The continent’s best player Yaya Toure and his new club colleague and Ivory Coast teammate Wilfried Bony will be the star attractions as the 30th Africa Cup of Nations begins in Equatorial Guinea.
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Toure, fresh from winning the African Footballer of the Year award for an unprecedented fourth successive time, this week saw Bony become a club colleague of his when the striker moved from Swansea City to Manchester City for a reported fee of £28m (Dh155m), making him one of Africa’s most expensive players ever.
The Elephants come into the 2015 Cup of Nations with reason to believe they can finally win the continental crown for the first time since 1992, despite seeing the great Didier Drogba retire last summer.
However, having been drawn in a treacherous looking Group D along with Cameroon, Mali and Guinea, Herve Renard’s side are happy not to be so widely seen as favourites to win a competition that is always hard to predict.
“It is true that there is a little less pressure on us, but everyone keeps a close eye on the Ivorian team,” Toure said.
“We have paid in the past for having a reputation as one of the favourites. Now we need to stay calm. The Ivory Coast need a second title and to go on looking for more trophies,” added the 31-year-old midfielder, whose team lost 2-0 to Sweden in Abu Dhabi on Thursday in their final warm-up game before arriving in Malabo.
In a lopsided draw, the qualifiers from Group D are on a quarter-final collision course with the qualifiers from Group C, which features Algeria – the continent’s leading nation in FIFA rankings – Ghana and Senegal as well as a resurgent South Africa.
The Africa Cup of Nations starts today and up first are two Group A clashes with replacement hosts Equatorial Guinea versus Congo followed by Burkina Faso against Gabon.
Coach: Esteban Becker
Captain: Emilio Nsue
Nickname: Nzalang Nacional (National Thunder)
Nations’ Cup record: Quarterfinals 2012; Qualified twice
To say Equatorial Guinea would not have played at this tournament would be putting it mildly. They should not have played.
The team was expelled from qualifying after fielding an ineligible player in Cameroon-born Thierry Fidieu against Mauritania in the preliminary round in May and only found themselves back in contention when then their country agreed to step in as emergency hosts in November.
With just eight weeks to prepare to compete with the continent’s best, the contract of their coach, Andoni Goikoetxea, was not renewed when it expired on December 31st and they were left scrambling for a replacement. Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi showed no interest which left them to rope in Argentine Esteban Becker, who oversaw the women’s triumphant run two years’ ago, but a tricky build-up could make this a very tough tournament for the hosts.
One to watch: Ruben Belima Rodriguez has been promoted from Real Madrid’s C team to its reserves and at 22-year-old left-winger, could form part of a promising future for both club and country. He has only made on international appearance but with a regular run could provide an attacking threat for Equatorial Guinea.
Trivia: A population of less than 700,000, means Equatorial Guinea does not have the vast personnel resources of other African countries and adopted a policy of naturalising players, mainly from South America, for their football team. Although they have dropped several Brazilian and Colombian-born players for this tournament, their 23-man squad contains 14 players born in Spain, the former colonial power of the country.
Prediction: Will be lucky to get out of the group.
Coach: Paul Put
Captain: Charles Kabore
Nickname: Les Etalones (The Stallions)
Nations’ Cup record: Runners-up 2013; Qualified eight times
Against expectation, Burkina Faso enjoyed an unbeaten run in the 2013 ANC and found themselves in the final. Those memories proved so sweet, Burkina Faso returned to the scene of their success, Nelspruit, a town on South Africa’s Crocodile River, for a training camp.
However, they need not be concerned their 2013 run was viewed as a fluke. They followed up by breezing through 2014 World Cup qualification, where they finished top of their group, and only missed out on a ticket to Brazil because of an away goal scored by Algeria. With some eye-catching performers including Aristide Bance and Alain Traore, Burkina Faso’s stocks are on the rise.
One to watch: Jonathan Pitroipa was player of the tournament in 2013 and the top goalscorer in qualifying, where he found the back of the net six times. Known for his agility, particularly when it comes to weaving his way through defenders, and powerful left foot, he could be the biggest attacking threat of the tournament.
Trivia: In 2007, Put was banned from participating in football activities in his native Belgium for fixing matches with his club Lierse with a Chinese betting syndicate. He has since worked as coach of Gambia and Burkina Faso.
Prediction: Will be eyeing nothing less than a semi-final spot.
Coach: Jorge Costa
Captain: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Nickname: Les Pantheres (The Panthers)
Nations’ Cup record: Quarterfinals 2006 and 2012; Qualified five times
The 2012 co-hosts have enjoyed an upward curve in performances since they reached the last eight three years’ ago. They also made the quarterfinals of the African Nations’ Championship – the tournament for home-based players last January – and are announcing themselves a team to be taken seriously on the continent.
To underline that, they beat Mali 2-0, after going down to Senegal 1-0, in warm-ups. But their preparation included one major hiccup, when Marseille midfielder Mario Lemina refused his call-up using social media. The French-born player tweeted that there was “no agreement.” between him and Gabon. Still, they have a decent squad with a significant number of European-based players and will hope to out in another strong showing.
One to watch: Aubameyang has been among the most lauded footballers from the continent over the last year, especially since he signed for Borussia Dortmund. He was one of the three finalists for the 2014 footballer of the year, is sensationally speedy and has scored goals on what many consider the biggest stage – the Champions League – and could prove unstoppable, particularly if be brings his Spiderman mask with him.
Trivia: The Gabon job is Jorge Costa’s first in charge of a national team and his first in Africa. The former Portuguese defender, who made 50 appearances for his country, previously managed clubs including Braga and Pacos Ferreira but this is his biggest assignment to date.
Prediction: A tough tussle to get out of the group, but could squeeze their way into the knockouts
Coach: Claude Le Roy
Captain: Oscar Ewolo
Nickname: Diables Rouges (Red Devils)
Nations’ Cup record: Winners 1972; Qualified seven times
A prolonged period of underperformance has finally come to an end for Congo. The country has capped off steady improvements, which saw their premier club AC Leopards win the CAF Confederation Cup and qualify for the Champions League group stage, with an appearance at the event and will fancy their chances of making a mark.
Sweeping changes have taken place in the build up, most notably the omission of defender Chris Samba, who rejected a call-up during qualifying. The injection of youth and the commitment to Le Roy’s philosophy of collective goals above all else have turned Congo into a formidable unit, who will promise a fight.
One to watch: Delvin N’dinga has been playing for Congo since 2007, when he was just 19-years-old and is now based in Greece. The midfielder also attracted the attention of Monaco, who bought him for six million euros before loaning him out. He won’t see money like that playing for Congo but he will required to do just as much of a job as a bridge between the back and front packs.
Trivia: Nicknamed the White Wizard, Claude Le Roy has built his career on the continent. Congo are the fifth team he has been in charge of and if his track record is anything to go by, they are in for a surge. Le Roy took Cameroon to the runners up spot in the 1986 ANC, and to 1998 World Cup, Senegal to the 1992 ANC quarterfinals and Ghana to their highest position on the FIFA rankings – 14. This will be Le Roy’s seventh ANC and only once has he failed to take a team to the quarterfinals.
Prediction: Their ranking and record speaks against them but Congo have had a remarkable recent run and qualified out of a group that included defending champions Nigeria. A surprise may be sprung.
The African Cup of Nations is about to kick off in Equatorial Guinea. Some of the continent’s biggest sided will be present, including Ivory Coast, South Africa, Senegal, Algeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Tunisia. Unfortunately powerhouses such as Nigeria and Egypt failed to qualify for the competition but nonetheless, the Cup of Nations has historically been a playground for future world stars. Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Mohamed Aboutrika, Hossam Hassan, Rashidi Yekini, Abedi Pele, and many others all displayed their talents on that stage before any other.
There are a number of young players who have the potential to become well-known names in world football in the near future and they will be exhibiting their talents at the tournament.
Here’s Sport360's pick of the top five prospects to keep an eye out for.
RIVALDO COETZEE (South Africa)
The young South African defender, Rivaldo Coetzee, was little known to most of his countrymen only a few months ago. Hailing from a little town with a population of under 10,000, he made his breakthrough at Ajax Cape Town earlier this season. His rise has been so sudden and quick that he made his Bafana Bafana debut just before his 18th birthday in October 2014. In turn, he became his nation's youngest ever international footballer.
Coetzee has always had the potential to succeed having been a product of the Ajax academy in Cape Town. Their Amsterdam counterparts have sent scouts to watch him on a number of occasions and it's likely that he will be moving to Europe sooner rather than later. Ajax Cape Town has already rejected advances of a number of domestic clubs stating categorically that Coetzee will eventually move to Europe.
The young centre-back is equally adept with both feet and has good technique for a defender. He's relatively comfortable on the ball and has a decent turn of pace which helps him not get caught out. Coetzee is also good in the air for someone who is not the tallest when it comes to a centre-back. Bafana Bafana manager Ephrahim Mashaba has already shown his trust on Coetzee and the youngster will have the chance to show his worth in a "Group of Death" facing Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.
NABY KEITA (Guinea)
Naby Keita might only be 19 but he's already carved out an impressive reputation back in his home country of Guinea. Born in Conakry, the youngster moved to France where he eventually made his breakthrough at Istres in Ligue 2. Unfortunately, despite a successful debut campaign during the 2013-14 season, his club were relegated from the second tier.
Keita played 23 times for Istres last season, scoring four goals and providing another seven assists from a variety of positions – either on the wing or as an advanced midfielder. Whilst relegation was disappointing, he nevertheless caught the eye of former Hoffenheim manager, Ralf Rangnick, who is now the sporting director at Red Bull Salzburg. The Austrian champions paid Dh 6.4 million (1.5m) to tempt him away from France.
During the current campaign, Keita has cemented his position as a central midfielder with most of the play built around him; he has played 24 times and already scored his first goal for the club. He also had a brief taste of Champions League football during his side's ill-fated qualification match against Swedish champions, Malmo. It is surely not going to be the last time he plays on that stage.
Despite being 19, Keita has already played eight times for his country and will be an important player if Michel Dussayer's side is to progress from a group which includes Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Mali.
BABA ABDUL RAHMAN (Ghana)
Augsburg's Baba Rahman has been one of the most impressive left-backs in European football this season. Having moved to Germany in 2012, the young Ghana international made his breakthrough at Greuther Furth before joining Bundesliga side Augsburg last summer. Under manager Markus Weinzierl, he has progressed faster than anyone could have imagined.
In 16 starts this season, Rahman has four assists, 4.1 tackles per game (the highest in Bundesliga for any defender), 2.7 interceptions per game (highest in Bundesliga for any full-back), 3.6 clearances per game (second-highest in Bundesliga for a left-backs), 2.9 headers won per game (top 4 in Bundesliga for full-backs) and adds more than one successful dribble a game.
His statistics make him one of the leading lights in an Augsburg team that has impressed in climbing to 6th position in the Bundesliga table at the half-way mark of the season It is without doubt that much bigger clubs are keeping an eye on his progress already.
If Ghana are to progress to the latter stages of the Cup of Nations, then the former national youth-team captain, will have to utilise his strong concentration and array of defensive talents at the tournament to assist Avram Grant's side. His tackling and interceptions will be qualities that will impress on-lookers, which may include scouts from future employers.
BERTRAND TRAORE (Burkina Faso)
Bertrand Traore may not be a familiar name to European football followers. You may be surprised to know that he's a Chelsea footballer. The Premier League policy in recent years has appeared to entail signing some of the most highly rated youngsters in world football, loan them out for a couple of years and then sell off the majority who won't break through the first team setup. This leads to a healthy profit which predominantly assists the club in fulfilling their Financial Fair Play requirements.
Traore officially joined Chelsea at the start of 2014, signing a three-and-a-half year contract. The former Auxerre academy player was immediately loaned to Vitesse, a favorite feeder club of Chelsea's, where he scored three times in only seven starts during the second half of the campaign. This season he has established himself as a first team regular at the Eredivisie club.
Traore is predominantly a right winger who cuts inside, but can easily slot into a central striker's role. He has also played on the opposite wing on occasions. His excellent long-range shooting, as well as strength in the air, make him a constant threat in the opposition box, leading to four goals and one assist from 13 starts this season.
Furthermore, Traore has strong ball-retention skills and has excellent vision in picking out a key pass. His 3.1 shots per game is an impressive tally for a wide player, and coupled with 1.2 key passes per game he remains one of the most dangerous emerging wide players in Europe. It is yet to be seen whether he will ever be good enough to be retained by Chelsea but it's probably more likely that a significant transfer fee will lead to a transfer to another club in Europe.
Before that happens he will be looking to help Burkina Faso at least make it to the quarter-finals of the Cup of Nations this month.
FAKHEREEDINE BEN YOUSSEF (Tunisia)
Twenty-three-year-old Fakhreddine Ben Youssef will be making his second Cup of Nations appearance at the tournament in Equatorial Guines. He made his international debut for Tunisia in 2012 and has since played 21 times, scoring three goals. The dizzy-dribbler predominantly plays on the right wing for club and country but is more than capable of leading the line as a central striker too. A product of Tunisian club CS Sfaxien's academy, he is about to venture onto foreign soil for the first time with French club Metz, who have just completed his transfer before a ball has been kicked at the tournament.
Ben Youssef had already scored five goals and provided two assists (in 12 matches) during the first half of the campaign for his Tunisian club. Metz, who currently lie just outside the relegation zone in Ligue 1, will be hoping that their striker will be ready to slot into the first team after a successful Cup of Nations tournament. His Dh 4.3 million (1m euro) transfer fee is sure to be dwarfed by any future fee Metz receive if he lives up to his undoubted potential.
Ben Youssef is predominantly right footed but also has a strong shot on his left foot. The ginger-haired forward is a player that will be easily recognizable when his country takes on Cape Verde, DR Congo and Zambia as Tunisia aim to bring home a trophy they last won in 2004.