Welcome to our football festival, by Steven Pienaar
He won't be there himself Ã¢ÂÂ South Africa were one of several 'established' nations not to qualify Ã¢ÂÂ but Tottenham midfielder Steven Pienaar will be watching the Africa Cup of Nations as a true fan...
The Africa Cup of Nations is always a huge occasion, because it is one of the biggest football tournaments on the planet. ItÃ¢ÂÂs such an important moment for the fans of every country and a celebration of African football as a whole. Africans are crazy about football and the way this tournament brings the whole continent together to enjoy the game is very inspiring.
The Africa Cup of Nations is very different to other tournaments and combines everything that is special about African football. There has been much poverty and several civil wars throughout the continent over the past few decades, and during all this football has been the only sport that could really bring people together.
The supporters are very passionate and the atmosphere during a tournament, both in the stadiums and around on the streets, is crazy! Everywhere is filled with music, colour, dancing and a huge love of the game. Going to a Cup of Nations match is like going to a festival.
Let's go: the 2010 opening ceremony...
There were a few surprises during the qualification stage for this yearÃ¢ÂÂs tournament and some of the strongest African teams like Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria and us, South Africa, did not qualify. This means that Ghana and Ivory Coast are probably the favourites going into the group stages. But we shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt forget teams such as Morocco, Senegal and Mali, who all performed really well in qualification. So there could still be a few surprises, and I think there is actually no team you could completely rule out of winning it this year.
Then there are the hosts, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. It was amazing to play in the 2010 World Cup in my home country. It definitely gives you a special feeling to represent your nation in your own backyard. One of the highlights for me was the fantastic support from the home fans, who totally embraced the event. IÃ¢ÂÂm sure the host nations this time around will get a lift from that.
Not qualifying for this yearÃ¢ÂÂs Cup of Nations and the circumstances around it happening were really hard; the whole of South Africa was so disappointed not to make it. We were in a tough group in which three teams had the chance to qualify going into the final round of matches, and it ended badly for us. But we are now focused on ensuring we are at our strongest for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, which will be hosted in our country.
We already proved to everyone in 2010 that South Africa can host international tournaments of this scale, and 2013 will once again be a perfect opportunity for us to show the world our culture and enthusiasm for football. Hopefully we can conquer the continent next time around!
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this yearÃ¢ÂÂs tournament.
FEATURE, Wed 18 Jan: All change in Africa in two amazing years since the last ACoN Ã¢ÂÂ Jonathan Fadugba
FEATURE, Thu 19 Jan: New teams, new starts, new winner Ã¢ÂÂ the most unpredictable ACoN yet Ã¢ÂÂ Jonathan Wilson
FEATURE, Thu 19 Jan: Crazy bets, naked beardies and animal magic Ã¢ÂÂ Jonathan Wilson