Gabon and Equatorial Guinea beckon 2012 African Cup of Nations (Afcon)

African Update – 15/01/12

January and February 2012 is football time in Africa. During these two months the continent will be showcasing, once again, one of the most festive and celebrated football tournaments in the world.

The sixteen countries that made it through the qualifications will be parading the cream of their very best players, many of whom ply their trade in Europe and elsewhere outside the continent. All this will be happening live in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, co-hosts to the 28th Afcon edition which kicks off on 21st January in Bata (Equatorial Guinea) with the final on 12th February in Libreville (Gabon).

Call it soccer if you wish, football is by far the most popular sport across the African continent, and Afcon epitomises it all. As one observer put it, it is easy to know when matches are being played during the tournament as countries literally come to a halt to watch or listen to the games. The twists and turns, the hopes and frustrations and the joyous celebrations and grave disappointments will feature greatly under world spotlight throughout the three weeks fiesta. Many pundits, connoisseurs and fans within and outside Africa are already looking forward to it with both relish and speculation. For the participating countries, unqualified pressure to win the single most glamorous continental football trophy will be brought to bear on their national teams and none of them will take kindly to the tag of being a minnow, a push over or simply one of the numbers. Although one and only one winner will naturally emerge on the 12th of February, all sixteen countries will be gunning for the prize with almost equal fancy as they go into the tournament with the great expectations of their nationals riding high on the backs of their teams.

For a number of reasons, this edition of Afcon is particularly curious, if not unique. It is the last to be organised in an even year after which the rest will be held in odd years beginning from 2013. Libya qualified for it in the midst of a civil war and will be going to the tournament in jerseys other than the previous green Gadhafi colours. Similarly, Tunisia rose from the ashes of a revolution to claim their reservation and place at this soccer spree while Sudan qualified as one country but subsequently became two countries following the separation of South Sudan. Interestingly, the team will still go to the tournament with players drawn from both countries as if the Sudan never split. Meanwhile, seven times record winning Egypt will be watching the games from the sidelines as they failed to qualify this time around. So will Cameroon, which has won the trophy four good times but simply could not make it at all. Neither could Nigeria, another country that prides itself as a football giant in the continent. Instead, debutants Botswana, Niger and Equatorial Guinea will be staking their claims in the pages of Afcon history when they take to the pitches in this continental football extravaganza for their first time.

In the absence of the likes of Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria, the top FIFA ranked African team the Elephants of  Côte d'Ivoire might have the best chance yet of winning the tournament for their second time. With current sterling players in the calibre of Didier Drogba, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue and the Toure brothers it is difficult not to agree with their potential.  Yet the Elephants are not likely to have it easy sailing, not with the Black Stars of Ghana especially. The 2010 World Cup quarter finalists are also on record for having won the trophy four times. With such history on their side, the Black Stars will be going into the tournament with greater confidence and determination. The quality of Asamoah Gyan, Adam Kwarasey and the Ayew brothers arguably puts Ghana in contention for a fifth win. Senegal may be the other country to watch as they take aim at winning this priceless African prize for their first time ever. The in-form Aston Villa striker Demba Ba and Papiss Djemba Cisse of the German Bundesliga could make a critical and decisive difference between Senegal and other national teams they will be coming up against. Yet, the surprise with which some big names were knocked out in the qualifications might mean this tournament does not necessarily have favourites and no country should be taken for granted.

Whoever wins the 28th edition of Afcon will certainly have very good cause to celebrate with all the pomp, glamour and pride the trophy deserves. The prize is, after all, second only to the World Cup. Football is, however, more than winning and losing in Africa. It is about people; about fun and fanfare. The drumming, the music, the colour and the art and drama that usually characterise the sensation could mean there is always something in it for everyone and for all countries. African culture comes to life and to the fore in all its diversity at Afcon. It is a continental festival and a much relished and flamboyant one at that. As Gabon and Equatorial Guinea beckon the world to this fiesta, Humanitas Afrika wishes Africa, Africans and all football enthusiasts a happy and memorable Afcon. Have fun!

Author: Samwin Banienuba, International Spokesman of Humanitas Afrika, UK

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