The Africa Cup of Nations finally gets underway today after a controversial build-up to the 30th edition which included a hasty late switch of hosts to Equatorial Guinea in the wake of concerns over the Ebola virus.
Equatorial Guinea had two months to prepare to host the finals, making the mostly colourful and sometimes chaotic continental soccer tournament even more unpredictable than usual this year.
Along with the regular questions ahead of an Africa Cup of Nations comes one — will Cote d’Ivoire’s star-studded squad finally break their title drought?
Equatorial Guinea took over as host at very short notice from Morocco, which didn’t want to stage the championship because of fears over the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and fans travelling from that region.
The replacement host is a small, curious oil-rich nation in Central Africa.
Even without this year’s hurried preparations, few tournaments bring soccer stars back down to earth like the Nations Cup, where every two years some of the world’s best players leave their highly-paid day jobs in the luxurious English, Spanish and Italian leagues for three weeks of adventure back in Africa.
And few tournaments are as difficult to predict.
Burkina Faso, with no previous impressive history at the tournament, made the final and nearly won in 2013. Zambia did win in 2012, beating Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Gervinho and Cote d’Ivoire’s other big names in the final.
In 2015, Algeria, the top-ranked team in Africa and their best performer at last year’s World Cup, are the favourite but that isn’t really helpful at the African Cup, as Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana know too well.
For a long time Africa’s two most talented teams Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana haven’t won the title for a long time with the Elephants in more than 20 years and the Black Stars’ misery stretching to more than 30 years.
“We can’t make predictions in this kind of competition,” said Algeria’s French coach Christian Gourcuff. “Certainly many have named us the favourites but we must invest a great deal.
“There is quality [in the team], but there are also conditions that we must get used to. We disregard the judgments of others.”
Algeria are in the toughest group, with Ghana, Senegal and South Africa. They’ll all be based in Mongomo for the group stage, where they’ll likely come across each other often off the field in one of the town’s two or three recognised hotels.
Facing the unknown, Tunisia, probably like many teams, will be bringing its own cooks to prepare meals for the players in Ebebiyin, way up in the north-eastern corner of Equatorial Guinea.
The Tunisians are also flying in all their food from home “just in case,” coach Georges Leekens said.
Ghana officials say they’ve resolved a dispute over player payments, another issue that often plagues teams at the African Cup and which has been rumbling on for Ghana since last year’s World Cup.
Bonuses have been cut to $5,000 per player for each match they play in, and a possible payout of $60,000 each if they win the title. In comparison, Spain’s players were each offered a $980,000 incentive to win the World Cup last year.
“It is not about the money,” Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan said. “We are just here to die for the nation because we are Ghanaians.”
It’s not the richest tournament, but one thing the African Cup does produce is passion.
For teams like Cape Verde, the tiny Atlantic Ocean island nation, and Republic of Congo, it’s the only chance they get to mix with the big stars. And for some fans, it’s the only chance they get to see their team have a chance at international glory.
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