The Star Late Edition - - SPORT - NJABULO NGIDI

The 28-year-old’s stun­ning vol­ley against Ivory Coast with his left foot as he fell in the box, was one of the most me­morable mo­ments of the last Africa Cup of Na­tions. He will lead Mali’s at­tack in a tough group that fea­tures Egypt and Ghana who have won this tour­na­ment a com­bined 11 times. The French­man is in his sec­ond stint as Mali coach. This is the third African coun­try he has man­aged hav­ing led Gabon and Sene­gal. It’s the Ea­gles he has done well with at the Af­con, re­turn­ing with a bronze medal in the 2012 edi­tion. He al­lows play­ers to ex­press their cre­ativ­ity and skill, which bodes well for the Ea­gles who boast a num­ber of skil­ful play­ers. It’s a mys­tery why Mali have never been African cham­pi­ons de­spite be­ing a con­sis­tent fea­ture at the Af­con and hav­ing been rep­re­sented by tal­ented play­ers like Sey­dou Keita and Fred­eric Kanoute. Those two have hung up their boots with an­other gen­er­a­tion tak­ing over. The qual­ity is still there but it’s not at the level that could see them lift the tro­phy.

EGYPT HAVE awo­ken from a seven-year long comma to find them­selves in the group of death in their first Africa Cup of Na­tions (Af­con) since 2010. The Pharaohs don’t mind be­cause the tur­moil they en­dured since lift­ing the Af­con for a record sev­enth time at An­gola 2010 was much tougher than the chal­lenge from the Black Stars, Uganda and Mali.

The Arab Spring up­ris­ings that top­pled Hosni Mubarak went from Tahrir Square right to the sta­di­ums across Egypt. The na­tional team suf­fered be­cause of that. That rev­o­lu­tion found the most suc­cess­ful African na­tion strug­gling to even qual­ify for the tour­na­ment. The up­ris­ing cre­ated di­vi­sions in the coun­try, lead­ing to the one thing that united even staunch en­e­mies like Al-Ahly and Za­malek to find more rea­sons to hate one an­other. How­ever, those club­sstill man­aged to dom­i­nate the con­ti­nent even though their do­mes­tic league was shut down at one point and when it opened they had to play be­hind closed doors.

When nor­mal­ity re­turned, to a point that Egypt were al­lowed to play in front of a packed sta­dium in the 2-0 win over Ghana in Alexan­dria in a 2018 World Cup qual­i­fier, the na­tion breathed a huge sigh of re­lief and put on a show. The Pharaohs will look to take that nor­mal­ity to the Af­con. The tour­na­ment has been a pretty sim­ple af­fair, 16 na­tions come to­gether to dis­play the best of African foot­ball and more of­ten than not Egypt leave as cham­pi­ons. They have the mas­ter key to un­lock­ing where the tro­phy lies.

The Black Stars, on the other hand, have banged the door that con­tains the tro­phy. Just like it was Ivory Coast’s time to be African cham­pi­ons in 2015, so is the case with Ghana this time around.

They have a qual­ity side that can achieve that and it would be a per­fect send-off for Asamoah Gyan. The Ghana­ian cap­tain has hinted that this could be his last Af­con cam­paign.

His pre­vi­ous cam­paigns have been lit­tered with dis­ap­point­ment, es­pe­cially in the last edi­tion. Ghana lost on penal­ties to Ivory Coast whose golden gen­er­a­tion fi­nally picked up gold. What gives Ghana the edge over Egypt is that they have play­ers with ex­pe­ri­ence of com­pet­ing on this stage.

The Egyp­tians have been forced to shed some of their ex­pe­ri­enced cam­paign­ers in the past trou­bled years when le­gends such as Mo­hamed Aboutrika and Wael Gomma called it quits to make way for an ex­cit­ing young group that in­cludes Mo­hamed Salah, Mo­hamed El­neny, Kahraba and Ra­madan Sobhi. Com­pe­ti­tion was so stiff up­front that Basem Morsi couldn’t find a place. Vet­eran goal­keeper Es­sam El-Hadary, who was there when Egypt won a hat-trick of Af­con ti­tles from 2006-2010, will bring much-needed ex­pe­ri­ence as part of the four play­ers in the 23-man squad who have played in this tour­na­ment.

There isn’t a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual who has been here be­fore The city is Gabon’s eco­nomic cap­i­tal. It is the sec­ond big­gest city af­ter Libreville. Oil keeps Port-Gen­til afloat. It’s a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to it be­ing named the world’s most ex­pen­sive city. Sta­dium: Stade de Port-Gen­til – 20 000 This sta­dium was built for this tour­na­ment by a Chi­nese com­pany. Ar­gentina and Barcelona’s star, Lionel Messi, laid the first stone in a cer­e­mony that was also at­tended by Gabon’s Pres­i­dent Ali Bongo. Egypt: 1957, 1959, 1986, 2006, 2008, 2010 – Cham­pi­ons Ghana: 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982 – Cham­pi­ons Mali: 1972 – Run­ners-up Uganda: 1962 – Fourth Place for Uganda. The Cranes are mak­ing their first ap­pear­ance since 1978 and they can spoil the party. Mali have a good squad, but they could be the whip­ping boys of this group .

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