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Football | Afcon

Ivory Coast @ Backpagepix

Afcon hopefuls begin final buildup



Fourteen of the 16 teams who reached next year's African Cup of Nations will start their final preparations this week in far-flung friendly internationals across three continents, stretching from the United States to Portugal and South Africa.

Defending champions Zambia are in Johannesburg to play next year's tournament host South Africa, with both hoping they will be returning to the 2010 World Cup final venue for the last game of the African Cup next February.

Ivory Coast, the continent's top-ranked team and perennial favourites for the title, are away to Austria in Wednesday's matches, while Ghana play first-time finalists Cape Verde in Lisbon.

Nigeria face Venezuela in Miami without Chelsea pair Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel, but Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi is set for a long-awaited international debut.

Ghana also will be missing a key foreign-based player with captain Asamoah Gyan granted leave to be with family after his mother died following a road accident at home in Accra.

South Africa, who missed out on the last two Cup of Nations, have to permanently adjust to life without Everton midfielder and former captain Steven Pienaar after his surprise retirement from internationals.

The North African trio of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are all in action at home on Wednesday. Morocco host fellow finalist Togo, Tunisia play Switzerland and Algeria welcome Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There's also Niger versus Senegal, Congo versus Burkina Faso and Angola versus Republic of Congo. Niger, Congo and Angola have qualified.

Gabon - who haven't qualified for South Africa next year - host Portugal, although the Gabonese fans won't get to see Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo after he pulled out of Portugal's traveling squad because of an eye injury sustained in Spanish league action this weekend.

Cameroon and Egypt, with 11 African titles between them, play in Europe but the former powerhouses can only look ahead to next year's World Cup qualifiers after they were eliminated from January and February's continental championship by minnows Cape Verde and Central African Republic respectively.

Only Mali, third in the last African Cup, and Ethiopia won't be in action from the 16 qualified teams.

With two months to go to the African Cup, many top countries are already struggling with the limited availability of their foreign-based players. There will likely be more friction between clubs and national teams early next year in the immediate buildup to Africa's top tournament, which falls in a busy period for European leagues.

Without Moses and Mikel, Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi will see if the 31-year-old Ameobi is worth a place in his final squad after the Premier League forward was finally cleared to play for his country of birth having represented England at youth level.

Ameobi was "sure to play" against Venezuela, said a Nigeria Football Federation spokesman.

As well as the grieving Gyan, Ghana will miss defender Jonathan Mensah after he injured his thigh playing for his French club Evian.

South Africa coach Gordon Igesund and assistant coach Serame Letsoaka had just returned from a trip to England to negotiate with club managers over the release of some South African players early next year.

Igesund, who retains hopes of convincing Pienaar to make himself available again, also met with the former Bafana Bafana skipper -although he made little progress on the playmaker's possible return.

"All we did was to have coffee with him as I promised we would, we did not even talk about his retirement," Igesund said of the Pienaar meeting.

Igesund also said he had given up trying to convince Norwich City's Johannesburg-born midfielder Andrew Surman to play for South Africa.

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