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Africa: Who Will Deliver, Surprise At Africa Cup of Nations

Radio France Internationale (Paris)

Paul Myers

19 January 2012

Football fans all over Africa will be willing on their national teams as they face each other at the African Cup of Nations in Gabon.

Will Nigeria and Ghana live up to expectations? Will Senegal and Botswana surprise us all? And who will prove to be the alpha-male of African football?

Just after Nigeria had lost in the semi-finals of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, midfielder Dickson Etuhu urged his football association to keep faith with the coach Shaibu Amodu.

The plea fell on deaf ears.

His replacement Lars Lagerback took the team to the World Cup in South Africa where they went out after the first phase and since then another coach, Samson Siasia, has come and gone.

Nigeria’s finest will be watching the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations from afar after failing to qualify from Group B.

Contrast the fate of the Super Eagles with Ghana, the team that beat them that late January afternoon in Luanda.

The Black Stars went on to the World Cup quarter-finals and are among the favourites for the trophy at this year’s Cup of Nations.

What’s been at the core of Ghana’s success? Strong team ethic? Luck? Decent players?

Like anything in football it’s an amalgam of all those factors. Ghana have the fortune to be blessed with a talented bunch of players who won the Under-20 World Cup in 2009 and who were then promoted to the senior squad when a couple of well-known stars took a lax approach to the national squad.

Lucky too that then-coach Milovan Rajevac refused to kowtow to the big names and that the youngsters who were promoted were gifted enough to perform so diligently.

Goran Stevanovic is the man at the helm during their Group D games in Franceville, Gabon. After the success of the last two years, anything less than an appearance in the final will be considered a disappointment.

Côte d’Ivoire’s golden generation seems preternaturally wedded to disappointment. They were beaten finalists in Egypt in 2006. Semi-finalists in 2008 and quarter-finalists in 2010, the team led by Chelsea’s Didier Drogba is desperate to rid itself of the tag of “the nearly men”.

Egypt accounted for the Elephants in 2006 and 2008 and Algeria played the game of their lives to eliminate them in 2010.

As Cote D’Ivoire look for their first title since 1992, there’s a grim irony closing over the squad.

Drogba in his prime was one of the world’s best strikers but the team lacked a playmaker. Now as the 33-year-old enters his decline, a midfield maestro who could have helped him terrorise defences even more appears to be emerging.

Gervinho had a stellar year as Lille swept to the French title in 2011, his move to Arsenal was supposed to help the north Londoners reclaim the Premier League championship.

The two Manchester clubs – City and United – are setting the pace in England as the Cup of Nations starts and Gervinho has yet to grab the headlines in the manner of David Silva at City or even Luka Modric at Tottenham Hotspur.

Gervais Yao Kouassi has the ability to illuminate the tournament and steer the Ivorians to the crown. Jonathan Wilson, editor of the quarterly football magazine The Blizzard, says the 24-year-old has much to prove.

“He’s the player that gives them something a little bit different from a wide position rather than a central role,” he says. “The creative burden is on him.”

Kouassi went to Angola two years ago with a good reputation but ended lokking “a bit of a headless chicken”, Wilson comments.

“He got the ball, was very quick but his decision making wasn’t quite what it should have been. There are still signs of that at Arsenal this season. He’s clearly developed as a player, the question is has he developed enough?”

If the event follows its logic, then Cote D’Ivoire should play Senegal in the semi-finals. This could be an intriguing clash.

There’ll be Drogba trying to show he is still the alpha-male of African strikers. And leading the line for Senegal? Well take your pick.

Moussa Sow fired Lille to the 2011 French title with 25 goals. In Germany, Papiss Demba Cissé scored 22 goals last season for Freiburg.

He’ll go into the tournament eager to show why Newcastle United have just spent 12 million euros for him.

There’ll also be a chance for Cissé to fine-tune a rapport with Demba Ba who’s already the darling of the Newcastle faithful with 14 goals in 17 games this season.

While Senegal prowl as dark horses, Botswana could be the surprise package. They were the first team to qualify for the tournament and the 2012 tournament will be their inaugural participation.

In the prelude to the event, Fridays have been designated Zebras Day to honour the squad and in the capital Gaborone, the team’s colours have bedecked cars, shops and houses.

“It’s been difficult for many of the fans to complete the visa arrangements and travel to Gabon,” reports Frederick Kebadiretse, a football reporter on The Monitor. “It’s quite an expensive trip, too. There’ll be fan parks in the cities here in Botswana to show the team’s matches and of course the TV channels will be broadcasting their games as well. Fans won’t miss out.”

Botswana, who will be in Group D with Ghana, Mali and Guinea, lack the experience of those teams and players may freeze in the glare and excitement of the tournament.

Jerome Ramatlhakwane, who plies his trade for Vasca da Gama, in South Africa, scored five goals as Botswana qualified from Group K and could prove a handful.

Kebadiretse adds: “The team did well to get through to the finals so obviously people are pleased about that. It’s their first time at the Cup of Nations but most are expecting that the team will go through to the second phase.”

From the quarter finals onwards, luck is one of the factors of success. It’s not all about nous.

Look at the Egyptians. Victors in 2006, 2008 and two years ago in Angola to complete an unprecedented hat trick of titles, the Pharaohs aren’t even at the event to defend their trophy.

That at least means the 16 teams will believe the crown isn’t predestined. The next month of action will show who has the nerve and the verve to taste glory.

Read or Listen to this story on the RFI website

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