Our special correspondent Adira Kallo reviews the 31st edition of the biennial international men’s football championship, the Africa Cup of Nations, taking place in Gabon from 14 January to 5 February. He writes that the world of football can confidently look forward to a classy display of the beautiful game at AFCON 2017
All eyes will focus on Gabon from Saturday, 14 January, when the 31st Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) football contest kicks off in the Gabonese capital city Libreville.
Many African football stars, plying their trade in the top European leagues and other parts of the world, have already left their clubs to join their respective national teams for this prestigious competition in Gabon.
AFCON 2017 features 16 teams playing 32 matches over 23 days. The teams begin their quest in four groups of four – and will end on 5 February with the winning finalists lifting the trophy and taking home $4m.
In the opening match on Saturday, the hosts, the Panthers of Gabon, will face the small West African country of Guinea Bissau, who’re playing in the Nations Cup finals for the first time.
Gabonese whose country has spent so much money to host AFCON 2017 only five years after it co-hosted the competition with Equatorial Guinea will expect their national team to advance beyond the group stage.
Their qualifying from the tough group will depend on if Borussia Dortmund forward Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang is able to live up to his billing. All eyes will be on him to replicate his Bundesliga magic. He scored 20 goals in 22 games this season for his German club.
Joining Gabon and Guinea Bissau in Group A are Burkina Faso and Cameroon who will also lock horns on Saturday in the second match of the day. With the Lions of Cameroon not in the best of shapes, everything is possible in the group and nobody should be underrated, say seasoned analysts.
In Group B, Algeria, Senegal, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, who are playing in the finals for the first time since 2006, will battle it out for the two qualifying slots. All eyes will also be on this group for the quality of players, including CAF African Footballer of the Year, Riyad Mahrez of Algeria, and Africa’s most expensive player, Senegal’s Sadio Mane, it parades.
Most pundits tip Senegal and Algeria, who are currently both in strong forms, to advance from this group.
Tunisia are also no pushovers and the Warriors of Zimbabwe, famed for their powerful team spirit which they displayed amply during qualification, are expected to give all they can in order not to be disgraced. So, surprises may happen.
DR Congo – strong team, forged out of an array of skilful players
In Group C, Ivory Coast, Morocco, DR Congo and Togo will slug it out for the two qualifying places.
Ivorians, who are the defending champions, parade, like usual, super quality players such as Jonathan Kodjia and Wilfried Zaha, and are good to be tipped for the next stage. But that would be sheer overconfidence as this group is the toughest in Gabon 2017.
The Congolese are an exceptionally strong team, forged out of an array of skilful players spread across many European and domestic clubs. And most of the players that last year won the African Nations Championship, the continental tournament for home-based players, are still in the team. DR Congo are therefore expected to put up a strong showing in Gabon and this year may be their chance again of lifting the title.
Morocco, parading such stars as Mehdi Benatia and Mbark Boussoufa, are also expected to give a good performance as they’re in very good form.
Togo can only boast of players who are past their best, including two who are currently without clubs, captain Emmanuel Adebayor and goalkeeper Kossi Agassa. Not much is expected from this team but they could still spring a surprise.
The Pharaohs are back!
Group D features Ghana, Mali, Egypt and Uganda.
The Pharaohs of Egypt, AFCON winners in 2010, are back at the tournament for the first time since the glory in Luanda where they were crowned kings for a record third time in a row.
Egypt, which eliminated Nigeria during qualification for this tournament and beat Ghana 2:0 in a World Cup qualifier in November, are in top form and are tipped to qualify without difficulties from the group.
The Egyptians, featuring four veterans from Luanda – Ahmed Elmohamady, Mohamed Abdelshafi, Ahmed Fathi and the goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary in addition to a new generation of Europe-based kickers, are even hot favourites for the Cup.
The Black Stars of Ghana parade 16 of the 23 players who reached the final two years ago but their recent form is not encouraging. However if Christian Atsu, Asamoah Gyan and André Ayew recapture their form of two years ago they will make a big impact in Gabon.
Mali and Uganda, who are appearing at the Cup of Nations finals for the first time in nearly 40 years, will put up a fight but they’re most likely going to exit the tournament at the group stage.
The sixteen African teams will play each other once in a round robin format, with the top two teams in each group progressing to the quarter finals.
A total of 368 players competing for the 16 teams at the tournament hail from a broad spectrum of clubs from giants like Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain to teams in the amateur leagues in France and Portugal.
The world of football can confidently look forward to a classy display of the beautiful game at AFCON 2017.