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Tuesday, January 17, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: March 1, 4:18 PM UK
The pride of Africa

Steve Wilson

As Arsenal take to the field at Goodison Park on Saturday January 21 one of their most consistent defenders over the last couple of seasons, Kolo Toure should have already worked up a sweat on a pitch far, far away.

Ivory Coast's tricky African Cup of Nations group A opener against Morocco will be 45 minutes old at that point and, as well as Toure, four other Premiership based players - Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Emmanuel Eboue (Arsenal), Noureddine Naybet (Tottenham) and Talal El Kakouri (Charlton) - could be catching their breath in the changing rooms of the Cairo International Stadium.

In the two other games later the same day further representatives from Chelsea and Arsenal as well as Portsmouth, and Aston Villa will be playing for their countries when the clubs that pay their wages will be fighting for points to put towards their differing ambitions.

Team profiles Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D

In all, 22 Premiership players will be at a tournament that runs from January 20 to February 10; more than double that figure will be absent from the top French league.

Against this backdrop it is easy to understand the likes of Sam Allardyce's frustrations at the timing of the biennial competition to establish Africa's champions. However, to football mad Africans and the impartial football fan alike, Egypt 2006 promises to be a feast of raw, passionate football to keep us entertained through the bleakness of a European winter.

Answer me this: given the choice that same day of watching Morocco v Ivory Coast then Togo v Democratic Republic of Congo, or Birmingham v Portsmouth followed by West Brom taking on Sunderland, which you would chose? Yeah, me too.

First held in 1957, before the European equivalent became a fixture on the football calendar, the 25th incarnation of the African Cup of Nations holds massive potential. The debate surrounding players missing from their respective clubs, whilst a familiar one, has only become a feature this century thanks to the influx of African players in to the major European leagues.

Pele's prediction of an African World champion emerging before the end of the last century may have failed to come true, but there can be no doubt that the continent's leading lights are beginning to breach the gulf in ability, in the process turning what was once a very local affair into a major world event.

Proponents of the competition claim that holding the event every two years has played a part in this. The economic realities of an impoverished confederation means the frequency of competition is necessary to raise standards and swell the coffers of countries light years behind their European counterparts in terms of infrastructure. That the event is held in January, too, is a function of climate rather than some form of Machiavellian mischief from the CAF.

Clubs pay good money for quality African players as proven international stars and do so in the knowledge that they will be called away every two years. You can also be sure that Allardyce will be watching the event more closely than you or I, perusing the next raft of players from which to find a bargain basement talent to whisk to the Reebok Stadium in the near future.

The club v country row may be a deafening and divisive sideshow but the football itself remains the real story.

The qualifying campaign for Egypt 2006 doubled up as that for the World Cup finals and produced the most intriguing results of any confederation. The traditional powerhouses of Cameroon, Nigeria, Morocco and Senegal all failed to top their groups and Germany will see four debutants - Togo, Angola, Ghana and Ivory Coast - take a bow.

Only Tunisia, the defending African champions after victory on home soil two years ago, bucked the trend of group upsets. As such there will be some bruised egos travelling to Egypt with major points to prove.

None more so than the much fancied Cameroonians. An injury time penalty miss by Pierre Wome in the final game of qualifying cost the Indomitable Lions group victory and caused much finger pointing and gnashing of teeth. They will not be short on motivation, then, despite a dispute over payments stretching back to last summer.

In a squad bristling with talent and experience they have unquestionably the competition's leading light in Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o, African player of the year since 2004.

Drawn in a group with Togo, Congo and Angola progression should be assured and there exists the real possibility that Eto'o could break the individual scoring record of nine set by Zaire's Mulumba Ndaye in 1974, also in Egypt.

Togo have failed to get past the group stages in five consecutive attempts and look unlikely to do so this time unless Arsenal's new signing, Emmanuel Adebayor can repeat his goalscoring feats of qualification where he finished top scorer with 10.

In reaching Germany so soon after bloody civil war blighted the country, Angola made arguably the football story of 2005 and so should not be underestimated whilst Congo look destined merely to make up the numbers.

Nigeria and Senegal are matched together in group D but much will depend on internal discipline if either of these sides are to make up for World Cup heartache.

The Super Eagles have flare in abundance but a penchant for self-destruction and previous tournaments have been characterised by clashes of egos. Off-field problems seem to crop up with even greater regularity and news that the squad were locked out of their Portuguese training camp hotel after failing to pay suggests all is not well with an association beset by conflict and ineptitude.

Senegal's problems are more of the on-field nature and no one will want a repeat of the scenes when, last time out, eliminated by hosts Tunisia, El Hadji Diouf earned a four match ban for violent conduct whilst a pitch invasion by substitutes and officials embarrassed all concerned. The World Cup quarter-finalists, however, will expect to reach at least the last four.

Team profiles Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D

The same was hoped of Ghana until an injury picked up by Michael Essien robbed them of their stand-out performer. Zimbabwe have little in the way of pedigree but are fast improving and, despite being group underdogs will make the other three work to overcome them.

There are no such injury concerns for Ivory Coast for whom Drogba will lead the line with St Etienne playmaker Didier Zokora, coveted by Alex Ferguson, prompting from midfield. Zokora, should he carry his club form to Egypt, is set to be one of the stars of the tournament and, if he is ultimately Old Trafford bound, Ferguson, or more specifically the Glazers, may regret leaving it until after this month when it comes to settling the bill with the French club.

Home advantage may work in Egypt's favour. In Mido they possess one of the most potentially potent strikers the continent has produced and expectancy is great.

Libya complete group A and have little hope of anything other than avoiding embarrassment, despite massive investment from patron of the team Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. His son Al-Saadi, after a spell of bench-warming in Serie A (and a ban for drugs before he made his debut at Perugia) does not make the squad, removing something of the circus act feel that has dogged the squad in the past.

Tunisia look well set up to become the first side to retain the trophy since the competition expanded to 16 teams. A settled squad with the experience of what it takes under the steady guidance of Roger Lemerre, they are free of the problems usually associated with African teams and have been blessed with a straightforward group.

Guinea are a strong, physical side that are capable of springing a surprise whilst Zambia have exceeded expectations already by reaching a second consecutive finals. South Africa are riddled with problems and arrive in Egypt beset by stuttering form and a crisis of confidence ahead of hosting the 2010 World Cup.

Popular boss Stuart Baxter was jettisoned towards the end of qualification and interim boss Ted Dumitru, a no nonsense, gruff authoritarian with a history of success in the domestic league, has already upset Aaron Mokoena. The Bafana Bafana captain has refused to play for Dumitru and a callow squad has the look of one geared towards 2010 rather than the present day.

The usual suspects will all fancy their chances and the emergence of Ivory Coast and Angola along with a resurgent Ghana give the tournament an open feel. After all the negative stories concerning the tug of war over players who want nothing more than to do justice to the elevated status they enjoy within their nations' psyche, all should be forgotten once the games begin.

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