By: Olajide Toriola
The 31st edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) will kick off at 16:00 GMT today (Saturday) when hosts Gabon take on debutants Guinea-Bissau.
Sixty years have passed since the first Nations Cup, which took place in Sudan in 1957, consisting of only three teams. That competition was won by Egypt.
This year’s edition has 32 matches over 23 days, featuring 16 teams – who begin their quest in four groups of four – and will end on 5 February with the winning finalists lifting the Italian-made trophy and taking home $4m (£3.28m).
Africa remains enthralled by the tournament, which has steadily grown to become the continent’s biggest sporting event, and the 2017 finals are guaranteed to provide a mix of flair, surprise, controversy and historic moments.
Hosts Gabon welcomes back the cream of African football only five years after it co-hosted the Nations Cup with Equatorial Guinea.
The country was awarded the finals by the Confederation of African Football as replacement for Libya, which had been due to host in 2013 but swapped years with South Africa, which had been selected to host in 2017.
The civil war in Libya meant it had to withdraw entirely and in stepped Gabon.
However, the oil-rich country with a population of 1.8m has been experiencing its own troubles since incumbent President Ali Bongo was declared the winner of the election in August.
His victory was followed by deadly clashes on the streets.
Opposition activists have called on citizens to boycott the tournament as part of their plans to highlight their protests against Bongo’s rule.
On the pitch, Gabon are the lowest ranked team in the finals, occupying 108th spot in Fifa’s world rankings for January.
But they do have in their side one of the world’s most coveted strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang.
The Borussia Dortmund forward goes into the tournament in scintillating form, having scored 20 goals in 22 games this season for his German club.
Apart from Aubameyang, many eyes will be on reigning BBC African Footballer of the Year and Caf African Footballer of the year Riyad Mahrez and Africa’s most expensive player Sadio Mane.
Leicester winger Mahrez will be a key figure in an Algeria team which until recently had been ranked the best team in Africa. Mane, who cost Liverpool £34m, leads the line for Senegal.
The Teranga Lions have never won the event but Mane could be the key to changing that statistic.
Twenty-three players from English Premier League clubs will be in Gabon including Mahrez, Mane, Manchester United’s Ivorian defender Eric Bailly, West Ham’s Ghanaian Andre Ayew, Leicester’s Algerian Islam Slimani and Crystal Palace’s Ivorian Wilfried Zaha.
Players to watch included Winger Zaha, who only just switched international allegiance from England and started his career with the Elephants in sensational style by scoring on his second appearance for the team in a friendly against Uganda earlier this week.
Egypt’s Mohamed Salah has been outstanding since his switch from Chelsea to Italian giants Roma.
Once labelled the African Messi, the winger has recently recovered from injury but if he can find his best form he could light up the tournament.
At the other end of the spectrum, Guinea-Bissau skipper Bocundji Ca was playing for third division French club Paris FC last season.
Record breakers Togo coach Claude LeRoy is making a record-extending ninth appearance at the finals and leading a sixth different nation.
The Frenchman, considered the Godfather of the Nations Cup, has won the tournament once – with Cameroon in 1988 – and has only once failed to reach the quarter-finals stage.
Record breakers Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary can become the oldest player in the tournament’s history – if he gets some game time in Gabon. The veteran shot stopper turns 44 on 15 January.
Compatriot Hossam Hassan holds the record – he was 39 when he played in 2006.
The Pharaohs have won the tournament a record seven times and they have a chance to further pull away from the pack for the first time since their last success in 2010.
Failure to qualify for the last three editions has marred their recent past and they will relish the chance to re-establish themselves at the top table.
Herve Renard is aiming to become the first coach to win the title with three different teams.
The Frenchman lifted the trophy with Zambia in 2012 and led Ivory Coast to glory last time out.
He is aiming to make it a hat-trick with Morocco. Only two coaches have won the Cup of Nations three times – Charles Gyamfi achieved the feat in charge of Ghana in 1963, 1965 and 1982 and Hassan Shehata also won it three times with Egypt between 2006 and 2010.
Underdogs Guinea-Bissau are making their first appearance at the finals.
Their qualification is virtually the stuff of fairytales: one of the world’s poorest countries overcoming 2012 champions to top their group, having previously won only four of 32 matches in their history.
With a squad almost entirely made of expatriates who are based in the lower leagues of Portugal, few expect Guinea-Bissau’s run to continue but what a story it is already.
It is the first time in 39 years that Uganda are at the tournament. And in a curious twist of fate they are paired in a group with Ghana, who were hosts in 1978 – the last time Uganda qualified – and beat the Cranes 2-0 in the final.
Uganda were named National Team of the Year at the recent Caf awards and goalkeeper Denis Onyango was named Africa-based Player of the Year.
They are a team on the rise but it would be a major shock if they went deep into the tournament.
What they say “When I view the Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal squads, I realise we are not among the best on paper, but there will be 23 highly committed Togolese footballers at the Cup of Nations.”
Togo captain and striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who has been without a club since his release by Crystal Palace in June 2016.
“We are victims of blackmail.” – Cameroon official Simon Lyonga is unhappy with European club managers who he believes privately encourage their players to reject call-ups to play in the Nations Cup.
Eight Cameroonians, including Liverpool defender Joel Matip, opted out.
“With these kind of decisions they are controlling every second so, for sure, they are going to win the African Cup.”
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho vented his anger at Ivory Coast’s refusal to delay the departure of centre-back Eric Bailly by 24 hours so he could play against West Ham.
“The fact that I have had a lot of success in recent years also makes people think that alone can make the difference. But that doesn’t matter, what matters is the spirit of the team and the way we go into our matches.”
Morocco coach Herve Renard plays down his own influence on proceedings. “There aren’t many differences between coaching in Europe and Africa except that one day you might be having lunch with the head of state and then the next day you are standing alongside some dusty field looking at a prospective player.”
Togo coach Claude LeRoy on the particular demands of managing on the continent. “Avram Grant has taken us as his children, always checking on us, how conditioned we are. Even if you aren’t part of the team he motivates you to train harder and get much playing time in your team.”
Ghana’s Afriyie Acquah is full of praise for the former Chelsea manager Avram Grant, who is widely expected to lose his job after the tournament no matter whether he leads the Black Stars to a first title in 35 years or not. Who can win it? Reigning champions Ivory Coast have a new-look squad following the international retirements of legendary players such as Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba.
They struggled in qualifying but the same was true before they won the trophy two years ago. New recruit Zaha is tipped to be used as the main striker for the Elephants – it will be intriguing to see how that works out.
Ghana might be considered the Germany of Africa – they always seem to come good at tournaments.
But the last of their four titles came in 1982 and they have suffered defeat in the final three times since then, including on penalties to Ivory Coast last time out.
Can they go one better in Gabon? Algeria boast Africa’s hottest property in 2016, Mahrez, and his Leicester team-mate Slimani as well as Porto midfielder Yacine Brahimi.
They were unbeaten in qualifying and have strength in depth in their squad. They will be confident in their chances of winning a second title.
Senegal qualified with a 100% record and if they can maintain that kind of form, and Mane clicks up front, they will surely have a good chance of being there at the finals stages of the tournament.
Alongside Mane, they have big talent in the likes of Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, West Ham midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate and Fenerbahce striker Moussa Sow.
Egypt also enjoyed a strong qualifying campaign and have the pedigree to perform when it matters most.
Like Senegal, they will look to one player more than any other – Salah is charged with providing the inspiration to win matches.
However, it is notoriously difficult to predict Nations Cup winners Zambia caused a huge upset to take the title in 2012. Giants Nigeria are once again absent, Ghana’s fifth title is proving elusive and the competition is getting tougher all the time.
Ghana’s Andre Ayew says: “I think the Cup of Nations is becoming increasingly difficult to win because all the teams are getting stronger.” -BBC.