Samuel Eto'o, the Cameroon striker, says coach Paul Le Guen could be a key weapon when they begin their African Cup of Nations campaign against Gabon tonight. Le Guen, the former manager of Paris St Germain and Glasgow Rangers, took over last summer to navigate Cameroon to the World Cup finals, despite the side having taken just one point from their first two qualifying games.
"He brought us together at a tough time last year when wins were imperative," said Eto'o. "He is a great psychologist and a great coach with modern ideas. We're delighted his contract has been renewed." One of the changes Le Guen made was to appoint Eto'o as captain. Now the Inter Milan striker says they are ready to become champions of the continent for the first time since 2002. "We are playing as a team and can compete with Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria for the title," he said.
If form is anything to go by, Cameroon should be confident ahead of the Group D match in Lubango; they beat the same opponents twice in four days in September. The Indomitable Lions won 2-0 in Libreville, before following up with a 2-1 success in Yaounde, Eto'o scoring in both games. The sequence helped end Gabon's chances of qualifying for the World Cup. Nevertheless, their French coach, Alain Giresse, who stepped down after the Libreville defeat only to later change his decision, is delighted with what he has achieved with his players.
"The team has progressed because my players have an incredible desire to succeed," he said. "There is still work to be done, though, like knowing how to use our strengths and how to handle difficult moments." Zambia, the rank outsiders, begin their campaign today when they take on Tunisia in Lubango. Zambia are 75th in the world rankings, which indicates they are the 19th strongest team in Africa and have done well just to qualify for the 16-team tournament.
Tunisia, 45th in the Fifa rankings and ninth in Africa, also missed out on the World Cup but they have good pedigree in this tournament, having won the tournament on home soil in 2004. Zambia have reached two finals, the most recent in 1994. The Zambia president, Rupiah Banda, met with the squad at the weekend, and said: "You must ensure that you win the trophy this time around. "Zambia has a very rich football history and it is time we started winning tournaments like the Africa Cup to match that good history."
He added: "We have a better chance to win the Africa Cup than ever before because the coach, Herve Renard, has managed to round up many players who play in South Africa and Europe. "I am very sure that you have what it takes to surprise everyone at this tournament. "I am very glad that my colleague the Angola president invited me to the official opening ceremony so that I give you encouragement." Zambia are in Group D, and will also face Cameroon and Gabon, so making a strong start is imperative.
The Tunisia defender, Khaled Souissi, who plays in his country's domestic league for Club Africain, admits the tournament can "open the doors" to a career in Europe for high-performing players. "This tournament is followed by European scouts," he said. "And I would be lying if I said every player in this tournament doesn't have a double motivation. "Of course we are all going to the African Nations Cup to represent our country, but we all know too if we excel it could open the door to professionalism in Europe. That is a motivation in itself and not least because every player is tempted by the experience of a European club."
Looking ahead to today's game, Souissi added: "I've had the opportunity to play against Zambia twice in friendlies. They are a good team." * With agencies Cameroon v Gabon, KO 8pm, Al Jazeera Sport +9 & +10 Zambia v Tunisia, KO 10.30pm, Al Jazeera Sport +9 & +10