There was a point several months ago where it appeared genuinely feasible that the impending African Cup of Nations would not represent the tournament that never was.
Caught up as a mere sub current in a worldwide Ebola storm, Morocco seemingly deemed the tournament not worth the risk attached – whatever your view surrounding whether that was an overly cautious move its difficult to be critical of the North African’s stance given Ebola’s significant connotations.
In CAFs hour of need, the oil rich Equatorial Guinea offered an olive branch, which the continent’s hierarchy duly accepted. Unfortunately, whatever method you wrap it up the trip to the West African state represents a significant come down when compared against the possibility of a tournament in idyllic settings of football rich Morocco.
On one side of the coin, that Equatorial Guinea co-hosted in 2012 offers comfort that they might at least logistically pull off the improbable, although even with several years planning that tournament was not without numerous hitches.
At the same time the lasting memory of Equatorial Guinea’s hosting three years ago is of empty stadiums, an issue which could again tarnish Africa’s premier tournament.
The liability of empty stadiums means the pressure will on now more than ever for developments on the pitch to engage with audiences. Although recent AFCONs have produced numerous compelling narratives – the heart-warming Zambian success of 2012 and Burkina Faso’s surge to the final in 2013 being amongst the most prominent – matches have to often been typified by as methodical slow cagey affairs.
There is nonetheless scope for that trend to alter in Equatorial Guinea. Qualification – taking the form of group stage system remarkably squeezed into a mere three international breaks between September and November – brought about a plethora of captivating contests and high drama.
Aspirations will be that the relatively proactive mind-sets which were displayed throughout that process can be transferred into the main event.
That deciphering a winner represents an arduous task should further aid the tournament in its attempts to charm. That deciphering a winner represents an arduous task should further aid the tournament in its attempts to captivate.
Had the tournament remained in Morocco, Algeria would have been overriding favourites, given their success in Brazil and that qualification saw the desert foxes make a seamless transition to life under Christian Gourcuff.
Doubts however linger regarding their credentials south of the equator, with history suggesting Algeria come unstuck when travelling south. That is not to say Gourcuff’s men won’t prosper – rarely have they possessed such an imposing group – nonetheless undeniably the venue change has dragged them back into the pack.
Many of the perceived heavy weights are enduring sticky periods. Ghana are yet to break the shackles of a desperate World Cup, with the appointment of Avram Grant and an unconvincing qualification performance doing little to redress dissatisfaction back home.
Although Ivory Coast can still boast a plethora of attacking riches, their qualification was beset by defensive frailties with no qualifier conceding more goals. The elephant may boast iconic coach Herve Renard – who took Zambia to glory in 2012 – but any hopes of the waving of magic wand effect have been quickly extinguished.
The draw hasn’t offered much relief for either Ghana or Ivory Coast, with both placed in what is undoubtedly the tougher half. Ghana face a particularly treacherous task with the trio of Algeria, Senegal and South Africa making the ignominy of a group stage exit a harrowing possibility.
For so long a nation struggling to match the some of its many gifted parts, qualification saw Senegal stumble onto the right path – although their tournament could hinge on the fitness of Saido Mane who provides a differential to an offensive group brimming with pace and power.
Similarly South Africa have, under Shakes Mashaba, emerged from the doldrums, although for their young squad being allotted a slot in the perceived group of death could make this a tournament too soon.
Ivory Coast assignment is only slightly less arduous, with Renard’s side paired alongside Cameroon, Mali and Guinea. Cameroon’s resurgence from both successive AFCON qualification failures and a World Cup showing in Brazil that went beyond the stage of humiliation presented one of qualification’s most astounding stories.
With the disruptive influences cut Volker Finke has been able to mould a youthful side engaged in his distinguished pressing style, with the manner in which the Indomitable Lions negotiated qualification – including a 4-1 rout of Ivory Cost – suggesting Cameroon have hit their most promising shape for a prolonged period.
Unfortunately for Mali, they are at the opposite end of the development scale. The 2012 and 2013 semi-finalists will again provide the most robust physical proposition in the tournament but there is a nagging feeling that Les Aigles are now in a state of decline.
Galvanised by Ebola stacking the odds against them throughout qualification, Guinea will represent a potentially dangerous animal with their array of counter attacking riches liable to hurt Ivory Coast’s creaking backline.
Whilst that side of the draw is loaded superpowers, the other is crammed with opportunities for several less traditional forces to make substantial waves in Equatorial Guinea.
Paired together with hosts Equatorial Guinea and a Congo side appearing at their first AFCON in 15 years, both Gabon and Burkina Faso will be confident of at least a last eight spot. Runners-up in 2013 and with the vast proportion of that successful assemble still intact the draw has aligned for another unexpected Burkinabe title tilt – although no longer possessing the shock factor could hinder Paul Putt’s men.
By contrast Gabon have dangerously slipped under the radar, with their effective slick counter attacking style – led by Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – leading to many tipping the panthers to be the tournament’s surprise package.
All those allocated a slot in the opposite Group B can also vaunt genuine reasons to be hopeful. Tunisia will be favourites to advance having negotiated both Senegal and Egypt in efficient style during qualification; however like Algeria the move away from North Africa hinders their credentials.
Cape Verde – quarter-finalists on debut in 2013 and the smallest nation to ever grace the AFCON – were first to qualify and the generous assortment means constructing another astounding episode to their mesmeric rise is not beyond the realm of possibility. Zambia and DR Congo will be considered slight group B outsiders; nonetheless both can still harbour genuine qualification ambitions.
Equatorial Guinea is a less than ideal location for the continent’s premier tournament, meaning that for the impending tournament to be judged in a successful light it is likely the actual football must do the talking.
Thankfully then the key ingredients are in place for a three-week feast of African football, with a wide open tournament being doused throughout in compelling stories.
At the same time there is an intriguing sub plot regarding who will rise from the ashes of Samuel E’too and stake claims towards the pedestals of modern-day African football alongside Yaya Toure – Aubameyang, Vincent Aboubakar, Wilfried Bony and Yacine Brahimi being just a selection of those capable of igniting the tournament.
There is of course a danger that the arrival of pressures brought about by major tournament football could sides revert to type. Should this occur and combined with likely empty stadiums the 2015 AFCON could signify a rather ungainly site.