The 30th Africa Cup of Nations tournament emerges from the deadly cloud of ebola to kick off this afternoon with the clash of hosts Equatorial Guinea and Congo.
Having suffered no reported cases of the disease, the Central African country stepped in to stage the event in November after original hosts Morocco’s pleas to postpone the competition fell on deaf ears.
But concerns linger over the tiny nation’s ability to stage a tournament of this size on its own, with its remote stadia and limited hotel accommodation. When Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the 2012 competition with Gabon, one match attracted just 200 supporters. The tournament’s cachet was hit too when holders Nigeria and seven-times-champs Egypt missed out on qualification.
As thoughts turn, at last, to football, Ivory Coast start as favourites, even if they last won the cup in 1992. The Elephants’ billing was strengthened by Wilfried Bony’s big-money move to City, catapulting him into the superstar bracket alongside club mate Yaya Toure, even if star names are rarely guarantees of success at the ANC.
Algeria — who impressed last summer with their passage to the last 16 in Brazil, are in action on Monday and face a stiff Group C test in South Africa, unbeaten through qualification and fired by emotion after their keeper Senzo Meyiwa was shot dead.
Cameroon also went through the qualifiers undefeated and are enjoying something of a renaissance. They are in the Ivory Coast’s group, but defensive solidity should see them progress.
Ghana still rank among the fancies, despite the fallout from their World Cup cash woes. And in a tough Group C, Avram Grant doesn’t strike as the kind of inspirational figure that will restore Black Star pride.
Senegal are the other side in that difficult Group C, but they are rocked by controversy over Demba Ba’s surprise omission from Alain Giresse’s squad.
Strong defences often prevail in the competition and Tunisia, who topped Egypt’s qualification group, have looked solid under George Leekens and should come through Group B.
Of the outsiders Guinea, as one of the nations worst affected by ebola, are another team on an emotional mission. Impressive qualifiers, since they were forced to play home games away in Morocco, they will look to Slovan Bratislava striker Seydouba Soumah to fire an upset or two.
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