Some footie fans are cursing the Africa Cup of Nations for abducting their clubs’ top players for a month. Get over it, for Africa’s championship is the most entertaining of all.
As most of us have no special loyalties, we can relax and relish football that’s full of verve, skill and attacking instinct. The players have all the swagger and recklessness that got coached out of British football around the time TV cameras first went through the turnstiles and into the stadiums.
In the wide-open spaces of the African tournament, dribbling flourishes – wingers don’t just beat the full-back, they stop, go back and beat him again. And just watch the defenders: they’re not content to clear the ball by hoofing it into row Z. Oh, no. Not when, with a flick, a nod, a little bit of keepy-uppy and a shimmy, they can turn defence into attack.
Some say it’s just like basketball because it goes from end to end, but have you ever seen a basketball player throw himself into a hip-high tackle with the power of a tank-busting missile?
Why we love the Africa Cup of Nations:
Classic format: sixteen teams in four groups of four are whittled down by half for the knockout stages, meaning that, right from the start, every game matters and every goal counts.
Great nicknames: we all know Cameroon are the Indomitable Lions, but if Gabon beat Mali we could get “Panthers feed on Eagles” headlines (not to be confused with the Super Eagles, alias Nigeria).
Fanatical fans: they are bolder, brighter and louder. Look out for more prolific use of body paint, drums and eccentric props than at any stage school.
Strips: the tournament has seen plenty of short-lived clothing innovations. Cameroon sported basketball-style sleeveless tops in 2002. Two years later they wore tight-fitting, one-piece outfits that made them look like tropical skiers. Fifa swiftly put a stop to both.
Pick a winner: Egypt have won the last three tournaments, but 13 nations in all have emerged as winners in the 27 times the tournament has been held.
Try again: the bookies favour Ivory Coast (home of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, Manchester City’s Toure brothers and Arsenal’s Yao Gervinho) at 7/4, followed by Ghana at 5-1 and Senegal (Newcastle’s Demba Ba) at 7-1.
Encore: as you’re enjoying the tournament jointly hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, bask in the knowledge that there’ll be another one along in 12 months. The Cup of Nations is to change from even years to odd, to avoid a clash with the World Cup, meaning South Africa will host the next tournament in 2013.
Where to watch:
The entire tournament is live on Eurosport from Saturday 21 January, while ITV4 has four live matches, starting with Ivory Coast v Burkina Faso on Thursday 26 January, and a daily highlights show.