JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, January 18 – African football legend Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew says the absence of Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa from the 2012 Cup of Nations saddens him.
Egypt won the last three tournaments in the biennial continental showpiece and the five countries boast 15 titles between them in a championship that has been staged 27 times since its 1957 debut in Khartoum.
All failed to make Gabon and Equatorial Guinea for the January 21-February 12 tournament after a shock-riddled qualifying competiton that ended with no-hopers Botswana and Niger making the finals for the first time.
“It is sad, really sad,” said former Ghana midfielder Pele with a sigh as he reflected on the missing giants, “because these are big-name football countries who bring excitement to the game throughout Africa.”
“If you defeat Mauritania to win the Cup of Nations it will not be the same as defeating Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria or South Africa to win it,” said the 1991-1993 African Footballer of the Year who helped Marseille conquer Europe.
“Having said that, a trophy is a trophy. If you are able to lift the Cup of Nations it means you have worked hard for it and you have sacrificed so much,” stressed the Accra-based businessman and football club owner.
Where Pele and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger differ is the effect the absence of record seven-time African champions Egypt and the other four countries will have.
“There are going to be a lot of surprises in this tournament because the teams who have qualified are not going to central Africa for a holiday,” said the father of Ghana squad midfielders Andre and Jordan Ayew.
“With the absence of some great countries, the small nations want to beat the big ones. Botswana and Niger will target the likes of Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal.”
Wenger considers an Ivory Coast squad boasting a galaxy of stars including Manchester City midfielder and 2011 African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure overwhelming favourites.
“Ivory Coast are hot favourites because they have an incredible line-up with English Premier League stars like Yaya, Cheik Tiote and Gervinho in the middle of the park.
“Nobody else has qualified — Algeria are not there, Cameroon are not there, Egypt are not there and Nigeria are not there,” said Wenger, a keen follower of African football.
The Arab Spring and blind loyalty to ageing stars contributed to the failure of Egypt while South Africa came second in the same group behind Niger partly because they thought a draw against Sierra Leone would suffice when a win was needed.
Algeria started badly by taking just one point of a possible six off Tanzania and Central African Republic and despite changing coaches twice never regained the initiative in a mini-league won by Morocco.
A Cameroon side hampered by player cliques conceded a stoppage-time goal to lose at resurgent Senegal and captain Samuel Eto’o missed a penalty when they drew the return match.
Nigeria trailed Guinea from the first round and squandered a chance to squeeze through as one of best runners-up when they conceded an equaliser to the table-toppers deep in additional time.