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African Cup of Nations
by Asa Butcher
2008-01-21 09:13:32
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Africa, the world's second-largest and second most-populous continent, is usually in the news for tragedies, famines and having 33 of its 61 territories listed among the 50 poorest in the world, including the top (bottom) position due to Sierra Leone. However, for the next fortnight the continent has something positive to enjoy, namely the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations hosted by Ghana for the third time.

ghana_2008 Launched in 1957, the African Cup of Nations has become the foremost football competition held in Africa, with the 53 member associations of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) all hoping to be the next champion. Originally, only Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia participated, but, since 1998, there is now the need to hold qualifiers to decide the final 16.

Sunday night saw the opening match between hosts Ghana (FIFA ranking 43) and Guinea (ranked 31) in Accra's Ohene Djan Stadium, with Sulley Muntari's last-minute goal giving Ghana a 1-0 win. Over the next two weeks the 14 other nations (Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, Angola, Senegal, Mali, Namibia, Zambia, Morocco, Tunisia, Benin and South Africa) will play their three group games before the top two of each group progresses to traditional knockout stages.

Hosts Ghana has won the tournament three times in their 16 appearances, although the last time was in 1982; they do hold the record for the most appearances in the final (7). This is the first time in 30 years that Ghana has independently hosted the Nations Cup (it shared the competition with Nigeria in 2000) and the last time was the aforementioned 1982 when they beat Uganda 2-0 in the final. Whether they can use the home advantage once again and build on their very first FIFA World Cup appearance in 2006 will be revealed very soon.

Ghana may be the bookies' favourite to win the tournament at 3/1, but the Côte d'Ivoire is close behind at 7/2. The Elephants, Côte d'Ivoire's nickname, have only won the tournament once in the past, but this year they have a strong chance thanks to their striker and captain: Chelsea's Didier Drogba, who is listed at 2/1 to be the Premier League Tournament Top Goalscorer. The Elephants also made their FIFA World Cup debut in 2006, although they didn't do quite as well as Ghana.

Chelsea's Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou have both been called up by Côte d'Ivoire for international duty, along with Michael Essien (Ghana) and John Obi Mikel (Nigeria). They are among over forty English Premier League players participating in the tournament leaving many managers and fans frustrated at losing some of their best at a key stage in the season. There is a FA Cup Fourth Round at the weekend, plus the usual Premiership games, which means that if a Premier League reaches the final on February 10th they could miss up to five games.

Thirteen Premier League clubs have been affected, of which Chelsea, Portsmouth, Tottenham and, my own team, Newcastle United have had four players whisked away to the African continent. Naturally, Nigeria took Newcastle's striker and top goalscorer Obafemi Martins leaving me praying that Benin, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali knock Nigeria out in the group stages - send him home quickly and without injuries, please!

Thankfully FIFA President Sepp Blatter told the BBC this week that the tournament must be moved by 2016 to fit the international calendar, which would mean holding it in either June or July. This move would rule out some countries hosting the competition because of their climate and the tournament would have to change to odd-numbered years to avoid clashing with the World Cup. I can only hope that CAF respect the wishes of the English Premier League and FIFA, and implement the change sooner rather than later.

Until then, we may as well enjoy the football on offer in Ghana and wait to see just which two teams reach the final on February 10th… my money's on Nigeria and an Obafemi Martins' hat-trick!

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