I have been to Africa twice recently and there is a huge level anticipation for the two big football tournaments to be held there this year. I've travelled to the continent several times now. In 1999, I was asked to put my name to a children's charity in Zimbabwe. I thought it was appropriate and I went out there. We'd just won the treble with Manchester United and I was on a total high. Being there brought me straight down to earth.
Kids were sleeping rough, there was no food. There was a myth going round that you could cure Aids by sleeping with a young virgin. I was saying to myself: "This can't be right." I wanted to save a few lives and I believe that I did that by helping out financially. This summer's World Cup in South Africa will be good for the whole continent, but before then there's the small matter of the African Cup of Nations, which starts this weekend.
I was an analyst for the BBC for the 2006 tournament, when I saw top players impress like Didier Zokora of the Ivory Coast, then a virtual unknown at St Etienne. There will be many other players playing out of their skins this time because the African Nations is a wonderful shop window. Scouts will be watching, if not in person as Angola isn't the easiest place to get to, then on television. They'll be hoping to spot gems and give them a chance of the big time. There's no shortage of raw talent to watch.
Egypt are going for a record third successive title and yet they are not one of the African teams who are going to be in the World Cup finals. They were knocked out in a controversial play-off with Algeria, another team among the 16 sides who have reached the African finals. But Egypt are not favourites. From speaking to people in Africa, they all told me that Ivory Coast and Cameroon, who are coached by the former Lyon man Paul Le Guen, are the teams to beat.
Unlike the Egyptians, the West African countries are blessed with players of immense physical stature. The strength and power of lads like Chelsea's Michael Essien and Didier Drogba is one reason why they are so attractive in the physical English Premier League. The competition is full of quality players, big stars like Drogba, Emmanuel Adebayor, Freddie Kanoute, Essien and Seydou Keita from Barcelona.
And I can't forget the two Toure brothers for the Ivory Coast - Barça's Yaya and Manchester City's Kolo. Their title rivals like United won't lose a single player, but Chelsea will miss Drogba, Essien, John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou. People questioned the huge fee which Chelsea paid Marseille for Drogba. They don't now, because he's one of the best players in the world, so powerful and skilful.
The story of Essien saddens me a little more because he was a lifelong Manchester United fan. United wanted to sign him, but then money talked and he joined Chelsea. As for Mikel, he actually signed for United! I've no idea what went on after that, but it was very murky. All of them have been loyal to their roots and a lot of modern day players could take a lesson in humility from the African players.
When I was a youth team player we cleaned the boots of the older lads in the senior team. Now the young kids have agents and boots from sponsors. Some have a big time attitude before they've done anything in the game, which is not good. Drogba has an assured arrogance that you'll find in most top level strikers. If you don't believe supremely in your ability then nobody is going to, yet he recently put US$5 million (Dh18.3m) of his own money into building a hospital in the Ivory Coast, a country his family left when he was five.
You have to admire that. Such players appreciate that they are given an opportunity which most people in their countries can only dream of and they put plenty back. Inter Milan striker Samuel Eto'o bought a fleet of 42 taxis for his mates to run in Cameroon! Eto'o and Cameroon are excellent, but I can't look beyond the Drogba and the Ivorian Elephants because they have so many other quality goalscorers - like Bakari Koné, Salomon Kalou and Arouna Koné.
Plus they have more emerging: Abdul-Kader Keita, Sékou Cissé, Boubacar Sanogo, Gervinho and Seydou Doumbia. Add them to the Toure brothers and you can see why they are favourites, not just to win the African Cup of Nations, but to do better than any African country in this summer's World Cup. I'll be watching both with great interest. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org