If small is beautiful, then the Africa Cup of Nations 2012 will be exquisite. This biennial competition, the most important in African football, is hosted by two of the continent’s smallest nations: Equatorial Guinea (population under a million) and Gabon (less than 1.5 million).
Small they may be, but these two oil-producing West African states are, by average income, the first and third richest on the continent, and both have been putting some of that money into the sport. Gabon has paid for a new Chinese-built national stadium. The Guineans have been recruiting players who have spent their careers in Spanish football.
Exuberantly nicknamed, respectively, the National Lightning and the Panthers of Gabon, neither national side has much past form, indeed Equatorial Guinea are making their debut. Even with home advantage, progress to the knock-out stages would normally be surprising. But perhaps not this year.
Five of the biggest names have failed to qualify. Egypt, champions at the past three tournaments, were no doubt distracted during qualification by their nation’s upheavals. Algeria, who went to the last World Cup, were equally below par.
The two giants of West African football fared no better, as both Nigeria and Cameroon failed to qualify. South Africa thought they’d get through if they drew their final game. However, having played for a draw and duly celebrated, they discovered that Niger would be going instead. The deciding factor turned out to be not goal difference, but head-to-head results.
Perhaps, then, there is a chance for debutants like Botswana and Niger and perennial minnows like Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. Angola, another team that has risen on a tide of oil, will offer real competition to anyone.
Morocco and Tunisia are both past champions. Libya wouldn’t usually be contenders, and after a year of civil war one might expect even less. But as goalkeeper Samir Aboud said on qualifying, “This is for all Libyans, for our revolution.” Political turbulence, as with the Sudan side, has been good for team morale.
Senegal, who once looked like a rising power in African football after they reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup, have been in freefall since. At home, where wrestling is infinitely more popular than football, the domestic game is barely semi-professional. Neither they nor any of the other 13 teams are likely to trouble the favourites: Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Both nations have many players at the leading clubs in Europe and have put in creditable performances at the World Cup. Yet their last victories in the Africa Cup of Nations were a long time ago: Ivory Coast in 1992 and Ghana back in 1982. In the past six years both have lost a final of this tournament to Egypt. The last time they met in the final, in 1992, it went to a penalty shoot-out, Ivory Coast winning 11–10. Such a nail-biter is called for. For at the final in tiny Gabon, expectations will be huge.
David Goldblatt is the author of The Ball Is Round: a Global History of Football. See his three players to watch in the new issue of Radio Times
Live coverage of the Africa Cup of Nations begins on Saturday 21 January at 6:15pm on British Eurosport with highlights on ITV4