The 31st edition of the Africa Cup of Nations kicked off yesterday at Stade de I’Amitite in Libreville, Gabon with a colourful display.
The opening day climaxed with a match between hosts Gabon, led by Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, taking on debutants Guinea-Bissau as we went to bed.
The tournament welcomes back the cream of African football five years after Gabon co-hosted the Nations Cup with Equatorial Guinea.
Apart from Aubameyang, the tournament has pooled together some of Afrcia’s top players such as BBC African Footballer of the Year and Caf African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez and Africa’s most expensive player Sadio Mane.
Leicester winger Mahrez will be a key figure in an Algeria team which until recently had been ranked the best team in Africa.
Mane, who cost Liverpool £34 million, leads the line for Senegal. The Teranga Lions have never won the event but Mane could be the key to changing that statistic.
Twenty-three players from English Premier League clubs are also in Gabon including Manchester United’s Ivorian defender Eric Bailly, West Ham’s Ghanaian Andre Ayew, Leicester’s Algerian Islam Slimani and Crystal Palace’s Ivorian Wilfried Zaha.
Egypt’s Mohamed Salah has been outstanding since his switch from Chelsea to Italian giants Roma. Once labelled the African Messi, the winger has recently recovered from injury but if he can find his best form he could light up the tournament.
Togo coach Claude LeRoy is making a record ninth appearance at the finals and leading a sixth different nation. .
Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary can become the oldest player in the tournament’s history—if he gets some game time in Gabon. The veteran shot stopper turns 44 on 15 January. Compatriot Hossam Hassan holds the record—he was 39 when he played in 2006.
Herve Renard is aiming to become the first coach to win the title with three different teams. The Frenchman lifted the trophy with Zambia in 2012 and led Ivory Coast to glory last time out.
He is aiming to make it a hat-trick with Morocco. Only two coaches have won the Cup of Nations three times – Charles Gyamfi achieved the feat in charge of Ghana in 1963, 1965 and 1982 and Hassan Shehata also won it three times with Egypt between 2006 and 2010.
Meanwhile, Confederation of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa) has sent best wishes to the region’s only representatives Zimbabwe.
“Cosafa is wishing the Zimbabwe national football team,The Warriors, all the best. The Warriors are carrying the flag of the region and we are calling all the people in the region to rally behind them as they take it to the battle ground against Algeria, Senegal and Tunisia,” said Cosafa deputy chief executive officer Suzgo Nyirenda.
The Warriors qualified from Group L which also had the Flames, Guinea and Swaziland.
This year’s edition has 32 matches over 23 days, featuring 16 teams, which begin their quest in four groups of four, and will end on February 5 with the winning finalists lifting the Italian-made trophy and taking home $4 million. n