Standing on shoulders of giants at the upcoming African Cup of Nations

Niger and Botswana qualified ahead of bigger, wealthier nations. Ian Hawkey discovers the cost-cutting efforts of the underdogs preparing for the tournament.

Maazou Moussa, centre, and his Niger teammates qualified for the tournament ahead of South Africa.
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On parched ground on the outskirts of Niamey, Frederic Acosta carefully assembles his tools. He has been to kiosks in the capital of his native Niger, asking sweet stall holders for the conical display units they use to stack lollipops. He has popped in at bicycle repair shops, scrounging old inner tubes.

Acosta is a coach with the Niger Football Federation. He was capped by the national team, in the side that fans in one of Africa's poorest countries recall as one of Niger's finest because they finished just behind Algeria in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup.

Some 30 years later, Niger has new idols: the players who on Saturday in Gabon will for the first time ever represent them at an African Cup of Nations.

Acosta can take some credit, having worked with up-and-coming Niger footballers for a generation.

He collects lollipop display units to use as practice pitch cones; his worn rubber inner tubes are for marking lines in various training drills.

"In other countries, the federation would order in specialist equipment," Acosta told this reporter on a previous visit. "I make these savings so my players can eat better."

Nutrition is important in a nation which ranks second to last on the UN's worldwide Human Development Index and which has suffered serious drought in the last five years.

Neither Acosta not Harouna Doula, the head coach of the senior Niger squad, expect towering Goliaths to emerge from the broad expanse of Sahel they call home.

"In Niger we are not generally big and physically powerful," Acosta said. "So, we need to find our best style of play, to be clever with the ball."

Niger were certainly clever enough in qualifying not only to finish ahead in their group of Egypt, the African Cup of Nations winners three times from 2006 to 2010, but also South Africa, the continent's wealthiest state.

Theirs is a fetching underdog story, although in the bizarre Who's Who of the 28th Cup of Nations, there are almost as many underdogs as top cats.

Take Botswana, the fellow debutants, without anybody resembling a superstar in their midst and yet one of the first teams to steam past the post, ahead of Tunisia and Togo, who were both competing in a World Cup finals five and half years ago.

The 2012 tournament was already novel for taking place in countries outside the African aristocracy.

Oil-rich Gabon and Equatorial Guinea were not to know they would be hosting the aftermath of a footballing set of coups, deciphering how Niger, with a population a 10th the size of Nigeria's have qualified and the Super Eagles have not, wondering how come Samuel Eto'o's Cameroon did not make it but Burkina Faso did.

And trying to fathom how Egypt could plunge so far so fast and yet Libya who, despite playing "home" fixtures abroad because of war, progressed from a Cup of Nations qualifying tournament for only the second time in their history.

Optimists will tell you that in Africa standards have risen, which means the old establishment gets punished more sharply for complacency.

Pessimists will bemoan how the likes of Nigeria and Cameroon seem to be going backwards at senior national level, and always prepare badly.

Certainly South Africa did that. Not much more than a year after their magnificent job of organising the continent's first World Cup, South Africa's coaching staff failed to read properly the regulations on qualifying and thought, after a point in their last match, they had enough to make it at Niger's expense to the tournament. Embarrassingly, they had got their sums wrong.

So much for the absent heavyweights.

Of more concern to those hoping for a better quality of football than was seen at the last Cup of Nations, the Angola event horribly stained by the fatal shooting in an ambush of Togolese team staff, are the individuals who shun the event.

Ghana will start as second favourites. Were they to line up with Chelsea's Michael Essien and AC Milan's Kevin-Prince Boateng in midfield, they might be higher than that.

Both players have "retired" from international commitments.

Ivory Coast, Senegal and Mali will give the Cup of Nations the iconic figures on which some of its global popularity depends, the likes of Chelsea's Didier Drogba, Newcastle United's Demba Ba and Barcelona's Seydou Keita.

But the finals will be characterised by a higher number than usual of footballers employed not by clubs in Europe but in Africa.

The presence of Niger, Botswana and Libya - not great exporters of footballers to Europe's leading leagues - guarantees that. That may yet turn out to be rather refreshing.