by Nathan Critchlow

Times have been particularly tumultuous off the pitch for many African countries this year, most notably for Libya and Tunisia. However, now is the time for all of that to be forgotten and for Africa to let their actions in the footballing arena, not the political, do the talking. Now where did I put my Vuvuzela?

Hype surrounding this year’s competition has reached fever pitch as there’s a guarantee that a new champion will be crowned in Gabon & Equatorial Guinea in 2012, as holders and seven times winners Egypt, so beset with unrest off the field were eliminated in qualification alongside fellow international heavy weights Cameroon, Nigeria and 2010 World Cup hosts South Africa. These noticeable absentees present a unique opportunity for the competition debutants, of which there are an amazing three, to stamp their mark on both African and international football.

To many outside of the continent the ACoN is somewhat ignored or, in the cases of the affected European heavyweights, viewed as an annoyance. But who cares what Russian and Middle-Eastern billionaires think? Not Tottenham and South Africa mid-fielder Steven Pienaar, that’s for sure. Pienaar points out “It’s an important moment for the fans of every country, and a celebration of African football as a whole. Africans are crazy about football.” Steven Pienaar isn’t wrong. For a continent so ravaged by civil-wars and poverty over the last 5-6 decades this colourful, musical, football-crazed festival has been pivotal in bringing people together.

Not only is the ACoN a fine way of drawing nations together, it is also a fantastic place to see some of the world’s fantastic players with superstars such as Yaya & Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba and Asamoah Gyan taking to the field. If you aren’t interested by this point, I’d get down to my psychiatrist ASAP.

Right, let’s have a look at the movers and shakers of this year’s competition!

Group A


Senegal won both the hearts and the minds of football fans across the world with their spirited and vibrant performances at the 2002 World Cup (including victory against France) a result preceded by an ACoN final which they narrowly lost on penalties to Cameroon. Fortunes certainly seemed on the way up however post 2002 Senegal have suffered the equivalent of footballing nose-bleed, and have experienced steady decline since. Morale in the Senegal camp reached rock bottom when the team failed to qualify for both the World Cup and ACoN in 2010. However, one swift managerial change latter, which saw 2002 veteran Amara Toure replace Lamine N’Diaye, fortunes seem to rising again. One notable absentee from the squad is renowned trouble maker El-Hadji Diouf who, after declaring ‘to go to war’ with the Senegalese football federation, has been banned from the national team for 5 years. No loss? Personality wise, perhaps not, but his tireless work rate and eye for goals had become a focal point of the team play, and he will be big miss.

Key Players: If there is one thing Senegal are not short of it is strike power with Newcastle United power-house Demba Ba and Lille’s 2010/2011top goal scorer in France Moussa Sow leading the line.

Prediction: Got to be up there – Semi-finals.


Gambia fought well to get as far as the quarter-finals in 2010, only to harshly lose out to a much stronger Nigeria team on penalties. Following that Zambia bizarrely lost their manager Herve Renard to neighbours Angola only to sack Dario Bonetti, who had lead them successfully through qualifying having only conceded two goals, and reappoint Renard in October 2011. Work that one out. However as mentioned only two goals conceded in qualifying shows they are no pushovers.

Key Players: Christopher Katongo is the only member of the team to player in a western European league (FC Utrecht in Holland), and is likely to be the one to supply the firepower. That said the squad does contain 6 winners of the African Champions League.

Prediction: Could be the Holland of the tournament. Maybe they will be blindingly unbeatable and get to the finals or, equally possible, implode and crash out in the group stage.

Equatorial Guinea

Never qualified for the ACoN before and their 151 FIFA world rankings doesn’t look good. However the football federation has trawled the European leagues in search of players with Equatoguinean heritage, and have successfully bolstered the squad, but a draw against out-of-sorts Cameroon is as good as it gets for them at the moment.

Key Players: It has to be Randy (Iban Iyanga). Why you ask? Work it out.

Prediction: The weakest nation to ever host the tournament. May need a 14th and 15th man to get out of the group.


After all the pains, violence and oppression of the pitch Libya qualifying for only their second ACoN is nothing short of a fairy tale. Several of the players in the squad even downed tools from recent qualifiers to turn and fight with the rebels against Gaddafi. Now with a new democracy, new kit and new belief, Marcos Paqueta will have a rejuvenated and motivated team. The team failed to win a game at the ACoN in 2006, but even if that happens again this tournament is a celebration.

Key Players: Any player who fought with the rebels will display a new determination and vigour, and will be difficult to play against with a ‘never-say-die’ attitude. In footballing terms 2007 African Champions League finalist Samir Aboud is a force to content with in goals.

Prediction: If they can beat Zambia then they stand a good chance of the quarters, but perhaps group stages may be the best they can do.

The Lions of Teranga look ready to pounce.

Group B

Ivory Coast

The Ivory Coast’s golden generation really must be one of the best and most gifted never to win the ACoN. Sporting player such as Dider Drogba, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Emmanual Eboue, Salamon Kalou, Gervinho & Didier Zokora coach Francois Zahoui, who replaced Sven Goran Eriksson after a poor World Cup, should certainly be aiming to go the whole way. There are no fear about playing nemesis Egypt, who knocked them out in both 2006 and 2008, and is six wins from six in qualification is anything to go by (Scoring 19 goals in the process) then even the seven times winners would struggle to stop this power-house.

Key Players: Where do you start? Arguably the rejuvenated Yaya Toure, whose form for Manchester City has been explosive this season, will provide the power in the mid-field. Imagine Viera and Petit in 1998 & 2000 for France.  Yaya and Zokora are that good.

Prediction: They have to go all the way – Winners.


Angola were certainly a team on the way up. Qualification for the 2006 world cup, in which they gained credible draws against Mexico and Iran, and a quarter final appearance in the ACoN two years ago suggests Angola have a core to their team. However influential coach Luis Gonclaves departed in 2008 and little known Lito Vidigal is the latest in a flurry of unsuccessful managers which saw them scrape through qualification with only 4 victories.

Key Player: Gilberto. A player widely tipped to set the 2006 world cup alight who eventually missed out with injury is back. After impressing at the 2010 ACoN he secured a move and is is performing equally well in Belguim.  Will need his big game knowledge to help the younger members of the team.

Prediction: Should get out of their group, but unlikely to get past the last eight.


Although hosts of the inaugural ACoN in 1959 their FIFA ranking of 112 suggests why Sudan have only qualified for the ACoN once since 1976. Even then in 2008 they lost all 3 games in a humiliating group stage. Despite that Sudan, winners in 1970, are definitely back on the up finishing as runners up and only dropping points to a very strong Ghana team in qualifying. Hopefully coach Mohamed Abdalle Ahmed has learnt his lessons from the disappointing 2008 ACoN campaign.

Best Player: Haitham Mustafa, who has won an impressive 11 Sudanese Premier League titles, is the country record cap holder, and will be keen to abolish the memories of 2008.

Prediction: There bear aim has to be to improve on 2008 and win a game. That said if they can beat Angola they may well sneak through. Unlikely though. Group stages.

Burkina Faso

Rather fortune to qualify after Mauritania withdrew from the qualifying stages, leaving them with the less daunting task of beating Gambia and Nambia (in which they average 3 goals a game!) This is arguably Burkina Faso’s gold generation too, with many players from 2010 earning big moves to European sides, so coach Paulo Duarte will fancy his chances in a competitive group.

Key Player: I remember watching Jonathan Pitropia destroy Man City in both pre-season and in the UEFA cup in 2008. His stock has continued to rise which has seen him get a £3.2 million pound move to Rennes in 2011, scoring twice on his debut.

Prediction: Their group is so open, any two could go through. I think Burkina Faso may well pull it out of the bag. Quarter Finals.

Will there be similar celebrations for the Ivory Coast on Feb 12th?

Group C


Of the sides who have won the last nine ACoN Tunisia are the only ones to have qualified for this year’s tournament.  However they didn’t find qualification was no walking the in the park requiring, and getting, a nervy win against Botswana on the final day of qualification. Tunisia have big competition experience having partook in four world cups. Their past success may be due to their penchant to nationalizing Brazilians, but this year’s squad suggests that those days may be behind them.

Key Player: Strasbourg midfielder Karim Haggui was the youngest member of the team when they won the ACoN in 2004, now he is most capped player in the squad. When he performs Tunisia perform, and therefore he will be key.

Prediction: Have big tournament experience and in the absence of some of the big names I think they will make the semi-finals.


Gabon have a patchy history in the ACoN, with their best performance in 1996 in which they reached the quarter-eight. However, Gabon are now they are under the stewardship of former France and Bourdeux defender Gernot Rohr, who has taken the team back to basics in terms of defending and communication. Results Gabon rarely score a lot of goals, but then again they also rarely concede (like an African version of Everton), and have one of the highest rated goalkeepers in African football in Didier Ovono. Expect efficiency not fireworks.

Key Player: Bruno Manga. The huge, rugged, combative defender has become and effective (if not better) replacement for Laurent Koscielny at French side Lorient, and provides the bedrock to the Gabon defence.

Prediction: Never underestimate the power of a team when they are one of the home nations. That said sometimes the pressure of home soil can overcome a young team such as Gabon. I’m going to go for the latter and say they will miss out to Morocco in a very tough group.


Like Tunisia, Morocco had to go through a nerve biting final day 3-1 victory against Tanzania to qualify. However although there were question marks over their ability a comprehensive 4-0 victory over arch rivals Algeria cast aside another lingering doubts created by poor friendly results. Coach Eric Gerets has a strong pedigree in winning titles especially in Europe, most notably against Holland, Turkey & Saudi Arabia.

Key Player: Marouane Chamakh goals, which fired them to the 2004 final, also caught the eye of Arsenal. However he has struggled for form since, and a change of scenery may do him some good.

Prediction: They only conceded two goals on their way to this year’s ACoN. If they can continue this form they will definitely get out of the group. Quarter finals.


Forget about entering through the back door if anybody was to describe how Niger qualified for the ACoN then it would be by crashing through the sky-light, Mission Impossible style. Niger finished their campaign by being thumped 3-0 by Egypt. Whilst this was going on South Africa desparately held out for a draw against Sierra Leone to qualify. However, it was only after the game a horrified South African football federation realized a draw was not good enough, with Niger qualifying based on head-to-head record. It was a miraculous achievement for Niger, who admitted they couldn’t even afford to send a team to the ACoN in 2010, had they qualified.

Key Player: Kassaly Daouda. They say a good side must have a good goalkeeper, and in Daouda that is exactly what they have.

Prediction: Coach Harouna Doula Gabde thanked god, rather than an embarrassed clerk in the SAFF, for their qualification. Considering they lost 3 out of six qualifying game, Niger may need the big man on their side once more to avoid a white-wash. Group stages.

Moroccan fans celebrate the sight of Adel Taarabt tracking back.

Group D


Ghana stole everybody hearts at the 2010 world cup, and were on the cusp of becoming the first ever African team to get to a world cup semi-final, before a combination of Luis Suarez hand and Asamoah Gyan’s wild left peg took it all away. Disappointments aside, Ghana are one of the team to beat. However with great expectation comes great pressure, however  victories from six in qualifying suggests no cracks, and their rapid, free-flowing, counter attacking football is a match for International team on their day. However the absence of Kevin Prince-Boateng (retired) and Michael Essien (long term injury) leaves a huge hole in the middle of the Ghana team and Anthony Annan will need to remain fit and on top form if the Ghana team are going to go all the way. However the Ghana under 20 team recently lifted the Under 20 world cup, which suggests manager Goran Stevanovic has a wide pool of players in which to source talent.

Key Player: Stevanovic often likes to operate Asamoah Gyan as a lone striker, so his goals will be crucial to progress.

Prediction: Considering the depth of talent it may be safe to say this Ghana side could dominate African football for years to come, much like Egypt, and should have the quality to go all the way. Ivory Coast v Ghana?


With a spine that includes goal machine Fredi Kanoute up front and Seydou Keita in midfield amongst a host of other players, it is surprising that Mali failed to qualify in 2008 and were knocked out in the group stages in 2010. However, Mali appear in deeper crisis now as both Kanoute and Momo Sissoko have called time on their international careers leaving Alain Giresse with two huge holes to fill. This was evidenced by the fact they need a better head-to-head record against Cape Verde to qualify (and even lost 1-0 to them in one leg). Hardly a ringing endorsement. However where ever Mali go, expect fireworks. Anybody who witnessed the phenomenal come back from 4-0 down against Angola in 2010 will testify. It was heart stopping.

Key Player: Mali have developed a bit of a habit for shipping goals of late, and therefore the midfield prowess of Mahamadou Diarra and Keita will be key in alleviating some of the pressure on the defence.

Prediction: I think they could be the dark horse of the competition. Should certainly get out of the group, and maybe even sneak into the semi-finals. But realistically last eight elimination beckons.


It was quite a surprise that Guinea failed to qualify for the 2010 ACoN, considering they were staple semi-finalists in the previous three tournaments. Despite Michel Dussuyer leading them unbeaten through qualifying, both 3-0 and 4-1 defeats in friendlies to Nigeria and Senegal suggest their problems are far from over come. The fact the still play a 36 year old, and former Celtic defender, Bobo Balde is probably an indication of why they are struggling.

Key Players: Pascal Feindouno is probably grateful of the tournament, as it will give him a release from the horrors engulfing his Swiss club side, FC Sion.


Considering they have never appearing in the ACoN finals before Botswana really pulled about a shock when they became the first team to qualify from this season. Fielding a squad which almost exclusively consists of domestic based players (how good is the league of Botswana, I’m not sure anybody knows), suggests the tournament is always going to be a challenge for coach Stanley Tshosane.

Key Player: Dipsy (don’t laugh) Selolwane is the biggest export in Botswana’s footballing history, having spent 3 seasons in the MLS. He is also the national sides record goal scorer with 15 (I said don’t laugh!).

Prediction: I think not losing all their games would represent a good return for a team who would like to establish themselves as contenders on this stage. Group stages only, but they won’t care one jot.

Well there we have it! Every team! I personally am going to go for an Ivory Coast v Ghana final, which any football fan would agree will be a fine footballing spectacle. Face paint. Check. Vuvuzela. Check. Unrivalled cheer and optimism. Check.

The African Cup of Nations kicks off on the 21/1/12 with Equatorial Guinea v Libya. I’m sure somebody will have given me and my Vuvuzela an ASBO by the end of the tournament, but I don’t care. Be there or be square.