The 2010 African Nations Cup will provide a useful indication of the continent’s challenge at the World Cup
Cameroon and Ivory Coast head the list of favourites for the African Nations Cup as
they seek a major morale boost before launching what they hope will be a credible challenge at the World Cup in South Africa.
January’s tournament in Angola will offer five of the 2010 World Cup sides the chance of competitive match practice, though the likes of Algeria, Ghana and Nigeria carry a less credible chance of winning the continental title.
Egypt, who are seeking a record-breaking third successive title, will have the added incentive of using the competition to make up for the bitter disappointment of failing to make the World Cup finals after losing to Algeria in a play-off.
The Ivorians’ powerful line-up is carried by the charisma of Didier Drogba, while Cameroon already have a proven record at the Nations Cup. The Indomitable Lions emerged from a disastrous start at the last finals to reach the Final in Accra, where they lost to Egypt by a single goal. Samuel Eto’o continues to be the talisman of a side whose self-confident swagger lost none of its lustre, even when they were struggling through the early stages of the World Cup qualifiers.
The spotlight in Angola will shine as brightly on the superstars like Drogba, Eto’o, Emmanuel Adebayor, Michael Essien and Seydou Keita of Barcelona as it will on the top teams.
The African game remains dominated by the personalities creating success at club level in Europe. Their return to the continent almost overshadows the overall spectacle of the Nations Cup, but it is on the back of these personalities that television revenue now allows the Confederation of African Football (CAF) a budget some 10 times bigger than a decade ago.
Angola has been a tricky choice as host but represents a return to the philosophy of using the Nations Cup to build infrastructure across the continent. Burkina Faso in 1998 and Mali in 2002 were good example of this, but a lack of potential candidates saw the tournament held in established countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Ghana over the last three editions.
However, in 2012 it will go to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, where facilities are as spartan as those expected in Angola.
An estimated £600million has been spent by the oil-rich Angolans on the infrastructure for this tournament, with four new Chinese-built stadiums springing up in Benguela, Cabinda, Luanda and Lubango.
But they will only be finished on the eve of the event if the Luanda experience is anything to go by. A November opening had been planed for the 40,000-seater, with Ghana invited for the festivities, but the scheduled international had to be switched to a suburban venue because the stadium was not ready.
The stadia in Cabinda, a northern enclave surrounded by Congo, and the other two southern venues are much smaller, with capacities of 25,000, and are situated in areas with little in the way of hotels and other facilities.
Angola is also notoriously expensive. Hotel prices, for example, around the time of the Nations Cup are already being quoted in the £250-£300 range. This means there is little, or even no chance, of any outside support.
But hosting the event is a massive fillip for a country embroiled in decades of destructive civil war and which is now slowly rebuilding on the back of its oil revenue. Rampant corruption has slowed the process, but Angola is still seen as a fertile land of much potential.
Angola were surprise 2006 World Cup finalists but crashed out early in the 2010 process. Portuguese coach Manuel Jose was brought in nine months before these finals to sort out a side whose profile and potential is a little under the radar, and whose only hope is to ride the wave of public adulation that might come with some early wins.
A relatively easy opening-round group also gives the team a chance of making it through to the quarter-finals. But it is the form sides like Cameroon and the Ivorians who deservedly command the status of tournament favourites.
Past Nations Cups on the eve of the World Cup have suffered from a lack of resonance, overshadowed by the impending world championship and it is even more pronounced this year with South Africa due to host world football’s showpiece in June.
But the unique foibles and joys of the Nations Cup still make it an event not to be missed. l