Senegal have never won the Africa Cup of Nations, but after a series of devastating performances in the qualifiers they are among the favorites in what is viewed as one of the most open tournaments in decades.
Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Morocco are also touted as leading challengers in the absence of several of the continent’s perennial favorites from this year’s finals, which kick off tomorrow, presenting the possibility of a change in the pecking order of the African game.
Senegal, who came within a penalty kick of winning the title 10 years ago, have emerged from the qualifiers as the form team after securing top spot in their group with two matches still to play.
The Senegal squad is full of talent and boasts a frontline of Moussa Sow, top scorer in Ligue 1 last season, and Pape Demba Cisse, who was runner-up in the Bundesliga scoring stakes.
They present a formidable proposition at the three-week tournament, co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
“We can do better and we are going to increase the level of attacking intensity,” Senegal coach Amara Traore said after a win over the Kenya under-23 team in a warm-up game.
Of the quartet of favorites, Senegal are the only country never to have won before, but the others have not exactly been swimming in a sea of success lately.
Ivory Coast’s only Cup of Nations triumph was 20 years ago and it is 30 years since Ghana won the last of their four titles. Morocco are seeking to revive past glories, which include a solitary Cup of Nations title in 1976 and four appearances at the World Cup finals.
“It is a tournament which is wide open, there could be lots of shocks and twists for the spectators to enjoy,” said former South Africa coach Trott Moloto, who took his side to third place in the 2000 edition.
Ivory Coast had been heavily fancied at the last three tournaments, but they fell short of expectations.
“We will again be favored, despite the presence of several dangerous outsiders and the two co-hosts, and it is a status that we need to manage psychologically better,” coach Francois Zahoui told reporters in Abu Dhabi this week.
Chelsea striker Didier Drogba is again the central figure in the team, even if compatriot Yaya Toure was named African Footballer of the Year last month.
After disappointing in the last three editions, Drogba will be under close scrutiny as the 33-year-old is running out of time in his search for honors at national team level.
The last of Ghana’s four titles came when Abedi Pele was a 17-year-old sensation and a catalyst for their triumph in 1982. His two sons have been selected in a squad seeking to kick on from their quarter-final placing at the 2010 World Cup and a runners-up berth at the last Cup of Nations.
“We have the team spirit and that is great going into such a competition,” captain John Mensah said at their training camp in South Africa.
Missing from this year’s 16-nation field are holders Egypt, who won an unprecedented third successive title two years ago, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa.
They all failed to qualify in a preliminary tournament full of shock results.
In their place come unheralded countries such as Botswana and Niger, who are both debutants, while co-hosts Equatorial Guinea are also new to the finals.
Libya are the most remarkable of the qualifiers, overcoming incredible odds stacked against them after an uprising in the country overthrew former leader Muammar Qaddafi and left the soccer infrastructure in tatters.