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Who will be crowned?

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African Cup of Nations 2012 kicks off January 21st

There are many of us, in the football world and the wider community, who are not familiar with the central African countries of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Some may never even have heard of them, Equatorial Guinea in particular.{{more}} Additionally, with television playing a major role in providing live coverage and information, many football fans tend to have a euro-centred view of the football world. The English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and the Italian Serie A are almost household names and fans are acquainted with all their happenings.

That lop-sided view also holds good for all other facets of life. Thus, it is no surprise that football developments on other continents do not grab our attention as much and only the most committed fans bother to follow in any detail major competitions in those places.

Beginning this weekend, on January 21, and for the next three weeks, we will all have the opportunity of broadening our horizons, increasing our knowledge of both football and the African continent. The opportunity is being provided by Africa’s leading football competition, the Cup of Nations, which is being co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, countries straddling the equator on the west coast of Africa.

Both are oil-rich countries, but where inequality is rife and where, despite the petroleum wealth, hundreds of thousands of their citizens wallow in abject poverty. They share a history of colonial rule and then brutal repression by post-independence rulers, literally lording it over their people with bloody iron fists.

Equatorial Guinea, the national team of which opens the tournament against Libya on Saturday, is one of the smallest nations in continental Africa, with a population of less than 700,000. It is the only African nation where Spanish is the official language, having been a colony of Spain up until independence in 1968. It then became a repressive one-party state and though the former dictator Francisco Nguema was deposed in a coup in 1979, his successor Teodoro Obiang has been hardly less repressive. The wealth is not shared, for although, in per capita terms, Equatorial Guinea is one of Africa’s richest countries, 70 per cent of the population live in poverty.

There is some similarity with Gabon, which, slightly more “democratic”, has been ruled by father and son, Bernard Bongo and now his offspring Omar Ali Bongo, since 1967. Again, the tremendous oil and mineral wealth does not trickle down to the one-third of the population, eking out an existence in poverty. By contrast, the richest 20% of the population control 90 per cent of the income.

Now these neighbours will have the attention of the world, as they co-host Africa’s premier football competition. It will be the 29th African championship since the very first one in 1957, a time when only three African nations, excluding apartheid South Africa, were independent. When that first tournament was held in Sudan, only the first winner, Egypt, runner-up Ethiopia and Nkrumah’s Ghana were independent.

That first championship was one of seven won by Egypt, the competition’s most successful team. In fact, Egypt has won the last three championships, contested every two years. But this time there is no Egypt in the 16-team finals. Nor will there be the presence of some other African football powerhouses such as Nigeria and Cameroon, both three-time winners, and South Africa, host of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. So a new champion will be crowned, come February 12 when the final is played in Libreville, the capital of Gabon.

Who will it be? Look out for part 2 this Friday, January 20.

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