There are no clear favourites in Gabon, which will be one of the most open tournaments in recent times, writes Mark Gleeson.
The 20th Africa Cup of Nations looks wide open, as a collection of heavyweight contenders are almost certain to ensure it is a tournament of stature.
But for the first time ever, the Nations Cup will be overshadowed by the next World Cup qualifying campaign, with two rounds of group games in October and November. They will set up much anticipation for the latter part of 2017, turning the Nations Cup into a curtain-raiser for the year.
The business of seeking to qualify for Russia 2018 resumes in August and that will supersede the legacy of
the Gabon tournament. Africa’s premier sports event is being hosted on the back of a tense atmosphere in the Central African country, which bid to host the tournament in order to paint a picture of development and tranquility.
Gabon is anything but that, as the controversy over the recent polls set the country on edge, with many people rioting over what they regarded as dubious results in favour of Ali Bongo Ondimba, the incumbent president.
Those rare displays of civil disobedience could create an uneasy atmosphere around the tournament.
But the beleaguered president knows that success on the pitch, at the Cup of Nations, often keeps their people quiet. Paul Biya, his neighbour in Cameroon, knows this only too well, which made the loss of the Indomitable Lionesses to Nigeria’s Super Falcons, in the final of December’s Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, AWCON, in front of over 50,000 fans at the Stade Omnisport in Yaoundé, particularly rankle.
Even without Nigeria and South Africa, there are eight former winners in the field and most of the top 10 ranked teams on the continent.
November’s batch of World Cup qualifiers ensures that all the top contenders will arrive in Gabon well prepared, even if some will be a little short of confidence, after poor returns in their opening two rounds of fixtures, on the road to Russia.
The managers of Algeria, Cameroon and Ghana are under pressure, as they head to the Nations Cup finals after a series of World Cup qualifying setbacks.
In the space of just two games, Algeria have gone from one of the firm favourites to looking like battered also-rans, after drawing at home to Cameroon in October and losing to Nigeria in November.
Avram Grant is certainly facing the heat in Ghana, as is Hugo Broos in Cameroon.
Hosts Gabon have panicked by firing Jorge Costa as their manager, with exactly 70 days before their opening game of the tournament, against Guinea Bissau in Libreville. It is hardly ideal preparation for a team who will be hoping home advantage takes them to at least the final four.
A genuine outsider is the rapidly-improving Democratic Republic of Congo. In a tough group with defending champions Côte d’Ivoire and Morocco, they have the potential to cause upset and gather the necessary momentum.
Guinea Bissau’s qualification has been a fairy tale but with no resources to prepare or even pay the salary of their coach – being one of the world’s poorest countries – they go to the finals reliant on the goodwill of their players. Playing the three group matches is already an achievement.
Uganda return to the tournament after 39 years and Zimbabwe qualified despite its pathetic financialsituation,
one that sadly seems to be a recurring story formany FAs across the continent. That should be a source of worry for anyone that cares about the health and progress of the African game.