African Cup of Nations: A domestic resurgence in African football

Many talented players who ply their trade in Africa rather than abroad, nothing can be taken for granted, writes Ian Hawkey from Johannesburg.

The brass ensemble had arrived in plenty of time at Johannesburg's OR Tambo International airport.

Trumpets, cornets and the other shiny tools traditionally associated with the supporters of Nigeria's national team blared out the welcome for the anticipated disembarkation of the Super Eagles, arriving from their training camp in Portugal for the African Cup of Nations, which begins this evening in Soweto.

The Nations Cup has missed the sound and grandstand splendours of Nigeria's fans.

Africa's most populous country failed to qualify for the last edition of the tournament, in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea 12 months ago, an almost unprecedented mishap that was hardly compensated for by Nigeria knowing the continent's favourite sport appeared to be in a state of widespread revolution, with overthrows of the hierarchy springing up in various corners.

At the last African Cup, the missing list included not only Nigeria but other leaders of the traditional status quo.

Egypt, the champions three times in succession between 2006 and 2010 had stumbled en route, so had Cameroon, the nation with Africa's most distinguished record at World Cups.

Egypt, where league football has been suspended for the best part of 12 months following the death of more than 70 fans in Port Said a year ago, and Cameroon, have failed again to reach these finals, which may encourage the likes of Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana, teams with legitimate aspirations to recover a title none of them have grasped since the last century.

But it should not make them complacent. Part of what fascinates about the modern African Cup of Nations is its unpredictability. Its lively surrounding theatre - the soundtracks of brass, and other instruments - have an enduring appeal, too.

This, the 29th African Cup has some unique peculiarities. The biennial competition takes place so soon after the last one, in 2012, because of a switch designed to reschedule the event to odd-numbered years - 2013, 2015, 2017, and so on.

Part of the rationale is to avoid having the continental championships taking place in the same year as World Cups.

Why? In order, the thinking goes, that Africa's five entrants at World Cup tournaments have a better preparation for World Cups.

From now on, teams will no longer have the burden of preparing and participating in two major events in World Cup years; setbacks at a January Nations Cup will no longer mean panicky rethinks and, typically, the sacking of head coaches, in the lead up to June, and the biggest global tournament of all.

The theory is sound, and the first test of its success will be in Brazil in 18 months.

What this Nations Cup cannot help but do is look through the corner of its eye at World Cups past and World Cups to come.

The matches over the coming three weeks will be staged in impressive modern arenas, all built or refurbished to host the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

That was a watershed moment for Africa, a fabulous display of an often patronised continent's can-do capacity to rise to organisational and infrastructure challenges. It was also supposed to boost the continent's football, bringing economic benefits from Cape Town to Cairo, spreading self-confidence.

In one very powerful way, African football has looked buoyant since the 2010 World Cup. Former no-hope nations like Niger, Botswana and Cape Verde - who open up this jamboree tonight - have qualified for their maiden Nations Cups over the past two years, upstart underdogs who have gained the self-belief to square up to the big boys.

In club football, Abu Dhabi recently witnessed a milestone African achievement, when DR Congo's TP Mazembe reached the final of the 2010 Club World Cup, something almost always contested by the champion clubs of Europe and South America.

That might have counted as a footnote, but it was symptomatic of Africa's gradually swelling perception of its ability to stand alone, proud and self-sufficient.

Signs of that are all around as the teams assemble in the cities of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Nelspruit and Rustenburg for Afcon 2013.

The trumpeters and trombonists welcoming the Nigeria squad yesterday were greeting a group of 23 players who include an unusually large number of players employed by Nigerian clubs. There are six of them in their head coach Stephen Keshi's party. Not for 20 years have the Super Eagles shown such faith in local football ahead of individuals from European clubs.

Keshi made some hard and controversial exclusions to accommodate men from institutions like Enugu Rangers, Sunshine Stars, Warri Warriors and Kano Pillars.

The more celebrated winger Peter Odemwingie, a star with West Bromwich Albion in the English Premier League, was left out, Keshi critical of his attitude to the Super Eagles.

Faith in local leagues reverses a long-term trend. For the last quarter of a century, African football has been shaped by professional emigration.

More and more African players, post-1990, have been recruited by clubs elsewhere, principally in Europe where the game's wealth has been concentrated.

In turn, more and more African footballers have regarded a move to Europe as an endorsement of their talent as well as a financial boon.

That tendency leads to distorted perceptions from Europe. There, African national teams get evaluated on the basis of how much success in major European leagues their individuals have enjoyed.

That can be myopic. Zambia, the defending African champions, won their title with a squad containing only one player employed in a leading European league; Egypt's serial triumphs were achieved around a solid spine of players from Al Ahly, the dominant African club of the last decade.

By contrast, the Ivory Coast of Didier Drogba - for so long a Chelsea figurehead - Yaya Toure - formerly of Barcelona and now of Manchester City - and a dozen others with long careers in England, France and Spain have come close but not quite added a Nations Cup gold medal to their honours.

The Ivorians still begin the 29th Afcon as favourites. But be prepared in the coming weeks for the newly self-sufficient Africa to show itself off, for a team like DR Congo to maintain the attacking verve that brought them to these finals, with a game plan centred on the gifted Tresor Mputu, much admired in Europe, but still employed by TP Mazembe of Lubumbashi.

Tomorrow the Congolese take on a strong Ghana, who, like Keshi's Nigeria, are bullishly viewing their best resources through a lens that is not Eurocentric.

Ghana dropped their midfield star Andre Ayew, of Olympique Marseille, because they thought he was acting the prima donna.

They instead entrust leadership of the team to a man who has thrived in a club environment which he chose instead of Europe: he is Asamoah Gyan, as important to Ghana's Back Stars as he is to Al Ain, and, if well served by the likes of Kwadwo Asamoah, a potential gold medallist here.

Gyan came closer, in South Africa two and half years ago, than any man to raising the glass ceiling that has seemingly pressed down on Africa at World Cups for nearly a quarter of a century.

His missed penalty in extra-time of a Soweto quarter-final against Uruguay denied Ghana a place in the semi-final.

Only three African countries have ever reached the last eight of a World Cup. None have ever made it into the last four.

Determined rehearsals to break that barrier, in Brazil 2014, begin in earnest today.

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