Africa: 2012 Cup of Nations preview
The 2012 African Cup of Nations begins this weekend with two host nations, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, which have such a limited record in this competition. The former has never qualified for an African Cup of Nations before and will be an unknown quantity to most observers of this year’s tournament whilst the latter have competed in just four previous tournaments and have only progressed beyond the group stage on just one occasion when reaching the last eight in 1996.
Indeed there is quite a strange feel about the Cup of Nations this year if only for the fact that defending champions, and record winners of the tournament, Egypt will not be there as they failed to qualify this time out finishing bottom of their qualifying group behind Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone. Egypt, seven times winners of the trophy, made history in the most recent tournament two years ago in Angola when winning the competition for a third consecutive time, the first time this had ever been achieved. Another African powerhouse, Cameroon, failed to qualify as they were always playing catch-up on qualifying group winners Senegal who topped the table with a five point margin on the four-time winners.
With the absence of two of the most successful nations in the tournament’s history this year could be the year that a nation such as Senegal or Ivory Coast finally get their hands on the cup again whilst there will be many amongst the sixteen nation tournament who will be hoping to spring a surprise.
GROUP A: Equatorial Guinea; Libya; Senegal; Zambia
Hosts Equatorial Guinea should enjoy this tournament seeing as it will be their maiden appearance but they will have a tough group to negotiate. Senegal are amongst the favourites to win the competition even though they are one of the strongest countries never to win the trophy before having ended up empty-handed in twelve tournament finals appearances. Libya were one of the two best runners-up to qualify for the finals and have done against the backdrop of civil war and one can only hope that a good showing in this tournament will help to heal some of the wounds that have torn the country apart in recent months. Zambia made the quarter-finals in 2010 and will be hoping of a repeat performance as a minimum requirement this time out.
GROUP B: Ivory Coast; Sudan; Burkina Faso; Angola
1992 champions Ivory Coast, in the absence of Egypt and Cameroon, will be the favourites to win this year with a host of stars based in some of Europe’s top leagues. Players such as Salomon Kalou, Didier Drogba and the Touré brothers of Yaya and Kolo will have high expectations of getting their hands on the trophy especially as they will compete in one of the easier groups of the tournament. Sudan, like Libya in Group A, qualified as one of the two best runners-up and have a squad which comprised of players based only in their home nation, the only such squad to do this in this tournament. Both Burkina Faso and Angola participated in the 2010 tournament with the latter unable to progress beyond the group stages and the latter, as tournament hosts, reaching the quarter-finals. With the strength of the squads in this group it is more than likely that this will be the case again this time around.
GROUP C: Gabon; Niger; Morocco; Tunisia
Gabon will have the honour of hosting the 2012 African Cup of Nations final in its capital of Libreville on February 8th but whether the co-hosting nation will be there is debateable. Gabon has qualified for the tournament for only the fifth time in its history and has only got beyond the group stage on one occasion. However, home advantage does give Gabon hope of reaching the last eight this time but the likelihood of the two North African superpowers of Tunisia and Morocco finishing in the top two spots in Group C is strong given both teams’ strengths within their squads. Each of those nations can be classed as a good outside bet to win their second title whereas the final team in this group, Niger, did impress in qualifying finishing top of a group containing both Egypt and South Africa but have no previous form in the finals to speak of with this being their maiden appearance.
GROUP D: Ghana; Botswana; Mali; Guinea
Outside of Egypt and Cameroon, Ghana is the most successful nation in this tournament having appeared in a record eight finals winning it on four occasions. However the glory days are becoming a distant memory for the Ghanaians who last won the African Cup of Nations in 1982 and are desperate to claim a fifth title especially as they finished in second and third places in the last two tournaments. Mali and Guinea should battle it out for one of the two quarter-final spots from this group but Botswana, who are participating in their maiden finals, will arguably be one of the weaker sides in the competition.