Crazy bets, naked beardies and animal magic

It's a crazy old tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations – and this year's competition should be no exception. Jonathan Wilson gives you the loco lowdown on what to expect in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Most likely to turn up despite not qualifying... South AfricaWith Egypt unsettled, it should have been a breeze for South Africa to qualify ahead of Niger and Sierra Leone. Not only did they fail, but they did so in the most embarrassing manner possible, believing a draw in the final game was enough. Like Cameroon and Gabon in the previous Cup of Nations, though, they’d failed to understand how head-to-head worked in a three-way tie.

As players celebrated on the pitch and TVs broadcasted a congratulatory interview with the president of the federation, the awful truth dawned. The federation compounded its embarrassment by threatening legal action to have goal difference rather than head-to-head used to separate sides level on points.

South Africa players in raptures – before the penny drops

Most likely to not keep a clean sheet... SudanThe Falcons of Jediane have conceded in each of their last nine ACoN matches. In fact, the last game they won in the tournament format was the 1970 final.

Most likely to flummox commentators... Jerome Ramatlhakwane You try pronouncing the surname of the Botswana striker, who scored five of the Zebras’ seven goals in qualifying. No, us neither.

Most likely to give up a seemingly unassailable lead... AngolaThe Sable Antelopes were on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in ACoN history in 2010, surrendering a four-goal lead after 74 minutes to draw 4-4 with Mali. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old student called ‘Big Matt’ lost £4,400 on an in-game bet, trying to win an easy £44. Oops.

Most likely to carry an elephant’s tooth in his boot... Boubacar BarryWhen Ivory Coast last won the Cup of Nations, in 1992, keeper Alain Gouamene supposedly carried an elephant’s tooth in his boot that witch doctors said would make him loom as big as an elephant when forwards bore down on him. Whatever the reason, he didn’t concede a single goal in the tournament. The error-prone Barry could do with similar assistance.

Most likely to hit Row Z... TunisiaThe 2004 champions managed just four shots on target in three games at the 2010 ACoN.

Most likely to kill a guinea fowl... Guinea fansThe occasion was Guinea vs Morocco, at the 2008 ACoN in Ghana. The national anthems and handshakes over, the players jogged into their own halves. As most of the crowd waited for kick-off, in the stand behind one of the goals, a roar went up.

As the rest of the stadium peered to see what was going on, a fat, bearded man, naked to the waist and wearing an elaborate band in his hair, held up a white bird, still twitching as blood dripped from it. He handed it to one of his two assistants and, from a small wooden cage, took another bird. He squatted, hopping from foot to foot, then took a knife and slit its throat before, wide-eyed, holding it aloft and chanting. He went through the ritual for a third time.

Guinea went on to win 3-2, despite a second-half red card for Pascal Feindouno, a result that effectively took them through to the second round. The Ghanaian papers the next day were adamant: one goal for each guinea fowl slaughtered. Something went badly wrong in the second round, though, and Guinea lost 5-0 to Ivory Coast. They failed to qualify for Angola two years ago but this time, having eliminated Nigeria, they are back, and will surely have brought their birdkiller with them.

"Uh-oh, Guinea have a penalty"

Most likely to regret their political history... Equatorial GuineaIn 1977, the dissident Equatoguinean politician Valentin Bisan-Etame was jailed. His wife was pregnant with the boy the world would later know as the full-back Lauren. There was only one way things could get worse, and it happened as Valentin was sentenced to death.

What happened next sounds more like the plot of an implausible thriller than the opening chapter in a footballer’s life story. “My uncle was in the military,” Lauren explains, “and when the order went out to kill the political prisoners, he helped them to get out – not just my father but others too. They killed some people, but my father escaped just in time, as he was on the execution list. He ran away to Cameroon, and my uncle too.”

Lauren’s mother had already fled with her children. “She was pregnant with me, and if our family hadn’t escaped, I probably wouldn’t have been born,” Lauren says. “We lived in Cameroon until I was three years old, and after that we went to Spain, because Guinea was a Spanish colony.”

The family grew up in Seville, and Lauren began his career at Sevilla, although he never played for their first team, moving on to Levante, Mallorca, Arsenal and Portsmouth before winding down his career at Cordoba in Spain. He could have played for one of three different countries: he chose Cameroon and won 24 caps.

Most likely to contest a scoreless final followed by a penalty shootout... Ivory CoastThe Elephants have won one ACoN and lost one via the dreaded spot-kicks; both games finished 0-0 in normal time. In 1992, it took 24 penalties for the final to be settled, Ivory Coast eventually triumphing 11-10.

One thing’s for sure: they should reach the knockout stages, at least, having never lost to any of their Group B opponents – Sudan, Angola and Burkina Faso – at the ACoN. There’s a first time for everything, mind.

Ivory Coast celebrate their epic shootout win in 1992

Most likely to be buoyed by ‘new country’ syndrome... LibyaMontenegro are just the latest in a string of Balkan nations to benefit from the surge of patriotic pride that follows a revolution or newly gained independence. Although Egypt’s qualification was derailed by the Arab Spring, Tunisia won the CHAN (the tournament for domestically-based players) in 2011 shortly after their uprising. Libya, who changed kit to match the colours of the National Transitional Council in September, are the most likely beneficiaries in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Most likely to be the best at the tournament who has played in El Salvador... Didier OvonoThe Gabon goalkeeper was outstanding in Angola two years ago, particularly in the 1-0 win over Cameroon. A fine shot-stopper, if not necessarily the most commanding, Ovono is now settled at Le Mans, but his route there is as winding as can be imagined.

The Gabon government paid for him to join the academy run by former Cameroon keeper Thomas Nkono in Barcelona. After four years in Gabon, he was signed up by Alianza in El Salvador before returning to Europe with the Portuguese side Pacos de Ferreira. Then it was off east to Dinamo Tbilisi in Georgia, then he eventually arrived in Le Mans in 2009. “Nkono taught me everything I know,” he said.

Team most likely to not win a single game... Burkina FasoThe Stallions have never won a game – never – in the ACoN away from home soil, losing 13 and drawing four.

Most likely to blow your stats-addled mind… Free ACoN Stats Zone appYes, it's back – the award-winning statistical anaylsis app from FourFourTwo and Opta returns with a special ACoN edition. Follow @StatsZone on Twitter to find out more. Did we mention it's free?

Follow the Cup with FourFourTwo's news, analysis and new ACoN version of Stats Zone – it's all free!

FEATURE, Wed 18 Jan: All change in Africa in two amazing years since the last ACoN – Jonathan FadugbaFEATURE, Thu 19 Jan: New teams, new starts, new winner – the most unpredictable Cup of Nations yet – Jonathan WilsonFEATURE, Thu 19 Jan: Welcome to our football festival – Steven Pienaar

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