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Afcon predictions from afar

Over here in England, the build-up to any given Africa Cup of Nations unfortunately tends to be marked by a degree of negativity and this year’s has been no exception.

Managers such as Wigan’s Roberto Martinez have reacted to the loss of players (in his case Arouna Kone) with disappointment and dire predictions about African players being passed over in future by Premier League bosses. Steven Pienaar’s decision to remain retired from international football and Peter Odemwingie’s dispute with the Nigerian management have both received plenty of coverage.

Understandably enough, papers and websites in the UK have featured more articles along the lines of “just what your club will be missing when Afcon 2013 comes along” rather than features or previews stressing the positives of what is about to kick off in Johannesburg on Saturday. However, I believe that once it all gets under way there will be plenty of interest shown in the tournament itself.

To start with, the uniquely African sights and sounds will brighten our lives as snow and sleet continue to cover our chilly island. Also, now that Afcon is being hosted by South Africa, we know we are guaranteed a high-quality spectacle, thanks to the marvelous infrastructure put in place for World Cup 2010. Televised kick-off times are UK-friendly and there are enough overseas-based players on show to catch the attention of those of us who don’t see enough domestic football from Africa.

The Barclays Premier League has supplied 15 of the 368 players from 55 countries who will be in action. Add to them the many others who have played in the Premier League at some stage, and there will be no shortage of familiar faces.

Naturally, most attention will be paid to the Ivory Coast, whose squad is a kind of past and present Premier League Dream Team, with the alumni led by Didier Drogba and including Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou and Emanuel Eboue, while current stars Yaya Toure, Gervinho, Kolo Toure and Wigan’s impressive Arouna Kone will be followed closely by fans of their respective clubs and of the league in general.

Will this ageing squad shake off its “chokers” tag and land the title this time around? I certainly think if they make the final this time around they will not let another opportunity slip away. If you will forgive me for making predictions based on my limited knowledge of African football, I will try and come up with three more teams to make the semifinals along with Ivory Coast.

First, though, a word on Zambia, who I think will not be among the final four. Zambia deserved their Afcon 2012 win, boasted the Player of the Tournament in Chris Katongo and have been handed a kind group draw this time, yet they will have to play far better than they did in qualifying to have any hope of defending their title. To even make the semifinals they have to overcome strong Group D opposition once they emerge from Group C. I have my doubts.

I have a strong fancy for Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria and think the Super Eagles might just be a good outside bet to win the tournament. They look strong through defence and into midfield but will have to find that all-important firepower if they are to finally return to the top of the African football tree. So, that’s two semifinalists chosen.

Not that long ago it would have been unthinkable to list a final four at an Afcon tournament and not include at least one of the formerly powerful North African sides. However the draw was unkind to Tunisia, Morocco’s best chance might come when they host the tournament in 2015, and Algeria will have to improve if they are to live up to their Fifa ranking as Africa’s second-strongest nation.

Which leaves four other teams in contention for my final two spots: Mali, Ghana, Togo, and hosts South Africa. I am going for the consistently-strong Mali just ahead of Ghana, who seem to be depleted and no longer the force of old, as well as Togo, despite the boost they had when Emanuel Adebayor joined their squad. If I am right about Zambia, I suspect the final place may go to South Africa if they can make home advantage count.

Again, I am forecasting from a position of relative ignorance and I honestly don’t mind who wins the tournament as long as it produces the vibrant, attacking African football that was at times missing from the 2012 edition. I can’t wait for it all to get underway and wish everyone involved all the very best of luck.

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