All eyes on Africa: Ghana the focus of the global game

Thirty-five Premier League players, 16,000 journalists and as many as a million visiting fans. The days when the African Nations Cup was the poor relation of the football calendar are well and truly over. And, as Jonathan Wilson reports from Accra, the tournament which begins this weekend has the potential to be the greatest in its history
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Once when Premier League managers moaned about the African Nations Cup disrupting their seasons, their words carried uneasy overtones of post-colonial arrogance. Now, they just sound like pitiable, petty Canutes, fighting pointlessly against the tide.

In previous years, the build-up to tournaments has been overshadowed by talk of the major players withdrawing to stay with their clubs. There has not been a whisper of that this time. There will be 35 Premier League players in Ghana when the competition kicks off on Sunday: none has expressed any sense of a conflict of interests. The only vaguely high-profile withdrawal has been Hossam Ghaly, who recently joined Derby on loan from Tottenham, but given that he played his first game of the season only last Saturday, his match fitness must be in doubt anyway.

That commitment to country reflects the tournament's status in Africa. A staggering 16,000 journalists have been accredited to cover it, double the figure for the one in Egypt two years ago. One member of the organising committee suggested last week that Ghana could expect as many as a million visitors over the course of the tournament and, while that estimate sounds high, it is certainly true that the local infrastructure has been struggling under the strain. It is, for instance, impossible to find a hotel vacancy in the western city of Sekondi or neighbouring Takoradi for the next month and local schools have been given the month off so their buildings can be used to house tournament officials. Nigeria and Ivory Coast, who are in Group B, based in Sekondi, have always had Africa's largest travelling support and with their group being made up by two other west African teams, Mali and Benin, organisers have set up camp sites to try to accommodate fans.

That, without question, is the toughest of the four groups. The great former Zambia centre-forward Kalusha Bwalya, in praising the rising professionalism of the African game last week, noted that he could not remember a previous tournament with so many potential winners and it is hard to disagree. Since the African Nations Cup became a 16-team tournament in 1996, there has been a sense at times that the group stages are little more than a formalised warm-up for the bigger teams, but when Nigeria and Ivory Coast reprise their semi-final of two years ago in Sekondi on Monday, both will know defeat could have serious consequences.

Both have line-ups studded with Premier League players and both have had disrupted build-ups. The Ivory Coast coach, Uli Stielike, stood down a fortnight ago to return to Hanover to be with his seriously ill son and, although his replacement, the Frenchman Gerard Gili, worked with the team as part of Henri Michel's backroom staff in Egypt in 2006, a sense of continuity has been lost. Didier Drogba leads the attack, while the midfield pairing of Yaya Touré and Didier Zokora, and Kolo Touré at centre-back, provide a solid spine. But their big problem is the unreliable Boubacar Barry in goal.

Nigeria, meanwhile, have been caught up in their usual fog of chaos, with the coach, Berti Vogts, seemingly involved in a perpetual wrangle with their football federation. "There can be no excuses," the Nigeria Football Association's secretary-general Bolaji Ojo-Oba said, as the Super Eagles look to win their first Nations Cup since 1994, but Vogts admitted last week that he has contemplated quitting because of the levels of disorganisation and the infrequent paying of his salary.

Nigeria are ranked No 1 in Africa, their squad is the equal of any in the tournament and is packed with pace, while in Ayegbeni Yakubu they have a goalscorer in form, the absence of which was a major weakness two years ago. "If football in Nigeria was organised as in Germany the team would be unbeatable," Vogts said, but it is not, and so they are vulnerable as was demonstrated by a 4-1 defeat to Ghana at Brentford last year.

Mali, with the goalscoring prowess of Frédéric Kanouté, and the muscular midfield trio of Mohamed Sissoko, Mahamadou Diarra, of Real Madrid, and Seville's Seydou Keita are well placed to take advantage. They conceded a single goal in qualifying and their coach, Jean-François Jodar, has not experienced a competitive defeat in 18 months in the job.

Benin, having put out Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo in qualifying, are unfortunate to find themselves in such a tough group. They too have a player at an English club, but the fact that the defender Rommy Boco plays for Accrington Stanley probably sums up their chances. Their squad remain heavily based around the Under-20 team who finished third when hosting the African Youth Championship in 2005, despite a desperate recruitment campaign that included adverts in Paris newspapers to unearth European-based players with Beninese roots.

Ghana, with home advantage, are favourites with the bookmakers, although the absence through injury of their captain, Stephen Appiah, will hit them hard. With Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, though, they are not short of powerful midfielders and they also have plenty of young talent to draw on, including the former Arsenal striker Quincy Owusu-Abeyie and André Dede Ayew, the son of the legendary Abedi Pele.

But their group, A, is not as simple as it may at first appear. Guinea are inconsistent, but the sumptuous St-Etienne playmaker Pascal Feindouno is capable of turning any game on his day, while in Dynamo Kiev's Ismaël Bangoura they have a dangerous presence in attack. Morocco, meanwhile, look the strongest of the north African sides, despite a distinctly shaky rearguard. Youssouf Hadji, the spitting image of his elder brother Moustapha, who once played for Coventry and Aston Villa, is in the form of his life for Nancy, and will be a major threat operating behind Marouane Chamakh, a moody but occasionally brilliant lone figurehead.

Ghana are fired by the desire to re-establish their continental pre-eminence. They were for four decades the most successful side in Africa, but saw their record of four Nations Cups surpassed by Egypt's victory two years ago. Egypt themselves, without the injured pair of Mido and the playmaker Mohamed Barakat, look unlikely to end the trend that tournaments in west Africa are won always by west African sides.

Senegal, semi-finalists last time, have El Hadji Diouf back after he reversed his decision to retire from international football – it did not take many Gary Megson training sessions at Bolton, evidently, for him to decide that his January was better spent in Ghana – but whether they want him is another matter. Although he is by far the most celebrated player in Senegal's history, his recent performances for the national side have been disappointing and some fans are suggesting West Ham's Henri Camara should be paired with the Marseilles striker Mamadou Niang, who has been in superb goalscoring form of late. Quite aside from that potential disruption, they are an ageing squad and look a fading force, leaving Cameroon as the other serious contenders.

Otto Pfister, Togo coach at the last World Cup finals, has been imposed on the squad to a far from unanimous warm welcome, and he has, if anything, managed to further the process of teutonification begun by one of his predecessors, Winfried Schäfer. Cameroon were always the grinders of African football and, with a serious dearth of creativity, they have slipped even further down the road of pragmatism. Rigobert Song, still only 31, is a commanding captain – and a far better player than his Premier League performances for Liverpool and West Ham suggested – and behind him Idriss Kameni is arguably the best goalkeeper on the continent.

Their problems, though, are going forward. The crossing and dead-ball prowess of Geremi has long been their principal attacking weapon, but he has suffered as much as anyone from the turbulence at Newcastle. That said, Jose Mourinho described him as "running like a 40-year-old" when he offloaded him from Chelsea last summer. Lille's Jean Makoun is a combative presence in midfield but Arsenal's Alexandre Song remains inexperienced. In Samuel Eto'o, though, they have a striker who can win a game on his own. The problem is, he may have to.

Ghana will not dismiss them as rivals, certainly, but the real focus will be on who survives the shake-up in Sekondi.

Five to watch at Nations Cup

Ismael Bangoura (Guinea)

The pacy 23-year-old striker hit 12 goals for Le Mans last season, and has hit an extraordinary nine in eight starts for Dynamo Kiev this season.

Youssouf Hadji (Morocco)

The 27-year-old brother of Moustapha, a former African Footballer of the Year, is Morocco's reigning Player of the Year and a key part of Nancy's fine start to the season. Plays on either flank or as a second striker.

Razak Omotoyossi (Benin)

If Benin are to spring an upset, much will depend on the 22-year-old forward who has partnered Henrik Larsson with distinction at Helsingborg.

Andre Dede Ayew (Ghana)

The 18-year-old son of the great Abedi Pele represented France at youth level before throwing in his lot with Ghana and has shown great ingenuity in a handful of appearances for Marseilles.

Manucho (Angola)

A first real chance to see the 24-year-old forward who has joined Manchester United from Petro Athletico – and the first opportunity to see how he handles being in the spotlight.

UK players in Ghana action

Arsenal

Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué (Ivory Coast), Alexandre Song (Cameroon).

Birmingham City

Richard Kingson (Ghana), Medhi Nafti and Radhi Jaidi (Tunisia).

Blackburn Rovers

Aaron Mokoena (South Africa).

Bolton Wanderers

El Hadji Diouf (Senegal), Abdoulaye Meite (Ivory Coast).

Chelsea

John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana).

Everton

Joseph Yobo and Ayegbeni Yakubu (Nigeria), Steven Pienaar (South Africa).

Fulham

Diomansy Kamara (Senegal).

Liverpool

Mohamed Sissoko (Mali).

Manchester United

Manucho (Angola).

Middlesbrough

Mohamed Shawky (Egypt).

Newcastle United

Obafemi Martins (Nigeria), Geremi (Cameroon), Abdoulaye Faye and Habib Beye (Senegal).

Portsmouth

Papa Bouba Diop (Senegal), Nwankwo Kanu and John Utaka (Nigeria), Sulley Muntari (Ghana).

Reading

Andre Bikey (Cameroon), Emerse Fae (Ivory Coast), Ibrahima Sonko (Senegal).

Sunderland

Dickson Etuhu (Nigeria).

Tottenham Hotspur

Didier Zokora (Ivory Coast).

West Ham United

John Pantsil (Ghana), Henri Camara (Senegal).

Aston Villa, Derby County, Manchester City and Wigan Athletic have no representatives

Championship

Southampton: Youssef Safri (Morocco); Stoke City: Mamady Sidibe (Mali); Watford: Danny Shittu (Nigeria); Wolves: Seyi Olofinjana (Nigeria).

League One

Nottingham Forest: Junior Agogo (Ghana).

League Two

Accrington Stanley: Romauld Boco (Benin).

Scottish Premier

Celtic: Bobo Baldé (Guinea); Hearts: Laryea Kingston (Ghana).

Nations Cup by numbers: Key statistics

Most titles: 5 Egypt 1957, 1959, 1986, 1998, 2006; 4 Ghana 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982 and Cameroon 1984, 1988, 2000, 2002.

Most tournament appearances: Team: Egypt, 21; Player: Alain Gouaméné (Ivory Coast) 7; 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000.

Final appearances: Team: Ghana, 7; Player: Ali El Fanageeli (Egypt) 1957, 1959, 1962; Cecil Jones Attaquayefio (Ghana) 1965, 1968, 1970 and Charles Addo Odametey (Ghana) 1963, 1965, 1968.

Youngest player: Chiva Star Nzighou (Gabon) 16 years, two months, 30 days.

Fastest goal: Ayman Mansour scored after 23 seconds for Egypt against Gabon in 1994.

Mostgoals in a match: Laurent Pokou (Ivory Coast) 5 v Ethiopia in 6-1 win, 1970. Pokou also holds the record for most Nations Cup goals with 14.

At one tournament: Mulumba Ndaye (Zaire) 9, 1974

Mahmoud El-Gohary won the Cup with Egypt as both a player (1959) and a coach (1998).

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