The fourth edition of a unique senior national team tournament kicks off in Rwanda Saturday with Nigeria and Tunisia among the title favourites.
Only footballers playing in their country of birth are eligible for the African Nations Championship, whose matches are recognised by Fifa as full internationals with results counting toward the monthly rankings.
A brainchild of CAF president and acting Fifa president Issa Hayatou, the Nations Championship was introduced to give local stars national team experience they would not ordinarily get because overseas-based compatriots are preferred.
Labelled the ‘baby brother’ of the Africa Cup of Nations, the Nations Championship has the same format with 15 qualifiers and the hosts split into four groups from which winners and runners-up advance to the quarter-finals.
The home-only rule will have little effect on finalists like Rwanda and Ethiopia, the bulk of whose leading footballers perform in the domestic championships.
But the Ivory Coast squad bares no resemblance to that which normally competes as the senior side and is dominated by Europe-based stars like four-time African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure.
However, France-born Ivorian Cup of Nations coach Michel Dussuyer is also in charge of a Nations Championship selection in which first-time champions AS Tanda have six players.
Franco-Pole Henryk Kasperczak fills a similar role for Tunisia, but gallbladder surgery prevented him travelling to Rwanda and assistant Hatem Missaoui takes charge.
Nigeria coach Sunday Oliseh sees little difference between the Africa Cup of Nations and the African Nations Championship tournaments.
“We do not have A and B teams,” he stressed in South Africa while preparing for the 22-day tournament, which will be staged at four venues, two of them in the capital Kigali.
“They are all national squad players with the only difference being that some play abroad and others at home.”
Tunisia and Nigeria are the first and second seeds in Group C and it would be a shock if they failed to reach the knockout stage at the expense of Niger and debutants Guinea.
Nigeria defender Samson Gbadebo is brimming with confidence after the West Africans beat Ivory Coast and drew with Angola in Pretoria warm-up matches against fellow finalists.
“There is nothing to worry about in our group. We will start with a victory against Niger and top the standings.
“Our players compete in a leading African national championship and I believe we have what it takes to go all the way.”
Oliseh is wary of Tunisia, whose squad contains many of the stars who helped Etoile Sahel beat Orlando Pirates of South Africa in the 2015 CAF Confederation Cup final.
“Tunisia have a strong domestic league and many of the Nations Championship squad also play in the Cup of Nations,” he said.
The draw did Rwanda no favours with Gabon, Ivory Coast and Morocco the strong Group A rivals of a host nation coached by 30-year-old Johnny McKinstry.
“Rwandans can be confident that our squad will give everything in pursuit of good performances,” was the reassuring message from the Irishman.
DR Congo, winners of the maiden Nations Championship in Abidjan seven years ago, and Cameroon look the strongest sides in Group B, which is completed by Angola and Ethiopia.
But choosing two likely quarter-finalists from Group D contenders Mali, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe is difficult.
Zambia have chosen midfielder Isaac Chansa and striker Christopher Katongo, pivotal figures in the team that mocked the form book by winning the 2012 Cup of Nations.
Recalled after two years in the international wilderness, the veterans said they were “humbled by the call-ups and the confidence shown in their abilities”.
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