Road to libreville
What to expect from the Africa Cup of Nations 2017
The Africa Cup of Nations kicks off this weekend at the Stade de l’Amitie in Libreville where hosts Gabon take on first-timers Guinea-Bissau before Cameroon meet Burkina Faso later at the same stadium to launch the 31st edition of the tournament.
These opening fixtures will mark 60 years since the first Africa Cup of Nations in 1957 when just three countries competed for the crown. This expanded to eight teams, a format which was used for many years, before becoming 12 teams in 1992 and then the current 16-team format in 1996 – although Nigeria pulling out meant that it was not until the 1998 tournament where 16 teams first competed.
The issue of further expansion has been raised recently. Following the 32-team European Championship last summer and this week’s vote to swell the World Cup to 48 teams from the 2026 tournament onwards, will Africa’s confederation competition follow suit? Calls clamoring for change were dismissed as recently as October 2016 when African soccer chief Issa Hayatou suggested that any expansion would limit the number of possible hosts because of a lack of infrastructure in place to host more than 16 teams.
Whatever the future may hold, this year sees 16 teams descend upon Gabon from the 50 who attempted to qualify. It is the first time the country has hosted the competition outright having co-hosted the 2012 edition with Equatorial Guinea. The four groups will be contested in four different cities – the capital Libreville, Franceville, Oyem and Port-Gentil – with the 32 games concluding in the final in the capital on February 5.
While it’s Gabon’s first time to play hosts on their own, it is Guinea Bissau’s first time at a Cup of Nations. The country is making its debut this time out, having defied expectations to qualify at the top of their group. They began the Road to Gabon having played just 32 competitive internationals in their history.
At the other extreme to the debutants are the eight former winners and three nations that have finished as runners-up. It’s going to be tightly contested in a field of such pedigree, with current holders Cote d’Ivoire and record winners Egypt among the favorites to lift the trophy. Senegal and Algeria are the other teams that are expected to challenge, but as Zambia proved in 2012, there is nothing to say that the eventual winners will be expected.
It will come down to the players on show and it won’t just be the fans in 50-plus countries where games are being broadcast that will be watching them with intent. While many clubs will be cursing the loss of their star players for a month, they could also benefit from this midseason shop window.
This is a truly global tournament, with players ranging from those who ply their trade for the biggest clubs in the world to those playing in the US and China – there are two from China’s second tier – to even less well-known outfits across Africa and amateur leagues in Europe. With this range of talent on show, there will be plenty of scouts who will be hoping that they can unearth a diamond during their time in Gabon. So which stars should people look out for and who might make their name in this tournament?
The hosts will be expected to make the most of home advantage and current African Footballer of the Year Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Borussia Dortmund man is the favorite for the Golden Boot but Juventus man Mario Lemina adds another sprinkling of stardust to the squad.
Elsewhere, Burkina Faso’s Bertrand Traore’s reputation has been building since he made his international debut at 15 but surely a bigger move than being on loan from Chelsea beckons. Cameroon are short of star power in comparison to years past but Besiktas striker Vincent Aboubakar has goals in him, while newcomers Guinea-Bissau are looking for a hero at their first tournament.
Riyad Mahrez may be the star for Algeria but it could be two other wingers who take the spotlight: Rachid Ghezzal of Lyon and Yacine Brahimi of Porto. Senegal’s Sadio Mane (Liverpool) will be hoping to take his Premier League form to Gabon while teammates Keita Balde Diao (Lazio) and Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli) could add to their suitors. Tunisia pair Wahbi Khazri (Sunderland) and Aymen Abdennour (Valencia) will want to put domestic despair behind them and play their way into a summer move. Finally, whoever can get Zimbabwe out of the group will deserve all the attention they get.
Congo DR’s hopes were dashed when Yanick Bolasie got injured last month and Benik Afobe’s failure to register added insult to injury, but Cote d’Ivoire’s star-studded squad more than makes up for that. There are big hopes for Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha after he opted for the Elephants over England while fullback Serge Aurier (PSG), Atalanta midfielder Franck Kessie and Jonathan Kodjia (Aston Villa) are all expected to receive admiring glances in Gabon. Morocco will just be happy to be in Gabon, after they were initially banned for refusing to hold the last tournament in 2015, as will Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor who is in search of a new club after being let go by Crystal Palace.
Mohamed Salah is the star man for seven-time winners Egypt but the headline maker could be 43-year-old keeper Essam El-Hadary, who probably has a few seasons left in him for any potential new owners. Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan tends to turn it on at tournaments and is always open to a transfer, but Thomas Partey (Atletico Madrid) could be the new star for the Black Stars. Mali pair Molla Wague (Udinese ) and Monaco’s Adama Toure have been tipped for big things and can add to that expectation in Gabon while Standard Liege striker Farouk Miya is Uganda’s great hope.
Borussia Dortmund’s Gabonese striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang controls the ball during their German Bundesliga match against Bayern Munich on November 19.