Fri, Jan 20, 2006 - Page 24 News List

All-star cast assembled for African Nations Cup

AFP , CAIRO

The African Nations Cup begins in Cairo today with an all-star cast promising to produce a compelling three-week football feast.

All the top national teams are in Egypt and all the top players, bar injured Ghana midfielder Michael Essien, as Tunisia defend a title won on home soil two years ago.

Former African Footballer of the Year Kalusha Bwalya from Zambia says any one of 10 countries could win a 16-nation tournament that has grown immensely from humble roots 49 years ago.

Egypt were the first winners with hosts Sudan and Ethiopia the only other contenders after South Africa were barred for refusing to field a multiracial team.

This weekend, 16 teams packed with Europe-based professionals led by strikers Samuel Eto'o of Barcelona and Didier Drogba of Chelsea launch challenges for a trophy that symbolizes continental supremacy.

And while Bwalya may be a trifle optimistic with his number of potential champions, there is no doubt Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia can go all the way.

Angola and Togo will be out to prove that their shock qualification for June's World Cup was no fluke while the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, South Africa and Zambia have been so bad they are overdue a change of fortune.

That leaves Libya, the sole qualifiers not in the top 16 of the African rankings released on Wednesday, and Zimbabwe as the only no-hopers in a competition that spans three weeks.

And as Egypt prepare to host the strongest field assembled for the African showcase comes further proof of the growth of the game on a continent where sport serves as an antidote to the daily grind for survival.

A decade ago one could count the number of Africans performing in England on a hand. Now Monaco striker Emmanuel Adebayor, whose 11 goals were crucial to the qualification of Togo, has swelled a mini-army by joining Arsenal.

In Cairo-based Group A, four-time winners Egypt and former champions Ivory Coast and Morocco must battle for two places in the knockout phase while hyper-cautious Libya are dangerous simply because they have nothing to lose.

Egypt can parade star striker Ahmed "Mido" Hossam, Ivory Coast boast the deadliest attack on the continent in Drogba and Aruna Dindane, and will there be a more polished defender on view than veteran Moroccan Noureddine Naybet?

Eto'o-inspired Cameroon are the obvious choice to top Cairo-based Group B, but who finishes second? Amazing Angola led by Fabrice "Akwa" Maieco, tigerish Togo led by Adebayor, or troubled Democratic Republic of Congo led by Lomana LuaLua.

Apart from possessing proven matchwinners, Angola and Togo boast mean defenses and that will always provide hope in a tournament where calculators may be needed to separate some contenders.

Democratic Republic of Congo is a dark horse. Everyone outside the vast central Africa country expects them to fare poorly and the last time they were dismissed as whipping boys, the Lions came third in 1998 by scoring three goals in four minutes.

Tunisia, finely tuned under meticulous French coach Roger Lemerre, are favored to win Alexandria-based Group C, leaving skillful Guinea and unpredictable South Africa and Zambia fighting for second spot.

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