Group A. It is a group that is likely to spark a lot of interest mainly because it consists of the host nation Ghana. Relative to their talent, Ghana has underachieved in previous years. Their top finish in recent history is as losing finalists in Senegal in 1992, but this time around they have a team capable of taking the best in Africa and winning.
Coach Claude Le Roy has inherited a disciplined team from Ratomir Djokovic and, should the midfield of Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien tick, the team may lift the cup for the fifth time.
In Morocco and Guinea, the Black Stars have their work cut-out for them. Morocco were runners up in Tunisia and failing to proceed to the next stage is totally unthinkable but having gone through a relatively easy group of three teams made up of Zimbabwe and Malawi, their lack of quality opponents might prove costly.
Guinea is also in with a chance, and that is going to depend heavily on how the other teams fare against Namibia the minnows of the group. Namibia might not have the fire power to go past the group stage but they are definitely going to have a say as to who does. The Brave Warriors of Namibia suffered a heavy blow when their coach, Ben Bamfuchile, passed on last month in his homeland of Zambia, but the appointment of Arie Schans should ease the mood in the camp.
In every competition, there is always a group of death and Group B seems to be just that group. Three teams in group B have the pedigree of making it to the semi finals. Ivory Coast is a brilliant mix of grit and flair, perfectly grounded to produce a team that can stand the grueling demands of modern football. If the late withdrawal of Coach Uli Stielike doesn’t affect the team much, then the brilliant Ivorians might make it to the finals yet again.
Before they worry about the finals though, the Elephants have to overcome powerful opponents in fellow West Africans, Nigeria, Mali and Benin. While Benin might not spark fear even to a team of cheerleaders, Nigeria and Mali are likely to give the Ivorians a run for their money.
Mali, in particular, is going through some form of transformation and they have exciting players in Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid and the Seville pair of Seydou Keita and Fredric Kanoute.
Nigeria’s Super Eagles, on the other hand, can revive themselves and live to their billing as favourites. They have the clout and class to win the cup but often it is the desire and discipline that lets them down. If, (and it’s a big IF), they get it right this time, they could be battling it out with either Ghana or Ivory Coast in the final.
For every group of death there is also its opposite: the easiest group. And Cameroon is surely counting its blessings after being pitted in a weak group that has Egypt, Zambia and Sudan.
While the Pharaohs look likely to give Cameroon the most problems, they may be beaten to second position by Zambia. Zambia has built a team whose sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Its strength is hinged on the collective workmanship, rather than on the individual brilliance of the players and in Christopher Katongo, they have a predatory striker, a prerequisite to success in football, who seems to find the back of net with monotonous regularity.
Sudan, who are enjoying a renaissance in their football are reaping the rewards of their clubs’ successes at national level. The good form of El Merrekh and Al Hilal has a ripple effect on the national team, and that sees them rubbing shoulders with the big boys.
Group D have two teams that made it through to the World Cup in Germany, but to say that Angola and Tunisia are overwhelming favourites would be grossly misleading.
Angola has to be on their very best to overcome Senegal, which has maintained the spine of the team that has won silver at the 2002 African Cup of Nations in Mali and emulated Cameroon by reaching the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.
South Africa is unbeaten to Angola in all their previous meetings, and that is not the only record they bring to Ghana. They won the cup (AFCON) the year they were re-admitted to international sports after the long boycott over apartheid. They became runners up two years later, semi finalists in the subsequent event, but failed to go past the group stages in the next. In that their last participation at AFCON, they bowed out without scoring a single goal.
In a short period of time, a team that promised a lot and played with a lot of swagger was unceremoniously knocked off their narcissistic pedestal and came crushing down to earth faster than they could say Bafana Bafana. With Carlos Alberto Perriera at the helm, the belief is things will be better, maybe not in this competition but soon there might be some improvement.
Tunisia is one of the most alluring teams in this tournament but the loss of form of local side Esperance has somewhat affected the fortunes of the senior national team, something that does not seem to sit well with the fans.
Let the games begin…