Ivory Coast and Togo can inspire electric mix

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The Independent Football

In the last few days, the usual stories have emerged prior to the start of the African Nations' Cup here today.

Togo delayed their departure for Egypt because of a wrangle over bonus payments, while the Democratic Republic of Congo's coach, Claude LeRoy, was reported as threatening not to travel at all unless he was paid six months' wages he is owed.

Yet this 25th Nations' Cup promises to be anything but a standard edition of a tournament which began in unusual fashion in 1957, in Sudan, when South Africa's withdrawal, under the apartheid regime, meant only three countries took part and Egypt won after playing two games. Times have changed since then. If the Pharaohs are to extend their record of four Cups, they will have to play six games in the 16-team format.

Times have also changed for the countries which have dominated African football in the last 15 years. Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa have all won Nations' Cups in that period and featured in World Cups but this year - and you can add Senegal to that list - none will be present at this summer's event.

In their place have come Ghana, also four times winners, Ivory Coast, Togo and Angola. As group winners in their qualifiers they will all be in Egypt and, of even greater significance, they will all be in Germany.

The presence of those four countries, all of whom are World Cup debutants, alongside those teams slightly longer in the tooth, promises to make this Nations' Cup the most closely contested since Burkina Faso, on home soil, and the Democratic Republic of Congo reached the semi-finals in 1998.

As if to emphasise the rapid change in fortunes across the continent, none of that evocative quartet even reached the Nations' Cup two years ago in Tunisia, won by the hosts. Thoughts of glory in Didier Drogba or Emmanuel Adebayor's heads as they watched on in 2002 would have been restricted purely to what they could achieve in their club's colours. Now, for the Ivory Coast and Togo respectively, they can make their mark not only in Egypt but also on the world stage in five months' time.

Of course, the fact that this tournament comes around every two years, and in the middle of the season, enrages every manager who loses a player to it. Twenty-two players from the Premiership will be involved, with Bolton alone losing four players. It could be much worse - in France, Ligue 1 loses 55.

Still that does not prevent new African faces joining the Premiership, with managers attracted by their growing quality as well as value compared to their European counterparts.

Arsène Wenger, who would like to see the tournament held every four years and in the summer, signed Adebayor last week only for him to rejoin his country having not broken sweat in an Arsenal shirt. "He goes away straight away with Togo but that is what happens," he shrugged.

However, the days have gone for Wenger when he was in charge of Monaco and tried to bring back a player before the Cup started, in vain, as he had forgotten his bags at the team hotel. Later, trying to bring the same forward back mid-tournament, he was thwarted by a minister for sport, claiming his job was on the line should the player leave.

Wenger, who at Monaco managed the Liberian and former World Footballer of the Year George Weah, explained why he feels there is a growing desire to look to African talent. "I think the standard has improved over the last 10 or 15 years," he said. "Many European teams have academies in Africa and I feel it improves the level of the players. Many from Africa now play in Europe and they gain experience and lose complexes. Overall the future of Africa is in Europe."

Alan Curbishley, who is now without his defender Talal El Karkouri, will also be watching in Egypt. "Because of the quality of the players in the tournament you have to take notice," the Charlton manager said. "The African player can come into the Premiership and handle it quite comfortably and there have been a few major successes. I don't think it will stop people signing African players but this Cup is a bit of a problem."

But the wrath of a manager is nothing to that of a country scorned. The Ivory Coast, then without Drogba or Kolo Touré, suffered early elimination in 2000. On arriving home such was the level of national disgust the players were held under military arrest at the airport and effectively put in a boot camp.

Among the favourites now, there should be no such problem for the Elephants this time, but that sort of reaction demonstrates that the unusual is never far away at a Nations' Cup.

Three talents who could attract attention if they turn on the style

Samuel Eto'o, CAMEROON

Third in the World Footballer of the Year awards last month, the Barcelona striker, 24, brings ability of the highest order to this Nations' Cup. Has had contact with Chelsea this season and they will be first in line this summer if he becomes available, at a price of £20m and rising.

Didier Zokora, IVORY COAST

Linked with a £5m move to Arsenal, but now that they have signed Abou Diaby other clubs will be looking at the St-Etienne central midfielder, aged 25. Nicknamed 'the maestro' for his presence, he has been likened to Patrick Vieira. He is also, according to team-mate Didier Drogba, a fearsome dancer.

Mohamed Barakat, EGYPT

Mido has paved the way for Egyptian players in the Premiership and Barakat could follow the Spurs striker to England if he has a successful Nations' Cup on home soil. A playmaker and at the peak of his game aged 29, he has helped his Cairo club, Al-Ahly, to a 55-game unbeaten run.

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