New teams, new starts, new winner – the most unpredictable Cup of Nations yet

The gathering in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea is one of the hardest competitions to predict. Jonathan Wilson explains

We know already that this Africa Cup of Nations will yield a new champion. The years of Egyptian domination are over, and emphatically so. The transition from one generation to the next is always difficult, but it was compounded in Egypt’s case by the chaos of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Where Libya were inspired by their revolution, Egypt faltered, and the winner of the last three ACoNs – a record achievement – finished bottom of their qualifying group.

Tunisia, who won the Cup of Nations on home soil in 2004, will be there, but none of the five champions before that will be in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Cameroon, winners in 2000 and 2002, fell to a resurgent Senegal. South Africa, the winners in 1996, somehow failed to capitalise on Egypt’s decline. Nigeria, winners in 1994, continued their slapstick cycle of underachievement by conceding a late equaliser against Guinea that cost them a place as a best runner-up.

That leaves as clear favourites Ivory Coast, who won the tournament for the only time in their history in 1992, and Ghana, who have won it four times but not since 1982. In a sense they represent two different generations of African football.

Ivory Coast are the very recent past, with a squad of established stars such as Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers who must wonder how on earth they haven’t yet won a Cup of Nations. Ghana, with an array of young talent drawn from the side that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2009, reached the final in Angola two years ago, were by far the best African side at the World Cup, and could dominate the continent’s football for much of the near future. The question, then, is which of them represents the present.

Will Toure's team or Gyan's gang triumph?

Tournament football, of course, is never that simple. Senegal, rejuvenated and rebuilt after the failure to qualify two years ago, have a potent strike force. On home soil, Gabon, having improved radically over the past few years, could push hard for the title. “We have the advantage of playing at home, and turn that into high motivation to drive us through the group stage,” says their coach Gernot Rohr.

The other host, Equatorial Guinea, are one of three sides making their first Cup of Nations appearance, and are the lowest-ranked side in the competition, lying 151st in the FIFA standings. “Whatever the draw, all the teams would have been above us,” says their coach, the experienced Henri Michel. “Every game will be like attacking Everest. For us, the task is almost insurmountable. If we succeed it will be a major feat. We will try to look good.”

The two other debutants, Botswana and Niger, may feel the same way. That said, Botswana qualified so impressively they were the first side to book their place in the finals, while Niger ousted Egypt and South Africa. The question, of course, is what this means for African football as a whole.

Is this about the traditional powers underperforming, or is it about the rise of new forces? Is this about the development of African football stalling – while Ghana were within a Luis Suarez handball of becoming the first African World Cup semi-finalist, they were the only African side to make it through the groups – or does the greater range of teams qualifying for tournaments suggest a greater maturity, a new strength in depth?

Quite aside from who wins the tournament, it is that issue that makes this Cup of Nations particularly fascinating. Modern football is often about seeing the familiar names battling it out in slightly different permutations. Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, though, offers something new. The make-up of the teams alone mean this will be an Africa Cup of Nations like no other. Enjoy!

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FEATURE, Wed 18 Jan: All change in Africa in two amazing years since the last ACoN – Jonathan Fadugba FEATURE, Thu 19 Jan: Welcome to our football festival – Steven PienaarFEATURE, Thu 19 Jan: Crazy bets, naked beardies and animal magic – Jonathan Wilson

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