TUNIS: Africa’s established footballing powers, led by holders Cameroon, will face the emerging threats of Senegal and hosts Tunisia when the African Nations Cup gets underway on Saturday.
Cameroon and other former winners Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria are all seasoned campaigners but two countries who have never won the continental championship could well be the teams to beat in the 24th edition of the bi-annual tournament.
Senegal’s rapid rise out of mediocrity caught the imagination of the world some 18 months ago when they beat holders France in the opening game of the World Cup Finals and marched on to reach the quarter-finals.
Most of the protagonists from that campaign return for a serious tilt at the African crown, led by Liverpool striker El Hadji Diouf and an array of French Ligue 1 players.
The team have matured into a polished outfit even if they struggled at the start of the reign of coach Guy Stephan, who has been in charge for the past year.
Stephan was on the French bench for the opening game of the World Cup when Pape Bouba Diop’s goal caused one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.
His boss was Roger Lemerre, subsequently fired as French coach and now seeking to re-establish his reputation at the helm of Tunisia. The two former colleagues were both on the winning side at the last European championship and are now separately chasing the African equivalent.
Lemerre’s 15 months with Tunisia have delivered a marked improvement after a consistent programme of preparation.
The team have also been boosted by the arrival of Brazilian-born striker Francileudo dos Santos, who has taken Tunisian nationality to play in the championship.
After just two years of playing at Etoile Sahel before moving to Sochaux in France, his qualification for citizenship would seem somewhat stretched, but he has accepted Tunisia’s invitation for an international career.
Dos Santos is one of many European-based players to have infuriated their club managers by opting to play in the Nations Cup at crucial points of the domestic season.
In England, the timing of the event has been heavily criticised, with clubs such as Bolton and Tottenham Hotspur losing key players in a difficult period.
Frederic Kanoute of Spurs has opted to play for Mali as one of the beneficiaries of a new FIFA rule allowing junior internationals to change allegiance.
Bolton are missing their influential skipper Jay-Jay Okocha, who will captain Nigerian at the Finals, which will end on Feb 14.
Dos Santos is set to make his debut for Tunisia in the tournament opener against Rwanda at Rades on the outskirts of Tunis.
Rwanda are one of three newcomers to the Finals. They knocked favourites Ghana out of the qualifiers and reached the Finals just nine years after genocide killed hundreds of thousands in the tiny east African country.
Cameroon, who are bidding to become the first nation to win a third consecutive African title, have seven members of the last two winning squads back for the hat-trick attempt.
Nigeria, who have seven players from the English league in their squad, are always among the favourites despite their sketchy preparations and a lack of game time.
The side last played together in August.
Other former winners include Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa, whose preparations have been chaotic after the firing of coach Ephraim Mashaba and the decision by six key players to stay away. – Reuters