Countdown begins for trophy hopefuls Africa Cup of Nations

Countdown begins for trophy hopefuls Africa Cup of Nations

JOHANNESBURG - Agence France-Presse
Countdown begins for trophy hopefuls Africa Cup of Nations

Zambian players celebrate after beating Uganda to qualify for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations at Mandela National Stadium in Kampala. REUTERS photo

Title favorite Ivory Coast is among 14 qualifiers for the 2013 Cup of Nations that begin preparations for the tournament by playing friendlies in Africa, Europe and North America this week.

Ghana and Cape Verde Islands get the ball rolling in Lisbon today followed by 15 fixtures tomorrow from Miami, which hosts Nigeria and Venezuela, to Johannesburg, where South Africa confronts Cup of Nations title holder Zambia.

Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cape Verde, South Africa, Angola, Morocco, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Tunisia and Togo will be qualifiers in action.

That leaves Mali and Ethiopia as the only two of the 16 challengers for the Cup of Nations in South Africa between Jan.19 and Feb. 10 that are not playing, according to fixtures released by world football governing body FIFA.

Ivory Coast tackles Austria in Linz minus injured Arsenal midfield flier Gervinho and a January warm-up against DR Congo is the only other friendly planned before facing Togo in the opening series of Africa Cup fixtures.

The title has eluded the Ivorian “golden generation,” led by Didier Drogba and including Kolo Toure, Didier Zokora and Boubacar Barry, since 2006 and South Africa is seen as the last-chance saloon for the ageing stars. With a 53-place advantage in the world rankings, the Ivorians are expected to follow up an August draw in Russia by defeating the modest Austrians, even if the low night-time temperature will not be to the liking of the west Africans.

Ghana captain and leading scorer Asamoah Gyan misses the trip to the Portuguese capital after the death of his mother in an Accra road accident, and coach Kwesi Appiah plans to test some fringe players. Among those called up are striker Abdul Warris, who has quit Swedish side Hacken for a five-year contract with Spartak Moscow, and teenage Inter Milan midfielder John Duncan.

Debut for Cape Verde

Previously anonymous Cape Verde makes it Cup of Nations debut next year and the Blue Sharks want to prove that a qualifying victory over four-time African champion Cameroon was not a flash in the pan.
Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi could make his debut for Nigeria at 31 -10 years after turning down another approach to switch allegiances having played for England at age-limit level.

Good form for Spanish La Liga side Levante has earned striker Obafemi Martins a recall with coach Stephen Keshi scanning a large talent pool as the Super Eagles seek a winning formula ahead of a tournament they last won 18 years ago.

Zambia brings the starting 11 from the 2012 final victory over Ivory Coast to Johannesburg for a clash with Cup of Nations host South Africa, a team getting used to life without retired captain Steven Pienaar. Out-of-favor Collins Mbesuma and injured Jacob Mulenga missed the Libreville penalty shootout triumph in the final and the strikers could get a chance against Bafana Bafana to impress France-born coach Herve Renard.

Egypt misses South Africa having suffered a stunning qualifying loss to the Central African Republic and Georgia is one of many opponents as the Pharaohs prepare for 2014 World Cup eliminators next year.
Cameroon is in a similar situation after flopping against Cape Verde and record four-time African Footballer of the Year Samuel Eto’o and Barcelona midfielder Alex Song are among those chosen for a Geneva friendly with Albania. The pair does not get along with Eto’o from expensively assembled Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala telling reporters he is “one of the best players in the world and Song is not even among the best in Cameroon.”