The last edition of the African Cup of Nations ended with a predictable result, Egypt becoming the first nation to win three straight titles. No, not many were picking the Pharoahs to repeat, the Egyptians still reeling from a shock playoff loss to Algeria that kept them out of the 2010 World Cup. Once they got to Angola, however, there was little doubt which nation ruled Africa. Egypt allowed two goals while scoring 15. You couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't a way to wedge them into South Africa.
This year, Egypt didn't even qualify for Africa's confederation title, a tournament that starts Saturday (hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon). Also missing are Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria and South Africa, five of the confederation's top eight FIFA ranked nations excluded from the region's final. Of the six African teams that participated in the last World Cup, only two will vie for Egypt's title.
Three-time defending champion Egypt failed to qualify for this year's African Cup of Nations. (Photo by Gallo Images)
The big boys were all victims of the least forgiving qualifying process in world soccer. Be it World Cup or Cup of Nations, CAF always spreads its qualifying too thin, creating a series of mini round-robin tournaments where only the group winners advance. Qualifying for Equatorial Guinea/Gabon was slightly different as three second-place teams made the tournament, but in eight of the groups (almost all of which had four teams), one slip could ruin you.
There were playoffs for second place teams (as in Europe). No third or fourth place teams qualified (like in CONCACAF or CONMEBOL). If you didn't win your group, you were probably going home, and since the groups were so small, you couldn't afford a slip. It was a precarious endeavor considering the players for the region's most potent teams were travelling huge distances to make their qualifiers. Egypt was the exception, its best teams made up of almost exclusively Cairo-based players; still, the format alone made it easy to see why some of the continent's best won't represent the region at major tournaments.
Take the case of Nigeria, who finished second in Group B to Guinea. The nations met in the second round. When Kevin Constant scored in the eighth minute in Conakry, Guinea was able to hold on for an upset. It's not an uncommon occurrence in soccer: An early goal defining the game. It was the only loss the Super Eagles would suffer in qualifying, but with minnows Ethiopia and Madagascar rounding out the groups, there were few places where Guinea or Nigeria would drop points. In the teams' reverse fixture, a goal at the death from Ibrahima Traore earned Guinea a draw in Abuja, sending Nigeria out.
It's a serious problem for Africa, a region that continues to hear speculation about when one of its members will make the leap and become a peripheral contender at a World Cup. Ghana appears to be very close, but when the structure of World Cup qualifying doesn't afford Egypt the same mistakes that the likes of Argentina, Mexico and Portugal had in their regions, it becomes difficult to get a good assessment of the state of African soccer.
This week in his own preview, Jonathan Wilson asked "whether those who have risen to replace the traditional giants are any better" than the teams that are staying home? It seems unlikely. The broader base of evidence suggests that Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria are well within the region's top 16 nations. However, because of the problems with CAF's qualifying tournaments our debates are too speculative without enough evidence.
Morocco players arrive at the Leon M'ba International Airport in Libreville, Gabon. (Photo by Themba Hadebe/AP Images)
This year's Cup of Nations field is unlikely to provide many answers. Eight of this year's qualifiers weren't present in Angola. Amongst them are Senegal and Morocco (whose qualifications surprised nobody), as well as Sudan, who FIFA see as the 30th best team in the region (insert lick of salt caveat here). Niger, Botswana and co-hosts Equatorial Guinea are making their first finals appearances, though Guinea is appearing in their fourth tournament in nine years.
But of the group that missed 2010, Libya stands out. Jonathan Fadugba at Just Football had it about right.
He wrote: "Libya's qualification for their third African Cup of Nations is both an extraordinary fairytale and, in a sense, simultaneously insignificant. At least 30,000 people were killed during battles, including family members of some of the players in Libya's squad, and with whole towns being burnt to the ground just a few short months ago it might appear at least a little churlish to some to be discussing who will play where for the country's football team."
While the circumstances are drastically different, the arc is not dissimilar to Japan's at last summer's Women's World Cup: National team soccer serves as a welcome, potentially unifying distraction from tragedy at home. You hate to equate the natural to the political, but the end product could be the same. For many sports fans around the world, it's these types of stories that define tournaments. Drawn into a group with Senegal, Zambia and Equatorial Guinea, Libya could still be playing come February's knockout phase, and given a possible quarterfinal round match-up against the perpetually disappointing Cote d'Ivoire, two storylines would mesh should the Libyans craft a footballing fairytale.
There are, however, two clear favorites. The Ivorians are one, though having failed to win this tournament in 20 years despite a talent base to do so, Les Elephants need to show an ability to put their pieces together before we can trust that the Drogba, Gervinho, Toure brands are enough.
Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Ghana is a different story. If there is one team that has shown the guile to leap to world power, it's the Black Stars. With a young talent base likely to see continued improvement between now and Brazil 2014, Ghana can build on their 2009 U-20 title, their finals appearance at Angola 2010, and their quarterfinal run in South Africa. The biggest question is whether Goran Stevanovic, entering his first major international competition as head coach, can craft goals where fellow Serb Milovan Rajevac could not.
With so many surprise qualifiers, there are few dark horses. Tunisia and Morocco (drawn together in Group C) can cause problems, though Senegal is the nation that can do real damage. With Moussa Sow, Mamadou Niang, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, coach Amara Traore has more firepower than he can use.
If Ghana can't find a way to score more goals than they did in 2010's major tournaments, they're ripe to be picked off by the Lions in the semis. That assumes each will get there. First, the group stage, which starts with Group A on Saturday.
Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Senegal, Zambia
Equatorial Guinea is playing in its first major tournament with a core of players employed at various levels of Spanish football (none in the Primera Division). In the last five years, the country has one win over Cup of Nations-caliber opposition: 1-0 in 2007 over Cameroon. They're likely to finish fourth, while Senegal is the group's favorite.
That sets up Libya and Zambia's Jan. 25 meeting as the key match. The teams were grouped together in qualifying, with Libya edging a 1-0 win over their two matches. At a neutral site the match could be destined for a 0-0, meaning second place in Group A could be decided by how these teams perform against the rest of the group. Whichever nation can steal a point from Senegal might go through, but without Jacob Mulenga (ACL), Zambia is going to be hard pressed keeping up with the Senegalese.
Key players: Samir Aboud (G, Libya), Soulymane Diawara (D, Sengal), Collins Mbesuma (F, Zambia), Mamadou Niang (F, Al-Sadd), Ahmed Sa'ad (F, Libya)
Picks: Senegal, Libya
Group B: Angola, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Sudan
While Cote d'Ivoire is the clear favorite, they could have drawn an easier group. Burkina Faso is an athletic side that held the Elephants to a 0-0 draw two years ago. Angola has the skill to take advantage of Cote d'Ivoire should the favorites look as stagnant as they have in previous tournaments, while Sudan's 0-0 draw with Ghana in qualifying shows they're capable of shackling a big team (not that Ghana are difficult to shackle).
In all likelihood, Sudan is a plucky spoiler - the team against whom you can't drop points. That should leave Angola and Burkina Faso fighting it out for second place, the latter having the edge.
The two nations meet on Sunday. If the teams draw, it may come down to who can take a point from Cote d'Ivoire. Angola plays the Elephants last, by which time the Ivorians may already be through.
Key players: Moumouni Dagano (F, Burkina Faso), Didier Drogba (F, Cote d'Ivoire), Falvio (F, Angola), Manucho (F, Angola), Jonathan Pitroipa (M. Burkina Faso), Cheick Tiote (M, Cote d'Ivoire), Yaya Toure (M, Cote d'Ivoire)
Picks: Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso
Group C: Gabon, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia
Gabon's traditional dancers perform for the Tunisia and Morocco teams as they arrive for the African Cup of Nations. (Photo by Themba Hadebe/AP Images)
If Gabon plays as well as they did in 2010, this is the most interesting group, possessing three teams that could win it. With the emergence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the potential of 18-year-old Andre Biyogo Poko in midfield, this team might be slightly better.
Not that Niger should be forgotten. They did win a qualifying group that contained South Africa, though given the Bafana Bafana let up in the sixth round, played for a 0-0 draw they (mistakenly) thought would take them to the finals, Niger's appearance here is more than a bit fortuitous. They finished qualifying with a minus-two goal difference.
Gabon has the advantage of playing all of their matches at home, though in friendlies this month against Burkina Faso and Sudan, that's done little good. They failed to score in either match. Still, within the last three years they have hosted all of their group mates, posting a 2-1-0 record - a record that would probably win the group.
Morocco and Tunisia face off Monday in what might be the group's crucial match. The nations haven't faced each other in five years, and it's been eight years since a match between them has had a winner.
If the teams do play it close to the vest and take a point from round one, Morocco has the advantage of playing Niger last, knowing what's in front of them. Given the relative firepower of their striker tandem, they can put up a number if need be, while it's difficult to see the Tunisians pouring in goals.
Key players: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (F, Gabon), Marouane Chamakh (F, Morocco), Badr El Kaddouri (D, Morocco), Youssouf Hadji (F, Morocco), Karim Haggui (D, Tunisia), Issam Jemâa (F, Tunisa), Houssine Kharja (M, Morocco), Didier Onovo (G, Gabon)
Picks: Gabon, Morocco
Group D: Botswana, Ghana, Guinea, Mali
Ghana and Mali were on opposite ends of the spectrum in Angola. The Black Stars got to the final despite never scoring more than one goal in a match. They managed only four goals in five games, while Mali scored four goals on the tournament's opening day. Unfortunately, Mali allowed nearly as many as they gave up (they drew that opening match with Angola) and didn't make it out of the group. Excitement was inversely correlated with winning.
Although they failed to impress in qualifying, the Malians have the potential to upset Ghana (or find the one goal they'd need to get a point from them). But first, Mali has to get by an opening match against Guinea that should be the group's key result. If Ghana gets three from Botswana on the same day (Tuesday, Jan. 24), their path to the quarters should be clear.
Key players: Kwadwo Asamoah (M, Ghana), Ismaël Bangoura (F, Guinea), Cheick Diabate (F, Mali), Pascal Feindouno (M, Guinea), Asamoah Gyan (F, Ghana), Samuel Inkoom (D, Ghana) Seydou Keita (M, Mali), John Mensah (D, Ghana), Adama Tamboura (D, Mali)
Picks: Ghana, Mali
Forward thinking: Knockout round picks
uarterfinals: Senegal over Burkina Faso; Ghana over Morocco; Mali over Gabon; Cote d'Ivoire over Libya.
Semifinals: Ghana over Senegal; Cote d'Ivoire over Mali.
Finals: Ghana over Cote d'Ivoire