African Nations Cup: Group A
With three countries taking their continental bow and a host of established powers failing to qualify, the stage is set for the 2012 African Nations Cup to be one of the most intriguing editions of the tournament to date. Just five previous champions - Ghana, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan - are competing this time around, and there are some significant names among the absentees. Three of the competition's four most successful sides will not be present in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, with reigning champions and seven-time winners Egypt, as well as Cameroon and Nigeria, failing to make it to the biennial showpiece.
With the football fraternity having turned their attention to Africa for the 2010 World Cup - and with hearts and minds won, most notably by the exploits of Ghana's Black Stars - there will be more of a global focus on this year's Nations Cup than ever before. Clubs the world over will be sending their scouts to Central Africa in hope of unearthing one of the many hidden gems lurking on a continent teeming with talent.
Here, ESPNsoccernet supplies a comprehensive guide to the contenders and pretenders for this year's African football crown.
Captain: Rodolfo Bodipo
Nickname: Nzalang Nacional
Nations Cup record: Never previously competed.
Equatorial Guinea are the smallest nation at Nations Cup 2012 in terms of both size (a population of just 700,000) and footballing stature (a FIFA ranking of 150 and continental ranking of 42), with the former Spanish colony widely expected to be the tournament's whipping boys. The country's women's team performed admirably at last year's World Cup - having come second in the continental championship - but finished bottom of their group and the men face a daunting task if they are to avoid the same fate.
One to watch: Javier Balboa. One of a host of Spanish-born and Spanish-based players in the Equatorial Guinea squad, Balboa was once his country's great footballing hope. A product of the Real Madrid academy, the winger made his debut for Los Blancos in 2006 but failed to ever make the grade - leaving the Bernabeu in 2008 with only a handful of appearances to his name. Now at Portuguese Liga side Beira Mar, he may not have fulfilled his potential at club level, but remains his country's chief attacking threat - a fearless winger who is happy to run at defenders and possesses a sweet right-foot delivery.
Trivia: Equatorial Guinea and Nations Cup 2012 co-hosts Gabon are engaged in a long-running dispute over islands in potentially oil-rich offshore waters
ESPNsoccernet prediction: The tournament's minnows need a miracle to get out of their group. Group stage exit.
Coach: Herve Renard
Captain: Chris Katongo
Nickname: Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets)
Nations Cup record: Runners up 1974, 1994; Qualified 15 times
The 2012 Nations Cup is a particularly poignant one for Zambia. They will play their games in Equatorial Guinea until at least the semi-finals, but if they do reach the last four then they will face an emotional return to Gabon, site of the tragic 1993 plane crash in which the whole squad perished en route to a vital World Cup qualifier in Senegal. Against the odds, and with a youthful team, Zambia went on to reach the 1994 African Nations Cup final, but were denied one of football's greatest ever underdog stories by Nigeria.
Eighteen years on, and Chipolopolo midfielder Isaac Chansa is among those targeting a tribute to the tragic 1993 squad, saying: "We want to honour the team that perished in Gabon by doing well in this tournament." Coach Herve Renard led Zambia to the quarter-finals in 2010 and returned to the helm last year when Dario Bonetti was controversially sacked two days after successfully masterminding progress to the finals. With Senegal expected to cruise through as winners, Renard will need to be wary of the threat of Libya in the race for second place in Group A - the North Africans beat and drew with the Chipolopolo in qualifying, though Zambia won the group by a point.
One to watch: Emmanuel Mayuka. As first-choice striker at Young Boys, Mayuka has plundered seven goals this season to make him the second top scorer in the Swiss Super League. At just 21, he is an excellent prospect, with Premier League sides Newcastle and Fulham reportedly monitoring him, while his acrobatic goal celebrations are also a thing of beauty.
Trivia: After scoring a hat-trick against South Africa in 2007, skipper Christopher Katongo's reward was a promotion from the rank of corporal to sergeant in the Zambian army.
ESPNsoccernet prediction: A repeat of their run to the quarter-finals in 2010 seems a safe bet, but a probable meeting with Ivory Coast will prevent them making an emotional return to Gabon for the semis.
Coach: Amara Traore
Captain: Mamadou Niang
Nickname: Les Lions de la Teranga (Teranga Lions)
Nations Cup record: Runners up 2002; qualified 12 times.
Failure to reach the 2010 finals - the first Nations Cup they had missed since 1998 - was a major embarrassment for Senegal, heightened by the fact they didn't even make it to the final round of qualifying. Changes were needed and Amara Traore ousted some of the veterans of the famous 2002 World Cup campaign, including El-Hadji Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop, to make way for a new, hungrier generation. After guiding the Teranga Lions to the finals, Traore was involved in a contract dispute that threatened to derail preparations, but agreed a new three-year deal in December - though it is believed delivering the African Nations Cup title is a minimum requirement of his new terms.
Now boasting arguably the most devastating attack in African football, Senegal are keen to prove themselves among the continent's best again. Between them, Mamadou Niang, Moussa Sow and new Newcastle United signing Papa Demba Cisse scored 13 of the Teranga Lions' 16 goals in qualifying, as Cameroon were comfortably consigned to a runners-up spot in their group. With Demba Ba firing also on all cylinders at present in the Premier League, Traore has a very welcome dilemma when it comes to selecting his forward line. While their striking talent is enviable, Senegal also boast a solid centre-back pairing of Marseille veteran Souleymane Diawara and Rennes' Kader Mangane; the qualifying campaign saw only two goals conceded.
One to watch: Demba Ba: One of the most in-form strikers in the game at present, Ba has been on a sensational scoring run for Newcastle United, bagging 15 goals in his past 15 Premier League games. The 6' 2'' frontman has been made to work hard for his place in the national team, but made a vital contribution in qualifying when scoring a dramatic winner against Cameroon. Ba's stock is already rapidly rising, but could reach a peak should he guide Senegal to glory.
Trivia: There are just two players in Traore's squad who actually ply their trade in Senegal: goalkeepers Khadim N'Diaye and Pape Latyr N'Diaye.
ESPNsoccernet prediction: With all eyes on Ghana and Ivory Coast, there is a very real possibility that Senegal can be this year's surprise side. A place in the semi-finals is a minimum expectation, where a tasty clash with Ghana will likely await.
Coach: Marcos Paqueta
Captain: Samir Aboud
Nickname: The Mediterranean Knights
Nations Cup record: Runners-up 1982; qualified three times
The overlapping of football and politics is generally seen as something negative, but amid the numerous reporting of the words "FIFA" and "scandal" in 2011, there was a significant story to emerge from Libya in June. The national team's announcement that they were supporting (and some of them actually fighting) in the uprising against Colonel Gaddaffi was seen as a massive blow to the regime, and when Tripoli fell into rebel hands in August, the country's football team was also liberated. The final two African Nations Cup qualifiers saw Libya - with a new kit, flag, crest and anthem - beat Mozambique and draw with Zambia to reach the finals for a third time against the backdrop of a bloody civil war.
Veteran goalkeeper Samir Aboud later explained: "For sure what happened in Libya from the beginning, even how the players saw their people suffering and given what we had all lost in the conflict - it definitely gave us that extra push for the results which took us to the African Nations. The Gadaffi Regime was one of the key reasons for the decline of football in Libya." The Mediterranean Knights' previous two ANC appearances brought a heartbreaking penalty shootout defeat to Ghana in 1982 and a miserable group stage exit in 2006, but just making it to this year's finals has proved an inspirational moment in what Libyans hope is the start of a new footballing era.
One to watch: Djamal Mahamat. His professional career may have taken a while to get going but it is enjoying an upward trajectory at present. Four years ago he was rejected by English lower league sides Bradford and Hartlepool after trials, but he is now turning out for last season's Europa League finalists Braga in Portugal. Mahamat is a strong, powerful midfielder, with a fierce left-foot strike to call on.
Trivia: After Libya's 3-0 qualifying win against Comoros last March, then-captain Tariq Ibrahim al-Tayib publicly declared that the whole team was behind Gadaffi. The midfielder, with 77 international caps under his belt, has not played for his country since.
ESPNsoccernet prediction: In a straight fight with Zambia for second place in the group, Libya's lack of experience of tournament football will see them just fall short of progress.