Despite numerous challenges; Ebola fears, scampering hosts etc. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has remained steadfast about their desire that this competition take place. And now in less than 24 hours the opening ceremony will take place at the Estadio da Bata.
Hosts Equatorial Guinea, who stepped after Morocco refused to host due to Ebola fears and subsequently got banned from the tournament; take on Congo in the opening game of the tournament.
The Black Stars
Ghana’s Black Stars would be hoping to annex our fifth nation’s cup crown, 32 years after winning the fourth in Libya. Recent tournaments have not been too kind to the Black Stars, finishing fourth at both South Africa 2013 and Gabon-Equatorial Guinea 2012, after winning silver at Angola 2010.
The Stars have made the semi finals for the past four consecutive AFCON tournaments, and after the disappointment of Brazil Ghanaians would certainly be expecting just a little bit more from the side this time around. It’s going to matter little, in the final reckoning, that Avram Grant is a new manager who has had barely any time to get to know his side.
Asamoah Gyan, now a veteran of several tournaments, leads the side. A hugely talented side would rely heavily on his goals, and without any productivity from Baby Jet it’s difficult to see us progressing past a group stage rightly labelled the Group of Death.
‘Group of Death’
Senegal, Algeria, and South Africa are the other members of the group. South Africa has gotten the whole continent to sit up and notice them after a near flawless qualification campaign. Their swashbuckling style, which African champions Nigeria had no answer to, saw the Super Eagles miss out on the chance to defend their title won last year.
Algeria was Africa’s best side at the 2014 world cup, and outside the final represented eventual winners Germany’s toughest challenge of the tourney. A youthful setup with enough experienced heads sees the Desert Foxes represent a tough nut to crack, and are currently viewed as Africa’s top side.
Senegal are always difficult customers, and the attacking talent this side is brimming with is enough to give all the other coaches in the group splitting migraines. Compact and powerful, they would be the Stars’ first opponents and would serve as a suitable litmus test to what the Stars might be able to accomplish in Equatorial Guinea.
So the tag Group of Death is not a perfunctory one like it is at most tournaments, and Ghana would have to work extra hard if we are not going to fall at the first hurdle.
Other Sides to Watch
Cote d’Ivoire are always a threat in every tournament they appear at. Despite the favourites’ tag since 2006, they have woefully failed to produce at any tournament and with this the last chance for many of that generation they would have extra motivation to finally lift that trophy.
They are sidelined in Group D, with Mali, Guinea, and Cameroon. Mali are always dark horses- and indeed have finished third at the last two AFCON’s. The Indomitable Lions are enjoying something of a renaissance, and indeed would be a hug threat to any side they encounter. Ghana would have to contend with one of these four sides in the quarter finals if we make it through the group stages.
Tunisia are favourites in Group B, and would represent a decent challenge for any of the other top sides.
The opening game kicks off at 1600 GMT, Saturday January 17, between hosts Equatorial Guinea and Congo, ushering in the near month long football extravaganza.
First Round of Fixtures
Equatorial Guinea vs Congo
Burkina Faso vs Gabon
Zambia vs DRC
Tunisia vs Cape Verde
Ghana vs Senegal (Monday, Jan 19)
Algeria vs South Africa
Cote d’Ivoire vs Guinea
Mali vs Cameroon