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Ivorians favourites, but will they choke again?

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( Part 2)

When the 29th African Cup of Nations opens in Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea, tomorrow, a lot of the focus will be on the “big name” stars who excel in the leading European leagues. Many of these command hefty pay packets and have a host of fans around the globe in light of the television exposure of their exploits on behalf of some of Europe’s top clubs and are almost as well known as the likes of Messi and Ronaldo.{{more}}

It has been a long uphill road for Africa’s footballers to reach the very top. The trade in footballers from Africa to Europe has two sides. On the one hand there are the success stories, best epitomised by the legendary George Weah of Liberia. His football skills not only brought him success with Italian giants, AC Milan, but also saw him voted as European Player of the Year and World Player of the Year in 1995. He is the only African to have been so honoured, though three-time World Player Zinedine Zidane of France has Algerian roots, but was born in France. Weah has now become a politician at home, contesting the Presidency in 2205 and the Vice-Presidency last year, losing in contentious circumstances.

Those who have succeeded have not only been able to make significant financial contributions to their families back home, they have become the source of inspiration for many youngsters. In today’s money-mad world of Football, petro-dollars invested have resulted in returns like the 25 million pound-a-year contract in Russia for Cameroon star Eto’o and the 200,000 pound a week wage of Ivorian Yaya Toure. Some have not always made the best use of their earnings, but others have made very meaningful contributions to sporting and social development back home.

The other side of the trade is a sordid one with youngsters snapped up by European clubs at tender age, and if they fail to mature, often abandoned, sometimes without proper documents, much as in the trafficking of African women for prostitution. This trade, often illegal, continues to today.

Among the footballers on show in the African Cup of nations will be such leading lights as Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers, Kalou and Gervinho of the Ivory Coast; the current top scorer in the French League Moussa Sow and the second top scorer in the Premier League, Demba Ba, a deadly pair from Senegal; Barcelona midfielder Keita of Mali; and Gyan, the Ayew and Mensah brothers of Ghana.

Based on these high-profile players, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal are considered as front-runners to lift the trophy. But the Ivorians have choked before, in the nations Cup and World Cup, and will be keen to justify their status as favourites to win. Behind them is another group of three-the experienced Tunisia, Morocco and Mali. They will all have to first try and grab one of the two qualifying spots from the group stages.

The 16 teams are divided into four groups with the top two in each group going on to the quarter finals. Group A consists of Senegal, Libya, whose footballers put the turmoil at home behind them to win qualification in the midst of it, Zambia and host team Equatorial Guinea. Libya and Zambia are expected to fight it out to accompany Senegal to the quarters.

The Ivory Coast is the red-hot favourite to go through from Group B . Sudan, Burkhina Faso and Angola will battle for the other spot. Tunisia and Morocco are tipped to qualify, ahead of Gabon and Niger from Group C, while the star-studded Ghanian team should be able to advance from Group D. This, however, looks to be the most competitive of the groups, with Botswana, Mali and Guinea all seeking qualification.

A lot of football is in store over the next three weeks! It will be interesting to see the level of television coverage provided for the African Football Confederation has had to battle selfish European clubs just to get African players to represent their own countries.

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