Ivory Coast vs Senegal pick of the bunch as Africa prepares to dance again
Barely seven months after Zambia lifted their first ever Africa Cup of Nations crown in Libreville, African football is ready to jump back on the carousel and get going again, as qualification for ACoN 2013 enters its final phase this weekend.
Usually, common practice dictates that international tournaments are held every four years, or in Africa's case every two years Ã¢ÂÂ at least since 1968.
This time however, in an attempt to align itself with the international calendar and avoid the situation whereby Africa's flagship competition (one that pre-dates the European Championships) is considered little more than a pre-World Cup warm-up, the dates are changing. From 2013 onwards, the Cup of Nations switches from even to odd years.
As part of this structural reshuffling we are therefore left with a 2012 and 2013 tournament, with very little time to breathe in between. Certainly it feels slightly unfair on Zambia: denied adequate opportunity to bask in the glory of that historic and powerfully resonant win they also lose the usual ACoN victors' reward of direct entry to next year's Confederations Cup.
Bizarrely (and possibly uniquely), qualification for ACoN 2013 actually began before the 2012 edition had even started: Sao Tome and Principe's 1-0 preliminary round win over Lesotho took place before Equatorial Guinea's ACoN 2012 opening game defeat of Libya. Nevertheless, a sacrifice had to be made either way and while what we are left with is far from ideal, it does leave the spectator a fascinating last round of qualification games to observe and enjoy.
With South Africa already through as hosts, qualification has been rattled down to 15 two-legged ties involving all participants at ACoN 2012 and non-qualifiers that came through an earlier round of games in June. The pick of the ties is undoubtedly Ivory Coast vs Senegal Ã¢ÂÂ a heavyweight clash between two African football giants desperate to make amends for recent failures.
The draw for this final knock-out stage was seeded, based on performance at the last three ACoN tournaments. Senegal, whose recent results have been less than impressive, were unseeded Ã¢ÂÂ and unfortunately for them drew out one of the biggest opponents possible. A new, emerging team must therefore overcome the might of Didier Drogba & Co before even contemplating competing for honours in 2013.
Now under newly-appointed head coach Joseph Koto, Senegal travel to Abidjan this weekend before the return in Dakar next month. For Koto, the game is a revenge mission. The former Teranga Lions international recalls only too well the pain of being knocked out by the Elephants as a player in 1986, when a final group game defeat eliminated Senegal on goals scored.
Ã¢ÂÂI was a member of that squad alongside the late Jules Bocande and we did great things for Senegal,Ã¢ÂÂ Koto remembered. "The whole nation was counting on us to win the 1986 Africa Cup of Nations, especially after defeating hosts Egypt in the opener.
Ã¢ÂÂIt was a very painful experience, but here comes an opportunity to correct history. Playing the Elephants gets me excited and we will be looking forward to take our revenge.Ã¢ÂÂ
Koto was hired after Senegal's dreadful 2012 campaign in which they were left winless, pointless and exasperated. At their first Olympics this summer he took Senegal's Under-23s to the quarter-finals, and he has been meticulous in his approach to the Ivory Coast tie: he even passed up the chance of an international friendly in August, instead travelling to Moscow in order to scout the Elephants in their friendly against Russia.
Young Lions: Senegal's Olympic U23s
Despite attempts to rejuvenate the squad in recent months, Senegal will rely largely on experienced pros for this key game. Demba Ba, Moussa Sow, Papiss Cisse and Kader Mangane all feature in the squad, but there is promise in Senegalese youth.
Moussa Konate is in Ã¢ÂÂ a revelation at the Olympics with five goals and author of consistently blistering, action-packed displays Ã¢ÂÂ alongside potential Lions of tomorrow like Pape Souare, Cheikhou Kouyate and Sadio Mane, none of whom did their international prospects any harm with fine performances in London.
Their opponents will soon need their own rejuvenation. Many said ACoN 2012 was the last chance for Ivory Coast's iconic but trophyless generation of Drogba and the Toure brothers, but 2013 really does represent, in all probability, the final chance of glory.
Already winding down his career in China Ã¢ÂÂ his club's financial questions notwithstanding Ã¢ÂÂ Drogba will be approaching 37 by ACoN 2015, while Yaya Toure for one has already recently cast doubt on his own international future: by ACoN 2015 he will be nearly 32, his brother Kolo nearly 34.
The Elephants were a missed penalty away from lifting the trophy earlier this year, but instead destiny smiled on Zambia. This, one senses, really is last orders.
A tough task awaits new coach Sabri Lamouchi, already the subject of scrutiny due to his complete novice status. It was a shame to see former coach Francois Zahoui sacked despite winning 16 of his 20 games in charge and going the entire tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea without conceding a goal, before defeat to Zambia on penalties.
Zahoui instilled real discipline, concentration and tactical acumen into Ivory Coast's side and one could argue it would have been prudent for him to have his contract renewed Ã¢ÂÂ at least for 2013 and World Cup 2014 qualifying. But, alas, such is the administrative short-term thinking that continues to blight African football. Instead the Elephants must rely on Lamouchi: French-born but of Tunisian descent, with absolutely no coaching experience at this or any level.
Lamouchi in his playing days. Can't find any pics of him coachingÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Elsewhere, other noteworthy ties include holders Zambia against Uganda, 2012 absentees Cameroon against an up-and-coming Cape Verde side who will provide a far sterner test than is popularly perceived, Ghana vs Malawi, Gabon vs Togo, a Peter Odemwingie and John Obi Mikel-less Nigeria vs Liberia and Central African Republic Ã¢ÂÂ Egypt's conquerors in the first round Ã¢ÂÂ against another side to disappoint at ACoN 2012, Burkina Faso.
There is, to a certain extent, a feel-good factor surrounding African football at present. After the horror and tragedy involving Togo in 2010, a subdued ACoN followed. The Confederation of African Football's blundering treatment of Togo in the aftermath, banning them from the next two competitions, was both a major PR gaffe and a savage indictment of the administrative practices of African football's governing body. The ban was subsequently, sensibly, lifted.
Despite the scepticism about a 2012 tournament co-hosted by little Equatorial Guinea, ACoN 2012 proved a great success both on and off the field. The tournament was watched by more viewers than any other Cup of Nations and smashed records for both TV exposure and global reach Ã¢ÂÂ a key factor when it comes to attracting the cold, hard shilling of sponsors.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter praised the tournament's infrastructure and organisation, while CAF president Hayatou commented that in their capacity as hosts, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea "have set the bar high".
The format this time is undoubtedly rushed and in many ways unfortunate but Ã¢ÂÂ managers of foreign clubs with high African contingents aside Ã¢ÂÂ we should all welcome the prospect of two Africa Cup of Nations in two years.
Full fixture list: Mali vs Botswana, Zimbabwe vs Angola, Ghana vs Malawi, Liberia vs Nigeria, Zambia vs Uganda, Cape Verde Islands vs Cameroon, Mozambique vs Morocco, Sierra Leone vs Tunisia, Guinea vs Niger, Sudan vs Ethiopia, Libya vs Algeria, Ivory Coast vs Senegal, DR Congo vs Equatorial Guinea, Gabon vs Togo, Central African Republic vs Burkina Faso.