Hosts South Africa will play debutant Cape Verde in the opening game of next year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast will be tested by former champions Tunisia and Algeria in the group stage after a tough draw on Wednesday for the title favorites.
“This is most certainly the group of death,” Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi said after his team was drawn alongside Togo and the strong North African pair for the tournament in January and February.
Four-time winners Ghana were grouped with Congo, Mali and Niger. Defending champions Zambia will play against Ethiopia, before matches with Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
“I know all those teams are difficult to play,” Zambia coach and this year’s title-winning mentor Herve Renard said. “Now we have to do the same performance like in 2010 and 2012. We finished first in our group and we have to do the same again.”
South Africa, Cape Verde, Morocco and Angola make up Group A. Bafana Bafana and Cape Verde will open the tournament at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium — formerly Soccer City and the venue for the 2010 World Cup final — on Jan. 19.
Top-ranked African team Ivory Coast will play Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo first in Group D on Jan. 22, then Tunisia and Algeria in a stern challenge for the Ivorians, who lost in the final last time.
“It is a very difficult group, with opponents of the highest quality,” Lamouchi said. “It will be tough to beat each one. Ivory Coast will still be the favorites to come out of the group ... now we must try and prepare well on the field.”
Ivory Coast are still searching for a first title in 20 years, despite being Africa’s strongest team for most of the past decade. Ivory Coast lost two of the past four finals, both on penalty shootouts.
South Africa meets Cape Verde and Morocco play Angola in a double-header on the opening day of the championship at the 94,700-seat stadium in Soweto, which also will host the Feb. 10 final.
The remainder of the Group A games will be played at Moses Mabhida Stadium in the east coast city of Durban and Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
Ivory Coast will be based in Rustenburg, Ghana will be in Port Elizabeth and Zambia in Nelspruit.
The South Africa-Cape Verde match was drawn by South African President Jacob Zuma at Wednesday night’s ceremony in Durban. The host country, who won the title on home soil in 1996, also avoided highly rated Nigeria in a favorable draw for their hopes of a second Cup of Nations triumph.
“For a second there, I thought it could have been the group of death, so when they picked Angola there was a bit of relief,” South Africa coach Gordon Igesund said. “We won’t underestimate anyone. I think we can go all the way, but obviously we will need momentum and that first game against Cape Verde is hugely important to get the country behind us.”