The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), whose 31st edition begins this weekend, likes to boast of its longevity. It is an event that began in the 1950s, making it older than the European championship.
Its enthusiasts argue it may be wiser, too, than the Euros because it still knows the best recipe for staying fresh, which is to keep breeding new champions, providing unexpected finalists, and challenging the traditional elite.
Granted, South America and Europe — football’s traditional homes of power — have broken their own moulds in recent years. Chile and Portugal are currently the holders of European and South American crowns they never had before 2015.
But you get the strongest sense of Africa’s more fluid hierarchy by pointing out who is not taking part in the three-week tournament that kicks off in Gabon on Saturday. There is no Zambia and no Nigeria, both of whom have held the Nations Cup title in the last five years.
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By contrast, the Cup welcomes back Egypt, whose fall, after a third successive title in 2010, was dramatic. This will be Egypt’s first Afcon — as the Nations Cup is referred to by many of its participants — since they threatened to establish a decade-long dynasty.
Whether Egypt will look rusty, or confirm a full renaissance, is one of the more intriguing plot-lines of what looks an open tournament. And, it must be hoped, a quality tournament.
If you start at the top, it ought to be. The reigning Footballers of the Year, as voted for by their peers, of two of the world’s most potent domestic leagues will be in action in west Africa. There is Riyad Mahrez, the English Professional Footballers’ Association’s Best Player of the 2015/16 Premier League. There’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, of Borussia Dortmund, where his displays in the last 18 months made German players elect him as their league’s finest individual.
Algeria’s Mahrez and Gabon’s Aubameyang are the last two owners of the title African Footballer of the Year. Africa should feel pleased that two men in their mid-20s are now winning and contesting that title, after a decade in which the prize of Africa’s best stubbornly rotated around players approaching veteran age, greats like Yaya Toure, Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba. This Afcon features none of those, and so it feels readier to introduce to the world new potential superstars.
Whether they will come from the defending champions, the Ivory Coast who for so long entered Afcon as favourites because they had Drogba and the Toure brothers, remains to be seen. The Ivorians still look strong, and may have found the sparky creator they lacked by persuading Wilfried Zaha to play for the country of his birth rather than continuing a career he had started on with the England national team.
Even with no Toures, there will be some evergreens around, not least the remarkable Essam El-Hadary, the 43-year-old goalkeeper who can remember all too well the time when his Egypt commanded this stage.
Andre Ayew, of Ghana, can meanwhile remember back to when his father, Abedi Pele Ayew, was the lord of the continent and Ghana’s captain. Ayew, and brother Jordan, will try to guide a team still spearheaded by Asamoah Gyan to the gold medal Ghana have been tantalisingly close to a number of times at recent Nations Cups.
Aubameyang’s Gabon may yet put a new name on the Cup. But to do so, they must endure the pressures and enjoy the positives of host status. Mahrez’s Algeria have a fine attacking team on paper, but a jittery record hiring and firing managers, the latest of whom, Georges Leekens, is one of 12 men from outside Africa taking charge of teams at the tournament.
The perennial problem of promoting and trusting native African managers appears no closer to be being treated when you consider that only 25 per cent of the men on the touchlines of Gabon actually come from the continent whose showcase this competition is.
One day, someone from the Drogba, Toure and Eto’o generation may become the star African manager that the continent of many star players really needs.
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