JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, January 18 – There will be no shortage of stars on show at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations from Saturday despite the absence of big guns Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa.
Each of the 368 footballers at match venues Libreville, Franceville, Malabo and Bata will dream that his country can conquer Africa and he can collect the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award given to the star of the three-week showcase.
The award has been the preserve of Egyptian midfielders in recent tournaments with veteran Ahmed Hassan voted number one in 2006 and 2010 and Hosny Abd Rabo topping the charts at the 2008 championship.
Below are some of the participants at the biennial African football showcase who could help their teams succeed and strengthen chances of being rated number one:
SAMIR ABOUD (Libya, goalkeeper)
Will be the “golden oldie” of the tournament at 39 years, but a flying one-hand save to keep out a Gervinho header during a narrow warm-up loss to Ivory Coast would have made any goalkeeper half his age proud.
ANDRE AYEW (Ghana, midfielder)
Finished last year by coming third in the African Footballer of the Year poll after winning the BBC equivalent and is a first choice at Marseille. Not bad for a 21-year-old with good genes — father Abedi Pele was a 1990s African superstar.
DEMBA BA (Senegal, striker)
Sprang to prominence since quitting West Ham for Newcastle United with more English Premier League goals this season than Wayne Rooney, including a stinging volley that helped floor Manchester United.
DIDIER DROGBA (Ivory Coast, striker)
Pressure is on the Chelsea veteran to score goals and captain his country to a first title since 1992 after he and a host of other Europe-based stars choked in 2008 and 2010 when hot Cup of Nations favourites.
ASAMOAH GYAN (Ghana, striker)
The proven goalmouth predator who surprisingly prefers playing in the Middle East than for Sunderland hopes he can fully recover from a hamstring injury that severely curtailed his preparations.
ISSAM JEMAA (Tunisia, striker)
The importance of the six-goal leading scorer in the 2012 Cup of Nations qualifiers to his country was demonstrated when he made the final squad despite being ruled out of the three-match first phase by injury.
KALI (Angola, defender)
On a continent where defenders come a distant fourth in the popularity stakes, he is a master of his craft, marshalling a stingy defence that kept three clean sheets in a row to snatch a qualifying place seemingly destined for Uganda.
SEYDOU KEITA (Mali, midfielder)
His employment address — Camp Nou, Barcelona — says it all. The 31-year-old is not a first choice for his club but regularly comes off the bench and Mali exhaled a collective sigh of relief when he smoked a peace pipe with coach Alain Giresse.
HOUCINE KHARJA (Morocco, midfielder)
Not many African footballers make it at the highest level of Italian football, but Kharja has with Inter Milan and current club Fiorentina, and the captain is a vital cog as Morocco seek a first title in 36 years.
JEROME RAMATLHAKWANE (Botswana, striker)
His name could twist commentators’ tongues as he seeks to maintain a remarkable scoring rate — five out of seven in eight qualifiers — and find a club after being sidelined for several seasons by a contract dispute in South Africa.
MOUSSA SOW (Senegal, striker)
The leading French Ligue 1 scorer last season from league and cup winners Lille is set to form a deadly attacking partnerhip with Demba Ba as resurgent Senegal hunt a first Cup of Nations title.
YAYA TOURE (Ivory Coast, midfielder)
As the tall, physically imposing midfielder and 2011 African Footballer of the Year set off to join his Ivorian team-mates, Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini admitted there was no footballer at the club who could fully fill his big boots.