October 19, 2007

Sixteen Aboard for African Nations Cup


International football was very much in focus last weekend, as competition for qualifying places in three of the world’s major tournaments continued in varying venues around the globe. While, quite naturally, the start of the tortuous South American qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup took pride of place, and the European Nations Cup qualifications reached their penultimate stages, Africa was also a hotbed of contention.{{more}}

The African continent will be making history by hosting the World Cup for the first time in South Africa in three years time, so developments there are going to be commanding much attention in the run-up to that tournament. In addition, the big impact that African footballers have made on the world stage and in the high-profile European professional leagues has given greater impetus to African competitions.

The biggest of these is the African Cup of Nations, contested biennially, with the next one, the 26th, to be held in Ghana, between January 20th and February 14th next year. The final qualifying matches for this tournament were completed last weekend. As a result, the 15 qualifiers to join the host team, Ghana, have been decided after more than a year of competition among teams from 47 countries divided into 12 groups. The twelve (12) group’s winners and the top three runners- up have earned a place in the finals.

The expected array of African “big names” will be in Ghana. Holders, Egypt, left it late, qualifying only in their last match, 1-0 over Botswana last Saturday. Nigeria, FIFA’s top-ranked African nation and the popular Cameroon and Senegal have all qualified, as has Ivory Coast, fast becoming one of Africa’s top teams. But Tunisia, winners in 2004, only qualified as one of the top runners-up, having finished second to Sudan in Group 4, as did South Africa in Group 11. The other qualifiers are Angola, Benin, Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Namibia and Zambia.

The January tournament is not without controversy, as it clashes with crucial stages in European club competitions. In spite of the objections of the big money clubs, FIFA rules stipulate that clubs must make players available not just for the competition but also for pre-tournament preparations. This means that the likes of Chelsea, Barcelona, Arsenal, and Liverpool will have to do without stars like Drogba, Essien, Mikel, Eto’o, Martins and Toure, something about which they are not all pleased.

But African fans, especially those in Ghana, will all be happier for it, and, hopefully, their presence will enrich and further popularize the African continent’s leading tournament.