This year’s African Nations Cup finals are bound to be something of an organisational minefield. But the sort of on-field drama the tournament has not witnessed in a while will hopefully overshadow any off-field difficulties.
The complexities of a late switch in host nation ensures that the 30th edition of Africa’s top sports event will be no smooth ride, with a potentially majestic tournament in Morocco having been replaced by an emergency effort in a country without many resources – except the cold cash of their new-found oil revenues.
Equatorial Guinea’s generous decision to step in as substitute hosts at least ensures that the tournament gets to be played in Africa – rather than the bizarre prospect of it going to Qatar, which had been the fall-back option once it became clear that CAF were not going to entertain Morocco’s request for the 2015 finals to be postponed.
But the small former Spanish colony, which will use four venues for the 16-team tournament, proved barely capable of hosting eight teams just three years ago when they co-hosted the Nations Cup with neighbouring Gabon.
A phalanx of CAF officials were parachuted into the country days after Equatorial Guinea agreed to replace Morocco as hosts in order to help set up and supervise the local organisational structures. But they have had just under two months to make ready the facilities for the teams, coaches and officials.
However, what the Nations Cup needs more than hotels, training pitches and the other niceties of tournament play is a three-week extravaganza of football. Despite all its charisma, and the players of individual class and fine technique, the last editions have proven mostly ponderous affairs, with the matches largely forgettable.
Too many have been boring repetitions of the same pattern: a tepid turnover of possession in midfield, little creativity in attack against well-drilled defences, and a dreadfully low percentage of efforts on target.
There is the hope that Equatorial Guinea 2015 might be remembered for excitement and drama rather than the stigma of the Ebola virus – the reason Morocco suddenly sought a change in the dates; perhaps in a similar fashion to the football fiesta in Brazil last summer and the way the on-field theatre quickly erased memories of the violent demonstrations and political turmoil of the Confederation Cup in the same country the preceding year.
There has been enough evidence in the rapid fire Nations Cup qualifiers to suggest this is possible.
The change in the scheduling of the Nations Cup from every even to odd year left CAF with few dates to organise its preliminaries for the 2015 tournament and as a result the group competition was squashed into three months – two games in each of September, October and November.
It might run contrary to accepted methods of qualification for a major continental championship, where a two-year process is a fairer and a more honest barometer of proficiency, but the three-month blitz certainly held the public attention and left no outlet for the inertia that can often creep into the qualifiers.
During the three months of preliminary play, countries such as Cameroon, Senegal, South Africa
and Tunisia rekindled images of past glory and offered glimpses of championship-winning potential, while stalwarts like Ghana and the Ivory Coast showed signs of fragility.
Algeria went with the form book and were the most proficient side, with five wins from six group matches to confirm their position as the top African side in the FIFA rankings.
But they will not start as favourites because history dictates they tend to struggle in the testing climes of west Africa. It does not mean they have no chance to win, but it is from the ranks of Cameroon, Ghana, the Ivorians and Senegal that most pundits will choose their potential champions.
Given that the last two editions of the Nations Cup delivered surprise finalists – in 2012 winners Zambia and 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso – there is also the enhanced chance of a new name on the trophy, with Mali one of those who must be considered.
In the absence of holders Nigeria and record winners Egypt, no team stands out and the vagaries of the draw already ensure one of the more fancied teams will miss out on the knockout stage.
Two of Burkina Faso, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon will advance to the last eight which would not have been likely had they not been paired together in Group A.
And had the draw turned out differently, all of the Group C sides – Algeria, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa – would have been expected to reach the quarter-finals.
Key to ensuring a decent three- week drama will be support. There will be hardly any travelling fans so it is essential the locals go to the games.
Equatorial Guineans did not turn up for any of the matches not involving their own team at the 2012 finals in Bata and Malabo, something CAF and the host nation need to solve, among all their other logistic challenges, before the tournament kicks off on January 18.
By Mark Gleeson