JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, January 17 – The 2013 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in South Africa on Saturday with Didier Drogba’s hugely gifted yet trophy-less Ivory Coast favourites once again to march off with the continental crown.
The competition has grown from humble beginnings into a global event watched by a TV audience running into hundreds of millions tuning in to be dazzled by the top players on the continent.
Aside, that is, from those conspicuous by their absence, including Samuel Eto’o’s Cameroon and seven-time champions Egypt.
South Africa, hosts of the 2010 World Cup, stepped in to stage this year’s renewal originally designated for Libya.
And over the next four weeks stadia in Soweto, Nelspruit, Rustenburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban will witness Drogba and company cross swords in pursuit of the honour of being crowned kings of Africa.
The 16 teams vying to walk off with the title on February 10 are also battling for a seat at the 2013 Confederations Cup table in Brazil in June, where world and European champions Spain, South American champions Uruguay and little Tahiti await the African champions.
For Drogba and his fellow Ivorians there is a frustrating sense of deja vu as the clock ticks towards Saturday’s curtain-raiser at Soweto’s Soccer City featuring South Africa against debutants Cape Verde.
The Ivory Coast are desperate to shed a reputation for falling short when it matters most, having failed to justify their favourites’ tag in the last four editions.
Agonising penalty shoot-out defeats in the finals of 2006 against Egypt and last year against Zambia will only serve to motivate the Elephants in what is 34-year-old Drogba’s last throw of the Nations Cup dice.
“We have a team capable of great things at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations,” remarked the Chinese-based striker.
“It would be great to win the trophy now. Honestly, we are getting tired of losing out each time.
“We showed great solidarity against Senegal (in the qualifiers). We fought together, everybody gave of himself and this helped us to win.
“And now everybody expects a trophy. We hope to give the cup to our country.”
Africa’s top-ranked team, who lost out in 2012 despite remaining undefeated in regulation time, are drawn in Group D with former champions Algeria and Tunisia, and Togo.
“It is unquestionably the most difficult group and we got three fearsome opponents,” admits Ivorian coach Sabri Lamouchi. “We were favourites before the draw and still are. Now we must deliver on the pitch.”
The list of potential suspects to walk off with the 2013 title extends far beyond Ivory Coast, however.
Zambia, for one, are back to defend the title they clinched against all the odds in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea 12 months ago.
Herve Renard’s side may have failed to impress in their warm-ups, but turn out with a better squad, on paper at least, than last year.
The dashing French coach is anxious his team get off to a flying start against Ethiopia in Nelspruit, with powerful Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, to follow.
Reacting to domestic media criticism of his side’s build-up, he said: “A lot of pundits do not believe we can win the title again and do not want to take risks with their predictions. It is easier to say Zambia will never win the Cup of Nations again.
“Should we fail to retain the trophy, it simply means another team was better than us. However, it will be very difficult to beat this Zambian team.”
Other contenders in the title mix include west African heavyweights Ghana, Morocco, hosts of the next edition in 2015, and Maghreb neighbours Algeria and Tunisia.
Astute French coach Claude Le Roy will be calling on all his long Nations Cup experience to spring a surprise with the Democratic Republic of Congo, while 2010 hosts Angola boast a five-match unbeaten run in their build-up.
And, with their vuvuzela-blowing fans behind them, South Africa cannot be discounted, either, as they seek to add to their lone title won 17 years ago on home soil.
In contrast to the fevered anticipation that accompanied the build-up to the 2010 World Cup, there has been a distinct lack of excitement in the run-up to the January 19-February 10 tournament.
Sipho Sithole, spokesman for the Cup of Nations’ local organising committee, remarked: “You are expecting South Africa to have done the same that it did for 2010.
“If this was the 2017 (Cup of Nations) — the tournament we were supposed to host — and we had four years, it would have been fair.”
The stage is set for what promises to be another fascinating feast of football with the smart money on Drogba and company to end years of heartache and finally do justice to their billing as the ‘golden generation’.