Poor Benin. Perhaps, having followed the all too familiar path of replacing the local coach who got them to the finals with a journeyman European and then spent the last few months trawling Europe for players with Beninese heritage, the Squirrels deserve little sympathy. But still, tossing a country into only their second African Nations Cup in what is probably the deadliest group of death the continent has ever known seems harsh.
Whether Reinhard Fabisch, a German who has managed Zimbabwe and Kenya, really has anything to add beyond what could have been given them by Wabi Gomez, who will serve as his No 2, is debatable, while the adverts for players in Parisian newspapers seem to have been counterproductive. "I was surprised to hear about this, as we are the players who got Benin out of a group with Mali and Togo and suffered to get to these finals," said the left-back Anicet Adjamossi. "We've got a good spirit and they should be careful not to break it."
The Beninese Football Federation published the names of 30 players they were hoping to recruit on the grounds of grandparentage, but none opted to take up the offer. The only "new blood" in the squad after the qualifiers is 37-year-old Alain Gaspoz. The defender was born in Switzerland to a Beninese mother and played in the Squirrels' only previous Nations Cup finals, in 2004, but he retired at the end of last season.
Gaspoz aside, their team is based around the Under-20s squad who finished third when hosting the African Youth Championship in 2005. From that success sprang the Accrington Stanley defender Romy Boco, as well as Razak Omotoyossi, top scorerin Sweden last year while partnering Henrik Larsson up front for Helsingborg, and the Le Mans playmaker Stéphane Sessegnon.
Still, given the group they are in, it would be a major achievement for Benin if they were to improve on 2004, when they lost every game. Given the group they are in, it would be a major achievement if any of their fans were to find a hotel room. The Nations Cup is being taken increasingly seriously – note the lack of major players withdrawing – and officials claim there could be as many as a million visitors to Ghana.
That may be fanciful, but it doesn't feel so in Sekondi. Ivory Coast and Nigeria have always had vast armies of travelling support, and with the Ivorian border just a short drive along the coast, Ghana's third city has been swamped. Benin and Mali are also within the scope of overland travel, and the result is an infrastructure creaking under the strain. Local schools have been given the month off so that officials can occupy their buildings.
As hosts, Ghana, who get the competition under way against Guinea today, are understandable favourites, but two major question-marks hang over them. Firstly, for all the power of their midfield, they lack a goal-scorer,and secondly, that midfield, despite featuring Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, is missing a key link in Stephen Appiah. Ghana's captain was an awesome force in the World Cup, and when Ghana hammered Nigeria 4-1 at Brentford last year with the trinity in situ, it seemed this tournament could be a walkover. Since Appiah succumbed to a knee injury, though, Ghana have lost 5-0 in a friendly to Saudi Arabia. That was freakish but, still, the doubt remains.
George Weah and El-Hadji Diouf have noted that this is the most open Nations Cup in history, though few dispute that the most likely challengers to Ghana will be whoever survive the dogfight in Group B. When Didier Drogba was declared fit, Ivory Coast became second favourites. With Kolo Touré at the back, his brother Yaya and Didier Zokora at the back of the midfield and a wealth of potential partners for Drogba, they have a robust spine.
They lost their coach Uli Stielike a fortnight ago as he returned to Hanover to be with his seriously ill son, but his replacement, the Frenchman George Gili, worked with the squad as part of Henri Michels' backroom staff at the last Cup, and they have played together for the best part of four years. The bigger worry is the defence around Touré and especiallytheir goalkeeper, the less than reassuring Boubacar Barry.
Their game against Nigeria tomorrow is likely to be crucial. Nigeria top the African rankings, and, given their squad, understandably so. The problem is that an embarrassment of riches has often proved simply an embarrassment, with vested interests pushing their candidates through a rabid media with little thought to balance or structure. "If football in Nigeria was organised as in Germany, the team would be unbeatable," said their coach, Berti Vogts, who admitted last week that he has grown so frustrated by the perpetual sense of chaos around the squad that he has considered "throwing in the towel".
That makes them vulnerable, and the side who could take advantage are Mali. They lack width and the supply line to Frédéric Kanouté is unreliable, but the midfield trio of Momo Sissoko, Sevilla's Seydou Keita and Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid make them extremely hard to break down, as a record of just one goal conceded in qualifying suggests. Besides, their four previous appearances have all resulted in semi-finals.
No North African side have won a tournament in West Africa, and with Egypt missing their playmaker, the sumptuous Moha-mad Barakat, that is unlikely to change. Morocco, inspired by Nancy's Youssouf Hadji, the brother of Moustapha, are thrilling with the ball, but flaky without.
Guinea too are an exciting prospect if their playmaker Pascal Feindouno clicks, but they are likely to be let down by a shaky defence. With Senegal ageing, the other great threat to the hosts are Cameroon.
Samuel Eto'o can win games almost single-handedly, but the worry is he will have to. Although Lille's Jean Makoun is a commanding presence in midfield and their whole side ripple with robust determination, they are even shorter on flair than usual.
The eyes of Ghana, and the rest of Africa, will be firmly focused on events in Sekondi.
Groups, fixtures and venues
Group A: Ghana, Morocco, Guinea, Namibia.
Group B: Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali, Benin.
Group C: Egypt, Cameroon, Zambia, Sudan.
Group D: Tunisia, Senegal, South Africa, Angola.
Today: Group A: Ghana v Guinea, Accra
21 Jan: Group A: Namibia v Morocco, Accra; Group B: Nigeria v Ivory Coast, Sekondi; Mali v Benin, Sekondi
22 Jan: Group C: Egypt v Cameroon, Kumasi; Sudan v Zambia, Kumasi
23 Jan: Group D: Tunisia v Senegal, Tamale; South Africa v Angola, Tamale
24 Jan: Group A: Guinea v Morocco, Accra; Ghana v Namibia, Accra
25 Jan: Group B: Ivory Coast v Benin, Sekondi; Nigeria v Mali, Sekondi
26 Jan: Group C: Cameroon v Zambia, Kumasi; Egypt v Sudan, Kumasi
27 Jan: Group D: Senegal v Angola, Tamale; Tunisia v South Africa, Tamale
28 Jan: Group A: Ghana v Morocco, Accra; Guinea v Namibia, Sekondi
29 Jan: Group B: Nigeria v Benin, Sekondi; Ivory Coast v Mali, Accra
30 Jan: Group C: Cameroon v Sudan, Tamale; Egypt v Zambia, Kumasi
31 Jan: Group D: Senegal v South Africa, Kumasi; Tunisia v Angola, Tamale
3 Feb: Match 1: Winner Group A v Runner-up Group B, Accra
3 Feb: Match 2: 1st B v 2nd A, Tamale
4 Feb: Match 3: 1st C v 2nd D, Sekondi
4 Feb: Match 4: 1st D v 2nd C, Kumasi
7 Feb: Winner 1 v W 4, Accra
7 Feb: W 2 v W 3, Kumasi
10 Feb: FINAL, Accra
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