January 20, 2006

African Stars in football limelight

With the footballing world focused on this summer’s World Cup Finals in Germany, insufficient attention is being paid to a competition which kicks off today, Friday 20th, in Egypt. It is none other than the African Nations Cup, pitting sixteen African Nations against each other in a battle for supremacy on that soccer-mad continent. The sixteen teams are split into four groups with the top two in each group moving on to the quarter-final knockout stages and thence via the semis to the Final preview of the groups:{{more}}

GROUP A: Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Ivory Coast

As fate would have it, three of the finalists in this group are North African, coming against one of the competition’s favourites, the Ivory Coast. Egypt, the host nation, is a perennial finalist, this being the Egyptians’ 20th finals, four of which they have won, a feat matched only by Cameroon and Ghana, two other finalists. They find themselves up against Libya and the Ivory Coast for the second time in two successive international competitions, having been in the same group for World Cup qualifiers. Key players for Egypt are the striker Mido and Mohammed Barakat, voted by the BBC as African Footballer of the year.

The Ivory Coast is highly fancied to go all the way, on the strengths of its qualification for Germany and because it has a group of top- notch skilled and experienced footballers. Top among these are the English Premier-League duo of striker Didier Drogba (Chelsea) and defender Kolo Toure (Arsenal), rated one of the world’s top centre-backs. The Ivorians will be a force to be reckoned with.

Neither Morocco, finalists in 2004, nor Libya are expected to advance beyond the first round.

GROUP B: Angola, Cameroon, DR Congo and Togo.

This is sure to be a hotly contested group. Cameroon is considered a powerhouse of African football regularly reaching the final stages in both this competition and the World Cup. But the “Indomitable Lions” missed out on the trip to Germany and will be eager to make up for that with victory here, particularly because two other Group B rivals, Angola and Togo, will both be at the World Cup Finals. In Samuel Eto’o, of Barcelona fame, they have the best sticker in Africa and one of the best in the world. He has put their ambitions clearly-”We have to conquer Africa”

To do that Cameroon must beat off the Germany – bound Togo and Angola. Togo is perhaps best known for the trade agreements which bore the name of its capital city, Lome. But it has won the right to be on the World Cup stage and in Arsenal-bound Emmanuel Adebayor, has an outstanding goal-scorer. Angola too, infamous for civil war, is best known in sporting circles not for football but for basketball, having been African champions eight times. But the Angolans qualified for Germany at the expense of highly-rated Nigeria, so they cannot be ruled out of contention. It seems likely though that the DR Congo will not go beyond the Group stage.

GROUP C: Guinea, South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia

This may perhaps be the weakest group. Tunisia is the reigning champion of Africa and will be defending its title, an achievement only attained by Cameroon since the competition was expanded to 16 finalists. In right -back Trabelsi they have one of the most sought-after defenders and should be strong enough to put up a fight to defend the crown. South Africa, a former heavy weight, has been disappointing of late, failing to qualify for Germany and neither Zambia or Guinea have ever been African champions.

GROUP D: Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Zimbabwe

If Group A is largely a North African affair, then this one is substantially a West African affair, and a virtual group-of-death at that. Ghana, not Nigeria nor Senegal, would be Group favourites, having already booked a berth in Germany and having line-up with stars like midfielder Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah. Nigeria, for all its talent and big names, was beaten for a World Cup Place by Angola and in spite of players like Inter Milan’s Obafemi Martins and Jay Jay Okocha, will have to step up to progress. For another African top-ranker, Senegal, with stars of the calibre of EL Hady, Diouf and Pape Boupa Diop, is sure to be in contention, a statement which cannot be made of Zimbabwe.

We will follow the competition.