroccan, who is arguably the most successful foreign coach in India, puts Ivory Coast on top of his preference chart for the team’s preeminent position as the highest placed African team in the FIFA rankings. Ivory Coast is currently ranked 14 in the world.

Despite its dominant status, Ivory Coast has remained an underachiever having won the title last in 1992. The team reached the final last year but failed to make the most of the chances that came its way and lost the final on penalties against Zambia. And for the fifth consecutive tournament one of its iconic players, Didier Drogba, will captain the star-packed squad in a fresh bid to win the title. Ivory Coast would count itself unlucky for losing its last two final appearances on penalties. Before the loss last year, the team lost out in a tie-breaker to host Egypt in Cairo seven years back. This will probably be the final chance for Drogba to have a feel of the coveted trophy.

Considering the four groups dividing the 16 teams in the final phase, Ivory Coast finds itself with the most difficult combination of games in Group-D, which is labelled as the “Group of Death”. With Algeria (world ranking 19), Tunisia (45) and Togo (71) finding place in the Group, Ivory Coast has little scope for error if it wishes to find a way to the quarterfinals.

Zambia was the surprise package when it lifted its maiden title in January last year at Gabon / Equatorial Guinea. It definitely was the fruit of years of consistent team build-up and the side also gained from being an unknown entity prior to the tournament. Frenchman Herve Renard remains at the helm of affairs, and the team will look at him for an encore. The 44-year-old coach was named Africa’s coach of the year for last year’s success. The team will be depending on the likes of seasoned winger Chris Katongo and the forwards Jacob Mulenga and Emmanuel Mayuka to continue its winning run.

“Ghana and Nigeria are the two teams which enjoy a rich tradition and are also very strong in every aspect of the game,” says Ranty Martins, picking up his favourites for the tournament. The Nigerian striker, who possesses the most number of I-League golden boots, did speak for his native country, which last reached the final way back in 2000. “Nigeria is going through a transition under a new coach and I feel it has a good chance of making it to the semifinals,” Ranty adds.

Ghana has the highest number of titles (four) after Egypt, which is not playing in the current edition. Former international Kwesi Appiah has been given the charge as the chief coach to shepherd the Ghanaian aspirations after serving as an assistant to several of his predecessors. Despite not having stars like Andre and Jordan Ayew and also John Mensah in defence, the country with one of best pool of talents will look to exorcise the jinx that has kept it off the title for the last 30 years. Midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah, star forward Asamoah Gyan and the young Christian Atsu are some of the names that give Ghana its strength.

Nigeria will look at the record of its coach Stephen Keshi, who captained the ‘Super Eagles’ when it last won the Cup in 1994. Though Keshi missed the final match, he now has the chance to accomplish a rare record of winning the title both as a player and a coach. Nigeria as a side is looking to regain the form that made it one of the top soccer nations of the world even a decade ago. Keshi has included a crop of home-bred talents in the side, leaving out a host of stars, who most often are reluctant to play for the national side. Still Nigeria has the likes of young Chelsea stars Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel and the seasoned defender Joseph Yobo from Fenerbahce to lead its charge.

Morocco will look at the new coach Rachid Taoussi, who took over from former Belgian international Eric Gerets, to help the team regain the title which it last won in 1976. Taoussi, 56, ensured that the team would qualify after a shaky start, making some dramatic changes to the squad. Morocco always had a squad of talented players but never was able to get its players to gel together. “Morocco is a team in transition and we have a Moroccan coach who has done the right thing in making some bold changes. The players are of high calibre but whether the coach will succeed in finding the right combination will define the team’s future in the tournament,” Karim says about his native country.

Last but not the least, host South Africa — winner in 1996 and runner-up in the next edition — will look for a turnaround under new coach Gordon Igesund. The team’s preparation has been hampered by injury setbacks but the coach has insisted that his squad has the potential to go on and win the title.