JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, January 12 – African football powers Ghana and Ivory Coast are long overdue a Cup of Nations title.
It is 30 years since the Black Stars enjoyed the last of four successes in the biennial championship and 20 years since the Elephants lifted the Cup for the only time.
They enter the January 21-February 12 continental showpiece in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon as co-favourites with Senegal considered the best of the rest in a 16-team field.
Opinions of coaches and footballers vary as to which other sides could go far in a 23-day tournament notable for the absence of regular competitors like title holders Egypt, Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa.
Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic backs Mali and 2011 African Footballer of the Year and Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure believes Morocco and Burkina Faso pose threats.
If Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is to be believed, only the star-saturated Ivorians need bother turning up as he rates them “an incredible team and hot favourites”.
“They have a midfield of English Premier League stars Cheik Tiote, Yaya Toure and Gervinho and Cameroon are not there, Egypt are not there and Nigeria are not there.”
Ivory Coast were hot favourites in 2008 and cruised until Egypt hit them for four in the semi-finals and were also the 2010 favourites only to concede a late equaliser against Algeria in the quarter-finals and lose after extra time.
“We have got a big problem in Ivory Coast — we do not respect opponents,” lamented coach Francois Zahoui. “We go to each Cup of Nations as super favourites and come back disappointed.”
Ghana came third as hosts of a 2008 championship won by Egypt and and held the Pharaohs until the dying minutes of the 2010 final in Angola before conceding the lone goal.
While star Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan battles to recover from a hamstring injury, team-mate and 2011 African Footballer of the Year bronze medalist Andre Ayew says the time has come for the Black Stars to conquer Africa again.
“I believe we have the confidence to finally lift the trophy. It is not going to be easy, though, because we are going into a tournament and anything can happen,” said the Marseille-based son of Black Stars legend Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew.
Senegal (Group A), Ivory Coast (Group B) and Ghana (Group D) should top first phase mini-leagues, but choosing between co-hosts Gabon and former champions Morocco and Tunisia in Group C is difficult.
Equatorial Guinea, who put Brazilian coach Gilson Paulao in charge 18 days before the tournament starts and told him to win it with a team ranked 42 in Africa, Botswana and Niger are newcomers and seem destined for early exits.
Many neutral football supporters will cheer for Libya, whose team risked their lives last year travelling to and from a country wracked by civil war to fulfil qualifying fixtures.