African Nations Cup draws closer

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Soccer CityGettyImagesSoccer City will come back to life in January

In a month's time, Soccer City will come to life again. Since the 2010 World Cup final, the calabash has hosted the All Black and Springbok rugby teams, Coldplay, Lady Gaga and a religious event attended by 80,000 people.

All of the above were sensational in their own way. But nothing will compare with pouring the traditional bowl full of what it was originally designed to serve: major tournament football. Luckily, not even three full calendar years have passed since the stadium housed the World Cup opener and final and it will now do the same for the African Nations' Cup (ANC).

The event itself will not capture anywhere near the attention its big brother did and no-one, apart from a few deluded officials, expects it to. Matches are fewer, participating teams are fewer and tickets available are fewer too. A sixth fewer, to be exact.

Almost three million tickets were available in total for the 2010 World Cup, only half a million will be go on sale for ANC. Of those the local organising committee (LOC) hoped to have 10% sold by the end of November. Two weeks ago, there were almost 45,000 tickets paid for. The LOC's spokesperson Sipho Sithole said that was "not looking that bad".

As the tournament draws closer those numbers are expected to increase. All participating countries will buy a minimum of 2,000 tickets each. Defending champions Zambia have requested 20,000 for each of the three group stage matches they will play in the competition.

Given the country's proximity to South Africa, it is not unrealistic to expect a large support base for the team, who are doing their utmost to retain the title. Of all the contenders, Zambia have set up the busiest pre-tournament programme and will play four friendly matches in the lead up.

This weekend, they travel to Dar-es-Salaam to play CECAFA Cup semi-finalists Tanzania. After the festive season, they will set up camp in South Africa and compete with Swaziland, fellow ANC competitors Morocco and Namibia before their first match of the competition against Ethiopia on January 21.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have also got a head-start in their build up. The squad, under Claude Le Roy, are currently in camp in Port Elizabeth, where their group is based. They were spotted at a league match between Orlando Pirates and Maritzburg United in the city and will return early in the New Year with their final squad. Le Roy acknowledged that the DRC have a tough challenge ahead. They are grouped with the continent's best performing team at the 2010 World Cup, Ghana, plus Mali and Niger.

For the Black Stars, it will be a return to the land where they shone brightest. Fans throughout the continent switched allegiance to Ghana when the other African countries were knocked out and Ghana made it all the way to the quarter-finals.

Asamoah Gyan, whose penalty was saved in the match against Uruguay which ultimately denied Ghana, has been named in their provisional squad. Two of the notable exclusions there are defender Samuel Inkoom and Abedi Pele's youngest son, Jordan. Andre Ayew is part of the group.

While Africa prepares, one of biggest questions marks dangles over which marquee men will be missing. Togo's Emmanuel Adebayor has indicated he will withdraw from the national team because of their haphazard preparation. Cape Verde's most experienced player, Ricardo, has chosen to play for his club Pacos de Ferreira instead. Roberto Mancini was hopeful Yaya Toure would opt out of the tournament to stay at Manchester City but has conceded that the Ivorian wants to win silverware for his country.

The ANC is often caught in the middle of club-country battles. Usually clubs win. Even though the 2013 tournament will ensure the competition is no longer played in a World Cup year, it will not solve the issue of the window. That will be a subject of debate again.

As will the fate of the home team. In the shadows of a match-fixing scandal, Bafana Bafana will emerge with the mandate that their status as nearly men has to change. They have three friendlies lined up against Malawi, Norway and Algeria and two training camps planned. Much-talked about midfielder Ayanda Patosi, who plays at Belgian club Lokeren, will debut against Malawi as fresh hope is infused through Gordon Igesund.

A month from now, Soccer City will come alive because of that optimism, which breathes a life much more powerful than any other. South African administrators are hopeful it will not end the same way the World Cup did: with broken hearts at home and disappointment thick in the air.

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