JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, January 21 – Former African football stars have warned the Cup of Nations favourites to beware of minnows like Botswana and Niger as the clock ticks to the tournament kick-off late Saturday.
Abedi ‘Pele’ Ayew of Ghana, Rigobert Song of Cameroon and Mustapha Hadji of Morocco agreed that talk of a Ivory Coast-Ghana final on Feburary 12 is premature with many surprises likely before the dust settles.
“There are going to be a lot of surprises in this tournament because the countries who have qualified are not coming to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea for a holiday,” predicted triple African Footballer of the Year Pele.
“Every team wants to achieve greatness and so-called small countries like Botswana and Niger will target big countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal,” added the Accra-based businessman and football club owner.
Recently appointed Cameroon team manager Song, whose 36 Cup of Nations appearances spanning eight tournaments is a record, believes there could be a shock winner this year.
“There is no clear favourite, especially when you consider that may own country and Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa failed to make it,” said one of the greatest footballers not to be crowned the best in Africa.
“Every country is good now so it will not be easy for any team to succeed. The seemingly weak teams can cause surprises and that will be good because African football is improving and trophies are not just for a few countries.”
Hadji, who topped the 1998 African Footballer of the Year poll, says title co-favourites Ghana and Ivory Coast dare not underestimate the unfancied qualifiers for the biennial African football showcase.
“Ghana and Ivory Coast are the obvious favourites considering the number of quality footballers in their squads, but the smaller teams are capable of causing many surprises.
“The less fancied sides are not under as much pressure as teams like Ghana and Ivory Coast to achieve results and a side performs better at a tournament when they are relaxed,” said Hadji.
Apart from co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, Tunisia and Zambia are hoping to succeed Egypt as champions.