With three times winners Egypt missing who will claim Africa’s greatest footballing prize?
At half past seven on the evening of January 21st the whistle will blow in the Estadio De Bata to signal the beginning of the 28th edition of the African Cup of Nations. Co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea the 23 day, 30 match event will culminate in victory celebrations for the winners in the Stade d’Angondje, Gabon on February 12th.
With a number of the continent’s superpowers, including the competition’s last nine winners absent, this year’s African Cup has struck a pre-kick-off note of pessimism among commentators. The failure to qualify of Egypt (winners of the last three ACN), Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon have led some to suggest that 2012’s on the pitch antics may see a reversal of the competitions increasingly competitive quality. Nevertheless, following the success of the World Cup in South Africa two years ago football fans across the continent have several reasons to be positive. Firstly, the absence of Egypt means that this year’s ACN will see a newly crowned African champion. Second, the competition sees the return of a rejuvenated Senegal side recovered from the corruption scandals that beset their progress following a glorious defeat of France in South Korea in 2002. This year’s Senegal side boasts the superb Demba Ba, currently the English Premier League’s 2nd highest goal scorer for 2011-12. Finally, the missing superpowers reveal a qualification system that suggests an increase in quality across a broader set of nations with Niger, Botswana and the hosts, Equatorial Guinea all appearing for the first time.
The tournament may also provide a welcome relief from politics and an opportunity to engage in collective unity for countries who have recently experienced, or continue to experience upheaval such as post-‘revolutionary’ Libya and Tunisia and recently partitioned Sudan.
So, in anticipation of three weeks of thrills and almost certainly spills, perspectivesonafrica offers a guide to the coming action:
Gabon: Spreading inland from its capital Libreville on Africa’s South Atlantic coastline, Gabon’s 267,667 sq km’s encompasses a population of around 1.5 million. Bordered by Congo, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, the country is renowned for its hugely bio-diverse rainforests which cover some 80% its territory. Gabon has relied heavily on oil resources to achieve a higher GDP than surrounding states; nevertheless, oil revenue has led to significant disparities in wealth between urban and rural economic groups within the country. Politically ‘stable’ since 1964, the presence of a French military base and the 42 year rule of former President Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving twentieth century head of state, ensured that Gabon has largely avoided significant internecine conflict. Following the death of Omar, his son, Ali Ben Bongo, succeeded his father in contested national elections in 2009. The Bongo family have been accused of authoritarian tendencies and corruption. During his four decades of power Omar Bongo amassed a significant personal fortune and stands accused of the embezzlement of millions of dollars in oil and other revenues. A French investigation in 2007 revealed that the Bongo family owned around 39 properties and 70 bank accounts. Current President, Ali Ben Bongo, whose own tenure has been fraught with allegations of electoral fraud, is said to be a fanatical football fan and the country beat Nigeria in their joint bid with Equatorial Guinea to host this year’s ACN. Gabon’s two stadiums, the Stade de Fanceville (35,000 cap) and the Stade d’Angondje (40,000 cap) will host one semi-final and the final respectively.
Equatorial Guinea: The former Spanish colony is the only country in mainland Africa with Spanish as its national language. With an area of only 28,000 square kilometres Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries on the continent; it is also one of the richest per capita thanks to oil wealth. Wealth distribution, however, is among the least equal in the world. 70% of the country’s population lives under the UN’s poverty threshold. Guinea also has one of the worlds worst human rights records suffering under two dictatorial regimes since independence. EG has been headed by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo since he took power in a coup in 1979. Obiang’s actions as leader have often been brutal and authoritarian and the choice of EG to host the games has been somewhat controversial with Human Rights Watch claiming earlier this month that journalists had been detained and intimidated amidst a wider crackdown on opposition prior to the ACN kick-off.
1. Ivory Coast (The Elephants): Ivory Coast have probably the strongest line-up at the tournament with Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Yaya and Kolo Toure (Manchester City), Gervinho (Arsenal) and Cheik Tiote (Newcastle) all first team regulars. Despite not always living up to their potential at the ACN The Elephants position in Group B alongside Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola should see them qualify comfortably for the final stages.
2. Ghana (Black Stars): Following their quarter-final exploits at World Cup South Africa 2010 Ghana’s young team will be hoping that 2012 is their year for glory. Boasting a side including André Ayew (Marseille), Kwadwo Asamoah (Udinese) and Sully Muntari (Inter Milan) the Black Stars may not miss their talisman Michael Essien (Chelsea) and are an exciting prospect.
3. Senegal (The Lions of Teranga): With probably the most potent forward line in the competition comprising Newcastle’s prolific front man Demba Ba, French Ligue 1 top scorer for last season Moussa Sow (Lille), and prolific Bundesliga striker Papiss Demba Cisse (SC Freiburg), Senegal are likely to strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenders. Drawn in a group alongside Equatorial Guinea, Libya, and Zambia they should qualify comfortably.
4. Morocco (Lions of the Atlas): Losing only one of six matches in qualifying Morocco are a strong team with an excellent midfield of Adel Taarabt, Mbark Boussoufa and Houcine Kharja. Drawn in possibly the most competitive group the Lions will have to see off Tunisia, Gabon and Niger to reach the latter stages.
Mali: With Seydou Keita (Barcelona), Sidi Koné (Lyon) and Modibo Maiga (Sochaux) this underrated side certainly has the quality to unsettle opponents. Expect Mali to be strong in the competition although a tough group including Ghana will test their ability early on.
perspectivesonafrica predicts a strong footballing tournament despite the absence of familiar faces. Morocco vs Senegal in the final. The Lions of Teranga to take victory.
Add your own predictions in the comment section.
By Aidan Stonehouse
Selected References and further reading:
M. Meredith, The State of Africa (London, 2005).
F. Ngolet, ‘Ideological Manipulations and Political Longevity; The Power of Omar Bongo in Gabon since 1967,’ African Studies Review, v. 43, no. 2 (Sep, 2000).
R. Fegley, Equatorial Guinea: An African Tragedy (New York, 1989).
J.G. Frynas, ‘The Oil Boom in Equatorial Guinea,’ African Affairs, v. 103, pp. 527- 546.