The continent’s biggest show, the Nations Cup revs off in grand style today in Bata, with the defending champions, the Super Eagles absent and watching as spectators as Equatorial Guinea confront Congo in the opening match at the Estadio de bata.
In its 3oth edition, this year’s AFCON has come with a lot of drama, even before the first ball is kicked. The major shock is that the match will be played without the defending champions, Nigeria, who failed to qualify for the 16-team competition.
But like they say, with or without its defending champions, the show must go on and that is what is about to play out today as Africa stands still for the kickoff of three weeks of fun-filled soccer action from the motherland.
Nigeria’s failure to defend their title did not come to many as a surprise as they lacked the bite, drive and dynamism during the qualifying games. In hindsight, Eagles were the albatross of their doom, as they started their campaign like a house on fire against Congo and never really recovered from their drowsiness, missing out on a place at the competition.
The tournament was initially scheduled to be hosted by Morocco, who last hosted it in 1988, where the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon defeated the Super Eagles in the final, but Morocco refused to host the tournament at the scheduled dates because of the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.
With time running out and CAF seemingly short of options, Equatorial Guinea, which co-hosted the 2012 edition with Gabon, was later named as the host country, as the Issa Hayatou-led executive committee of CAF pulled the chestnut out of the fire, to maintain the status quo of organizing the AFCON between January and February of every odd year.
While the Eagles will be watching the action from the field as spectators, the 16 qualified teams will be involved in an intense soccer rivalry to determine who succeeds Nigeria as African champions on February 8.
In Nigeria, the Nations Cup fever is absent as fans still sulk over their darling team’s failed bid to qualify. Unlike the vibes that were generated two years back when the Eagles were preparing for South Africa 2013, the scene this time around is dull as sombre as a nation is yet to come to terms with the reality that they will be watching the tournament as spectators.
To set off the party rolling today, , two matches are on offer with Equatorial Guinea flagging things off against Congo while 2013 losing finalists Burkina Faso tackle Gabon in the second match at the Estadio de Bata.
Tomorrow, Zambia zoom off their title hunt in the opening match against Democratic Republic of Congo while island nation Cape Verde confront Tunisia in the evening game. Both matches hold at Nuevo Estadio de Ebebjin.
Group C, aptly tagged the ‘death zone’ provides for the most intense and riveting soccer battles as the quartet of Ghana, Senegal, South Africa and Algeria go in search for the available two tickets to the quarterfinal stage of the tournament.
Algeria, on the strength of latest FIFA rankings, are Africa’s top-ranked team and were so dominant in the qualifying matches for this year’s AFCON. But all that lofty record will count for nothing when push comes to shove on Monday when they square-off against a vastly improved Bafana Bafana side, who stopped Nigeria from defending their title.
In the other match billed for Monday at the Estadio de Mongomo, Ghana go up against Senegal.
Rounding up the first group matches of the tournament on Tuesday, Ivory Coast are in action against Guinea while Mali take on Cameroon. Both games hold at the Nuevo de Estadio, Malabo.
Four-time African player of the year winner, Yaya Toure will be running the rules from the midfield as the golden generation from Ivory Coast attempt to win the AFCON title for the fourth time of asking.
Both they will face a serious examination of their title credentials when they tackle the Indomitable Lions on January28 , as they bid to emerge top of the group to avoid the top team from group C.
Any way the pendulum swings, the battle for soccer supremacy in Equatorial Guinea promises to be a show-stopping experience as the gladiators of African football rumble in the jungle for the right to be called the African champions of 2015.