The biennial African Cup of Nations kicks off tomorrow in Angola, and has already grabbed the front and back pages with the shocking armed ambush of the Togolese team coach. The Sparrow Hawks may be likely to pull out, but rightly or wrongly the tournament goes ahead and we are sure to enjoy some scintillating football over the next three weeks. Today, I am going to give you a brief analysis of the runners and riders, the favourites and some thoughts on the potential dark horses. I’ll also be having a brief look at some of the more tempting bets to be had. This isn’t exactly a competition that grabs the nations imagination, but any dedicated football fan will tell you that this tournament can be a great place to see some exciting football, spot stars of the future and enjoy those currently strutting their stuff in Europe’s top divisions. In a World Cup year, this becomes all the more relevant, and all the more fascinating.
Ivory Coast are clear favourites, and looking at their squad it is easy to see why. Drogba, Kalou, Eboue, the Toure brothers and Dindane are some of the more recognisable names, and this impressive list must be daunting enough for the Malawis and Mozambiques of the competition. When you add to that reserve strikers like Abdul-Kader Keita of Galatasary, young Gervinho of Lille (who at just 22 boasts an impressive record of 11 goals in 18 appearances in Ligue 1) or the experienced West Brom defender Abdoulaye Meite, suddenly The Elephants appear to be a side capable dominating this competition. Their cause is only furthered by a potentially reduced group stage work load if Togo pull out of the competition as is widely expected.
Samuel Eto’o, captain of Cameroon, takes his side into a tournament they have won twice in the last five attempts (consecutive victories in 2000 and 2002 and an appearance in the 2008 final). During a mixed qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup, the appointment of prolific French manager Paul Le Guen seems to have revitalised the Indomitable Lions. Eto’o is obviously the stand out player, but looking further into the squad names like Nicolas N’Koulou and Sebastien Bassong will be making sure that the team are more than a side built around one of the world’s most dangerous strikers. The Lions can rely on a rock steady foundation as well as attacking flair - priced as well as 11/2 in some bookies - Cameroon are surely worth an each-way punt.
As far as the dark horses in central Africa are concerned, a couple stick out. Backing Angola, especially to reach the final at 10/1 is tempting. In the 20 competitions ince 1970, the hosts have won the tournament 8 times, lost in the final twice, reached the semi-finals 6 times and only failed to progress to at least that stage on 4 occasions. Sides as small as Burkina Faso have made the penultimate round (1998) so don’t be surprised if Angola turn it on in front of their home fans. The other dark horses to have a look at also sit in group A - Mali. Priced at a generous 22/1, with stars such as captain Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid and La Liga goal machine Frederic Kanoute (a good bet at 14/1 for top goalscorer), and, like Angola, a relatively kind draw regarding both the group stage and the potential route to the final, The Eagles could definitely cause an upset.
I hope this has been an interesting, if not comprehensive, guide to some of the action we are preparing for until the 31st January. With almost all the games in Britain called off this week (I personally have been robbed of days out to both Arsenal Bolton and Liverpool Spurs), and bar some exciting NFL playoff action tonight, there is very little sport to distract yourself with. I wholeheartedly recommend immersing yourself in the world of African football - you will not be disappointed. Perhaps world-famous Nike salesman and hero to sufferers of erectile dysfunction everywhere Pele was off the mark when he predicted an African World Cup winner before 2000, but some small consolation to the prolific endorser must be that the standard of football is now better than ever.