African Cup of Nations: Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana the favorites
Of the last 9 winners of the African Cup of Nations, 8 did not qualify
Could be last chance of the Côte d'Ivoire's Golden Generation to win trophy
On paper, Ghana appears to be the most well-balanced of all the teams
It's a tournament perhaps more striking for who isn't there than who is. Of the last nine winners, eight have failed to make it to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea for the 28th African Cup of Nations. There's no Egypt, derailed by the uprising against Hosni Mubarak; there's no South Africa, eliminated by its own stupidity; and there's no Cameroon or Nigeria, eventually worn down by years of confused and chaotic administration.
South Africa, which played for a draw in its final game when it needed a win to qualify, having failed to understand the criteria for qualification, take the prize for incompetence, but this Gotterdammerung has been coming for some time. For all the top players leaving Africa, and particularly West Africa, for Europe, the national game has been held back by inept and often corrupt leadership. This is the result. The question is whether those who have risen to replace the traditional giants are any better. Is this a case of a broadening of Africa's talent base, or of the sides who were once good sliding into mediocrity?
Senegal is a strong favorite to top the group, largely on the strength of its forward line, which is so strong that Newcastle United's Demba Ba is not a regular starter, operating as backup for Papiss Cisse, Moussa Sow and Mamadou Niang. Since finally discarding El Hadji Diouf last July, its form has been excellent, the failure to qualify for the tournament two years ago looking increasingly like a blip as the players who had inspired the World Cup quarterfinal appearance in 2002 hung around too long. Amara Traore, one of an increasing band of local coaches preferred in West Africa to the usual profusion of foreigners, has managed the transition superbly since taking charge in December 2009.
The co-host Equatorial Guinea is one of three debutants at the tournament, and the lowest ranked there at 150th in the world. It has trawled the world hunting for players with Equatoguinean heritage, and has adopted several who have no previous connection with the country. Its preparations have been hampered by the resignation of Henri Michel as coach two weeks ago, citing outside interference, leaving the Brazilian Gilson Paulo to try to pull together a disparate squad in which the most recognizable name is Randy, a forward for the Spanish second division side Las Palmas.
Herve Renard has returned to take charge of a Zambia side who keep threatening to break through, and realistically should edge out the hosts for second. Libya, meanwhile, an ordinary side inspired by extraordinary events at home, represents the feel-good story of the tournament.
The so called golden generation of Côte d'Ivoire risks, like so many golden generations before them, ending up winning nothing, undone by two tough World Cup draws and a series of failures at Cups of Nations. The Ivorians, with the Toure brothers, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora and Emmanuel Eboue, look to have the strongest squad at the tournament, but the doubt is whether Gervinho is good enough to provide the flair they've often lacked. The goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, similarly, doesn't inspire much confidence.
Still, Côte d'Ivoire should comfortably win a weak group. Lito Vidigal is Angola's fourth coach since the team went out in the last eight on home soil two years ago and, while this is a fourth straight qualification for the Palancas Negaras, there is a sense that oil money isn't translating into the success many expected after they reached the 2006 World Cup finals. Sudan sneaked through as one of the best runners-up in qualifying and offers little beyond a basic solidity, and Burkina Faso, with its quick counterattacking style, led by the Rennes midfielder Jonathan Pitroipa, is a more likely threat to Angola for second.
The Gabon coach Gernot Rohr described this as the hardest group, and he's probably right. Although the debutant Niger can probably be discounted -- it may have eliminated Egypt and South Africa, but essentially all it did was to keep standing as all about them were self-destructing -- but the other three sides are all potential winners. In the past five CANs, only Angola two years ago has failed to reach the semifinal, and this is an improving Gabon side, who might have edged out Cameroon for World Cup qualification two years ago but for the disruption caused by the death of its president Omar Bongo.
Tunisia, winner on home soil in 2004, is the only one of the last nine winners to have qualified, with the stern center-back Karim Haggui an obvious link back to that side. Tunisia only made it through behind Botswana, but the Arab Spring seems to have given a sense of togetherness, as evidenced by Tunisia's victory last year in the CHAN, the tournament for players based in Africa. Morocco, meanwhile, is well-organized under Eric Gerets, but its hopes of success may be diminished by the dire form of its main center-forward, Arsenal's Marouane Chamakh.
Ghana was the most impressive African side at the World Cup, and reached the final of the Cup of Nations two years ago. Even without Kevin Prince-Boateng, who decided recently to retire from international soccer, it is still probably the best balanced squad in the tournament, with a range of creative talent, most notably Dede Ayew and Kwadwoh Asamoah. Much will depend on the severity of Asamoah Gyan's calf injury, and how much sharpness the center-forward has lost after abandoning the Premier League for the UAE.
Botswana is the fairy-story of qualifying, the former army officer Stanley Tshosane having molded a pacey, exciting side using largely home-based players. The forward Dipsy Selolwane had three years in MLS with Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake. Threatening as Botswana could be, it's a clear outsider. Michel Dussuyer has made Guinea, who ousted Nigeria, a rapid counterattacking force, while Mali have benefited from the experience of Alain Giresse, the former France midfielder who oversaw Gabon's rise. He has written off Momo Sissoko and Mahamadou Diarra, but Seydou Keita has returned after a self-imposed exile.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.