Will Another New Winner Emerge?

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Will Another New Winner Emerge?

With the absence, yet again, of the tournament’s two most decorated winners – Cameroon and Egypt – the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa looks set to be a very open competition, writes Piers Edwards.

When South Africa last hosted the Africa Cup of Nations, 17 years ago, the continental game had a very different feel. The most obvious contrast was the paucity of Africans playing at the very highest level back then – with less than 10 playing in the top leagues of England, Spain and Italy combined.

George Weah (Liberia and AC Milan), Abedi Pele (Ghana and Torino), Lucas Radebe (South Africa and Leeds) clearly stood out, while Ghanaian Sammy Kuffour had started his rise with Bayern Munich in the German Bundesliga.

Today, the landscape is of course vastly different, with Africans becoming fixtures in the world’s leading clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus and AC Milan.

While the pervasive influence of Africans atop the European game is an inescapable fact, the continental game’s true standing is only truly measured just once every four years – when the World Cup comes around – and on that front, the stark truth is that African football has made little progress.

Cameroon became the first African side to reach the quarter-finals, in 1990, but no team has gone further since. And, perhaps, an even more troubling statistic is that no World Cup has ever found more than one African country in the knock-out stage, despite the continent’s representation having risen from two teams in 1982 to the five of today (with an unprecedented six in 2010, as South Africa hosted).

To ensure that Africa’s best teams do not overload themselves holding a Nations Cup just four months before a World Cup finals, the Confederation of African Football has switched the showpiece event from an even to an odd numbered year, arguing that it is near impossible to peak twice within such a short period of time.

The expectation is that this belated change can only benefit the continent’s performances on the game’s greatest stage.

So, in many ways, this Nations Cup tournament represents a new era for the African game. And while there have been off-field changes, its topography has also changed on the pitch.

Highly conspicuous by their absence, for the second tournament running, are two of the Nations Cup’s most decorated sides – record seven-time champions Egypt, as well as four-time winners Cameroon.

Both were humbled by less fancied foes – Central African Republic and Cape Verde respectively. But the rise of the minnow in recent years has been a welcome theme across the continent.

Equatorial Guinea, the 2012 Nations Cup co-host, provided one of the great shocks when knocking out highly-fancied Senegal with a 2-1 win in January, and the islanders of Cape Verde have a decent chance to upset South Africa (whose last Nations Cup group win, believe it or not, dates back to 2004) in what promises to be an enthralling opening game of the finals on the 19th January.

With just half a million inhabitants, Cape Verde – the smallest team to ever contest a Nations Cup – have rigorously pursued a recent trait of African football, finding Europe-based players of dual nationality to bolster their squad and improve their fortunes.

Their policy proved so successful that the Blue Sharks mauled four-time African champions Cameroon in qualifying.

Cape Verde is not the only country whose football has dramatically improved. Prior to the 2012 finals, football in Niger was an afterthought in most people’s minds – but they have used their terrific home form, amply aided by the sweltering heat of Niamey, to qualify for successive Nations Cups, with striker Moussa Maazou certainly one to watch.

That will also apply to Ethiopia’s Saladdin Said, the Egypt-based forward whose goals returned the Walya Antelopes to the tournament for the first time since 1982 – quite an absence, considering the country were part of the founding fathers of CAF and champions in 1965. Their qualification was celebrated with great exuberance and joy on the streets of the capital Addis Ababa in October.

While Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are the usual favourites for this tournament, victories registered by any of the 16 finalists in South Africa will spark wholesale celebrations back home, as they revel in rare moments of patriotic unity during what is, always has been, and always will be one of the planet’s most colourful, effervescent football events.

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