By Patrick Omune
The biggest Africa football bonanza kicked off last Saturday, January 17th in Equatorial Guinea who play host to the 30th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, initially scheduled to be hosted by Morocco, but the country was stripped off the honours by CAF after they developed cold feet over the Ebola scare in parts of West Africa.
Defending champions and three-times Africa champions, Nigeria’s Super Eagles will not be amongst the party after they stumbled in the last hurdle and failed to qualify for AFCON after finishing third in a group won by Bafana Bafana, South Africa and Congo Brazzaville coming in second. This will probably be the first time whereby a defending champion will not be able to join the Africa showpiece.
The Pharaohs, Egypt, one of the most successful nation in the cup’s history, winning the tournament a record seven times will also be missing out.
In terms of the teams that will be participating in this year’s tournament, The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, The Black Stars of Ghana and The Elephants of Ivory Coast seems to be the favourites but as history has already judged us, this is a tournament which has many twists and turns and this might not be an exception.
Having been installed as the new Black Stars coach, Avram Grant must prove beyond reasonable doubt that he has what it takes to take Ghana all the way to glory. The 56-year-old will be leading the Black Stars to this tournament as his first major assignment since taking over from interim coach Maxwell Konadu.
As one of the giants of African soccer, the four-time African champions, the Black Stars, will always be regarded highly. With the caliber of high profile players lead by inspirational captain Asamoah Gyan, dependable midfield duo of Christian Atsu and Andre Ayew, Ghana will arguably be deemed as one of the hot favourites to win this year’s tournament. This will highly depend on how coach, Avram Grant will navigate the rough terrain of African football considering that he has no prior experience of managing in the continent.
Ivory Coast has always flattered to deceive in the AFCON especially after their “golden generation” lead by the Chelsea striker Didier Drogba was unleashed to the continent during the 2006 championship in Egypt.
The Elephants, has over the years, drawn the services of vastly experienced players with immense talent such as the retired Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Kollo Toure, Solomon Kalou, Gervinho, amongst others. Currently, they can add to that list to Drogba’s successors upfront in Winfred Bony and Seydou Doumbia. Over the years, Ivory Coast has provided to the continent arguably the most gifted generation of players, who have consistently failed to deliver on the big stage both at the AFCON and the World Cup stage.
Recently, The Elephants have lost two Nations Cup finals on penalties, in 2006 against Egypt and 2012 to an inspired Chipolopolo of Zambia. During the last tournament in South Africa, The Elephants choked and crashed out at the quarter-finals stage to eventual winners, The Super Eagles of Nigeria.
With their aging squad, I see the same script repeating itself for The Elephants during this year’s tournament. They simply do not have enough firearms in their armoury to trouble the more disciplined, cohesive and consistent sides that will parade in Equatorial Guinea.
According to me, the team that has the best chance to win this year’s AFCON in Equatorial Guinea has to be the four-time Africa champions, Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. Since their World Cup acrimonious implosion and dressing-room unrest in Brasil, where they crashed out of the group stages, the Indomitable Lions seems to have learnt from their mistakes, picked themselves and are now exhibiting a united front under the tutelage of their coach Volker Finke.
Their impressive form showed during the AFCON qualifiers where they cruised to the finals un-beaten only conceding a single goal in a run of six games. Chief amongst them was the impressive performance the Indomitable Lions displayed when they hammered Yaya Toure’s Ivory Coast by 4-1 in Younde. At that time, no one could have predicted such a score-line.
Volker Finke, the Cameroonian coach, spearheaded the rebuilding of this young side by sidelining former Barcelona, Inter-Milan and long serving captain, Samuel Eto’o, West-Ham midfield king-pin Alex Song and former Tottenham defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto. Finke might have thought that it’s in the best interest of the team to do away with these players considering their ego might have been too disruptive to this young side.
With these omissions, Finke has been able to unearth and unleash youngsters with the likes of Vincent Aboubakar of Porto and Clinton N’Jie of Lyon and the experience of new Captain Stephanie Mbia, Benjamin Moukandjo, Aurelien Cheudjou and goalkeeper Guy Roland Ndy Assembe and you realise what a formidable squad the Indomitable Lions have at their disposal.
Other teams which have the potential to upset the status quo are the likes of former champions Bafana Bafana of South Africa, last tournament finalists, Burkina Faso, Senegal and the Desert Foxes of Algeria. These teams are likely to cause sleepless nights to the big boys.
But after all has been said and done, I do believe that this young and vibrant Cameroonian side has immense potential, undoubted talent, skills and cohesion to go all the way and conquer Africa for the fifth time.