Africa Cup of Nations set for big kick off

Saturday 21st of January sees the beginning of the continent’s bi-annual soccer tournament.

First held in 1957 in Sudan, the ACN has grown in popularity over the years, and is now the largest regular pan-African sporting event taking place. This year’s tournament is jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, and kicks off this evening, when the former will take on one of this year’s dark horses, Libya.

The modern tournament has been dominated by teams from North Africa, with Egypt or Tunisia winning five of the last seven tournaments. However, Egypt, the most successful nation in the tournament’s history, has failed to qualify for this year’s competition. Indeed, the only country to break the north African duopoly in recent years – Cameroon – have themselves also failed to qualify. These two countries join a host of big name absentees, including Nigeria and South Africa, in being missing from this year’s line up, leaving what commentators have described as the most open and unpredictable ACN in years.

The Cup of Nations will feature 16 teams from across the continent, and will last for four weeks.

Ones to watch

Ghana
The Black Stars are the second most successful team in ACN history, having won the tournament four times. Installed as joint favourites by bookmakers for this year’s competition, Ghana are sure to be there or thereabouts at the end of the tournament.

Cote d’Ivoire
Ivory Coast once again arrive at the Cup of Nations with big expectations placed upon their shoulders, but the favourites tag has been something of a heavy burden for the Elephants in recent years. With players such as Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, and Manchester City’s Toure brothers, the Ivorian squad is packed with talent of the very highest calibre. The big question is: can they add up to more than the sum of their parts and claim a first Nations Cup since 1992?

Libya
Finding themselves in a tough group alongside Senegal, Zambia and the host Equatorial Guinea, Libya is still pinching itself, having sealed a stunning qualification against all odds. The war-torn country has qualified for only the second time in its history, overcoming a raft of problems to make it to the tournament. Wearing a new red and white strip (their previous green  strip being too closely associated with deposed dictator General Qaddaffy), the newly-monikered Mediterranean Knights will be out to give their watching fans a welcome diversion from domestic problems.

Senegal
Boasting some of the most feared strikers currently plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues, the Lions of Teranga have a mouth-watering attacking front line and are being tipped as potential champions. Yet, despite a history of producing highly skilled and technical players and being one of only three African teams to reach a World Cup quarter-final, Senegal have never won a Nations Cup; could 2012 finally be their year?

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