JOHANNESBURG – The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) kicks off tonight with hosts Egypt taking on Zimbabwe. Our writers pick their favourites. Do you agree with them?
If there’s a national team that has the qualities of winning the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations title, it has to be Nigeria.
You see, sometimes taking a break - voluntarily or involuntarily - gives one enough zest to come back stronger. Having won the 2013 Afcon in South Africa, the Super Eagles missed the next two editions of the continental showpiece due to their then improper running Nigerian Football Federation (NFF).
Moreover, they battled with a love-hate relationship with son of the soil, Stephen Keshi, durng that time. Before his dismissal, the late Keshi had achieved the improbable in 18 months - winning the 2013 Afcon as well as making the 2014 Fifa World Cup knockout stage.
It then took the NFF almost two years to find Keshi’s perfect replacement in Gernot Rohr. The German tactician reinvigored the side - ensuring the Super Eagles became the first African side to qualify for the 2018 Fifa World Cup. They easily qualified for this year’s Afcon, while their only blemish was losing and drawing to Bafana Bafana.
Rohr’s secret weapon has been blending the youth with the experienced in his squad. Many might bemoan the exclusion of Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho in his final Afcon squad, but having the experienced duo of Odion Ighalo and Ahmed Musa, as well as the young Samuel Chukwueze, the Super Eagles’ attack appears to be potent enough to conquer all before them.
Add to the fact that experienced captain John Obi Mikel and exciting youngster Wilfred Ndidi will monitor the engine room, and they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Homeground advantage always plays a major role at tournaments and when it comes to the Africa Cup of Nations, few countries know how to make it count than this year’s hosts - Egypt’s mighty Pharaohs.
The continent’s most successful footballing nation, Egypt have been victorious on three of the four occasions the biennial soccer showpiece has been played on their soil. Only in 1974 - when that mighty Zaire, team which made continental history by appearing at the World Cup knocked them out in the semis - did Egypt not get crowned champions. In 1959, 1986 and 2006 - the Pharaohs reigned supreme.
It is 2019 and the superstitious will no doubt reason that the numbers point to yet another Egypt success. That aside, such is the strength of Egypt’s team that they will kick the tournament off tonight against Zimbabwe as one of the huge favourites for the title. And with good reason, too. Egypt have in their team, one of the world’s most potent strikers in Mohamed Salah.
The Liverpool marksman goes into the showpiece high on confidence having won the Uefa Champions League and prefixing his name with the title of African Footballer of the Year. Egyptian football has been enduring a pretty lean spell on the club scene and the players would love nothing more than to make up for that by adding an eighth title to the country’s collection.
The Egyptian crowd is among the most passionate on the continent and you can bet on them playing a major role as the 12th man to see the Pharaohs to the title.
GHANA have assembled a strong squad that boasts a mixture of youth and experience. They possess leaders in all departments which is key in a major tournament like the Afcon.
John Boye is expected to play a pivotal role in terms of leading the defence, while Christian Atsu will be imperial in the middle of the park with his pace, skill, pedigree and goalscoring prowess. The duo of Asamoah Gyan and Andrew Ayew are key upfront. These experience campaigners have seen it all with Ghana and some of them will be aware that this may be their last opportunity to lift the Afcon.
The Black Stars have underperformed in the past three editions of Afcon possessing some of the great talent at their disposal.
I have a feeling that 2019 is their year. In 2010 (Angola) and 2015 (Equatorial Guinea), the Black Stars were the runners-up and then they finished fourth in 2012 (Gabon and Equatorial Guinea), 2013 (South Africa) and 2017 (Gabon).
The Black Stars are going through a barren run in the Afcon. They haven’t lifted the trophy for 37 years.
Ghana have been closed on so many occasions and I back them to pull it off this time around.