This is time for Africa. The stage is set for the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations (AFCON) which kicks off in neighbouring South Africa on Saturday evening (January 19) with the continent’s 16 best nations vying for honours. The tournament promises to be the most thrilling as all the giants, with the exception of Egypt and Cameroon, having qualified. Sunday Standard reporter TSHEPO MOLWANE picks four countries that are likely to lift the trophy at the National Stadium in Johannesburg come end of February 10.
Coach: Herve Renard (France)
As the defending champions, there is no doubt that Chipolopolo remain among the favourites. After their exploits at the last AFCON which was held in the Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, all eyes will be on the Zambians. The 2012 winners find themselves in a tough Group C against Nigeria, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. It is their game against Nigeria on January 25 which might prove crucial to their progression. In the last showpiece, Zambia was a marvel to watch and it was their great team spirit which won them so many fans across the continent, especially in the southern region. Many believe that Zambia’s win in West Africa was a fluke as they were driven by the spirit of the Zambian team which perished on the Gabon coast in 1993.┬á Whether Chipolopolo can prove their critics wrong by retaining the title remains to be seen. As it has been the case in the past, Chipolopolo have been disappointing in their warm-up matches against Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Angola and Morocco. Zambia played a high-profile friendly game against visiting Norway in Ndola yesterday before leaving for Nelspruit-base. ┬áDespite coming under media-fire, coach Herve Renard has said that friendly games’ results mean nothing to him. “What matters most is the results during the tournament,” said the Frenchman who led Zambia to their first African title last year.
Nickname: Bafana Bafana
Coach: Gordon Igesund (South Africa)
When South Africa won the tournament in 1996, they landed the hosting rights by accident after Kenya pulled out.┬á They hosted a successful tournament and most importantly won it in style seeing off a challenge from powerhouses Cameroon, Algeria, Ghana and Tunisia. At the time, Bafana Bafana were in a class of their own and credit must go to their passionate supporters who kept them going even when the odds were against them. Once again, South Africa were awarded hosting rights due to civil war in Libya. As it has been the case in 96, South Africa are considered as outsiders by bookmakers. But history might repeat itself.
Bafana Bafana have not been convincing during the preparations but those who have been following their progress can tell that there is light down the tunnel. It is true that the current team is a far cry from the class of ’96 but they can still pull it. Coach Gordon Igesund has emphasized the importance of South Africans rallying behind their team and there is no need to underline that.
Bafana Bafana face tough task of overcoming their Group A opponents Cape Verde Islands, Morocco and Angola. But it is their opening game against Cape Verde at the 94,736 seater National Stadium in Johannesburg which might prove crucial.┬á The return of Mamelodi Sundowns striker Katlego Mphela from injury might be what the doctor has ordered for Bafana.
Nickname: The Elephants
Coach: Sabri Lamouchi (France)
The only time Ivory Coast won the Cup of Nations was in 1992 and ever since they have come agonizingly close twice losing to Egypt (2006) and Zambia (2012). Despite having some of the finest players in the continent, the Elephants have failed to live up to their billing. After losing to Zambia in the last showpiece, coach Francois Zahoui was fired by the football federation and replaced by Lamouchi. Upon arrival in Abidjan, Lamouchi was met by negative response from the Ivorians who doubted his abilities.
The current squad, which is led by ageing skipper Didier Drogba, knows that this is their last chance to bring smiles to thousands of their supporters by winning the cup. As has been the case in the past, Ivory Coast are top favourites to win the cup. Arsenal forward Gervinho recently said, “We are aware of the expectations from our supporters and this time we’ve to get it right. We’ve to avoid going to the penalty shootouts because we do not have good takers in the team like me.”
Nickname: Super Eagles
Coach: Stephen Keshi (Nigeria)
“I want footballers who are hungry, committed and proud to play for Nigeria,” said Keshi when he announced the 23-man squad which will represent the Super Eagles in South Africa. ┬áAnyone who does not give Nigeria a chance of winning going into this tournament can do that at his or her own peril. No matter, Nigeria remains one of the African powerhouses. Nigeria last won the tournament 19 years ago and many people believe that this is their chance to reclaim their pride. The last time the tournament was played in South Africa, the Super Eagles did not take part due to political reasons and they claimed that South Africa won because they were not there.
Under Keshi, the Super Eagles have shown great improvement but it is some internal matters in their camp which might put them at a disadvantage. Nigeria boast of the best strike force in the continent but it is in defence where they might be exposed. It is their second game in the group against Zambia which might prove crucial to the Nigerians. While many see them as clear favourites in Group C, the Super Eagles have to approach each game with respect otherwise they might be in for a shock.