The African Cup of Nations kicks off on the 14th of January and the whole continent’s eyes will be glued on Gabon’s Stade de I’Amitie in Libreville for the first match pitting the hosts against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. What a match it promises to be and what a season of absolute footballing magic the beginning of 2017 will go down as. Stars are expected to rise as has-beens fall all building up to the crowning of a new African champion on the 5th of February. In the 2015 Equatorial Guinea AFCON tournament, Ivory Coast was crowned the best team in Africa, bagging a second title after dashing Ghana’s hopes of a fifth continental cup. This year, the tussle starts all over again and Group A will be the first in focus. Teams in the group are the hosts, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau.
South Africa’s Times Live has predicted that the hosts will “take the mantle” in Group A and move on to the knockout stages. This will not be as much a result of the team’s own strengths as it is that of a fortuitous draw. Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, recently voted best outfield player for the first half of the season by his fellow players in the Bundesliga will lead the Gabonese charges this month. He scored 20 goals in 21 competitive games for hic club, Borussia Dortmund and if he brings that spectacular form to the AFCON, the rest of Group A could be in real trouble. Another player to watch out for is Mario Lemina who plays for Juventus. Mario Lemina rejcted the Gabonese call-up for the 2015 tournament but will be looking to make his mark this year. Will it be the hosts to take this tournament? It remains to be seen.
2013 was a Burkinabe year. It was the year they romped to runner up position in the AFCON tournament but the team failed to reproduce that class in the 2015 competition, bowing out in the group stage. This year, Portuguese coach Paul Diarte leads his team back to the soccer showcase with high hopes to better the 2015 showing which disappointed everyone. With a Cameroon in the doldrums and an inexperienced Guinea Bissau, there is a high chance the team could shine again this year. Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traore will be the man to watch in the competition and defensive midfielder and captain, Charles Kabore. Will the Thoroughbred Stallions reproduce their magic of yesteryears?
Things are not looking up for the four time AFCON winners and World Cup quarter-finalists (in 1990). A total of seven players announced their unavailability for the tournament with one of the country’s prolific players, Joel Matip also opting to focus on his club, Liverpool. Hugo Broos, the Indomitable Lions’ coach said, “These players have put personal interest above those of the national team and the federation reserves the right to take action against the players in accordance with Fifa regulations.” The other players who snubbed their national team include Andre Onana, Guy N’dy Assembe, Maxime Poundje, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Ibrahim Amadou and Allan Nyom. No one knows if Cameroon will soar above its problems this year.
Guinea Bissau’s problems going into the tournament are a lot like those of Zimbabwe. Though the country went through Kenya and Zambia to qualify for the AFCON tournament, money problems are making it increasingly difficult for the team to focus on the sporting challenge ahead. Players met the country’s president Jose Mario Vaz to attempt to resolve their issues before the tournament begins. The players were promised bonus money which they were not paid. The team has not played any preparatory friendlies or gone for a promised training camp. This will be the country’s first AFCON appearance and there is much hope for a strong showing regardless of the financial issues. Their success in the group is, however, unlikely but miracles do happen in the AFCON and this would be an incredible one.
The coming weeks are set to be some of the continent’s most enthralling yet. There are countless possibilities and nothing can be predicted with much confidence. Anyone can spring up a surprise.
Image source: OramianEconomist