Road to li­bre­ville

What to ex­pect from the Africa Cup of Na­tions 2017

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan White

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?

Group A

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.

Group B

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.

Group C

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.

Group D

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.

Photo: CFP

Borus­sia Dort­mund’s Gabonese striker Pierre-Em­er­ick Aubameyang con­trols the ball dur­ing their Ger­man Bun­desliga match against Bay­ern Mu­nich on Novem­ber 19.

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