2013 African Cup Of Nations - The Coronation Of Odd Years With Even Soccer
Only one year ago the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) thrilled soccer hungry enthusiasts with the crème de la crème of African football. That was in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in January/February 2012. And just when the euphoria of it was beginning to settle in, AFCON is at it again, this time in no less a place than the venue of the 2010 World Cup, South Africa.
By holding the tournament in 2013 the 29th edition of AFCON marks a departure from the even years in which it has been held for years. We're told the change in calendar to odd years was necessitated by the calendar of the World Cup. It clashes with that of AFCON when it comes around and AFCON has to make room to accommodate it.
In reality, who cares when AFCON rolls out as long as it rolls out? Soccer is even in Africa and the attachment is staggering, hence the pundits are it again. The verdict already seems to point in one direction, Côte d'Ivoire. The Elephants, as the national team is affectionately known, are bursting at the seams with talent and experience, and the present crop of players has been touted as the golden generation of Ivorian football. For once, they will want to stamp their authority in the soccer fields of South Africa and lift the golden trophy lest the sun sets on their golden age.
Ghana follows closely on the heels of Côte d'Ivoire at the summit of FIFA African rankings albeit in AFCON record Côte d'Ivoire fiddles second with one trophy against Ghana's four. While the Black Stars of Ghana may lack the current bubble in talent and experience of their Western neighbours their team spirit has been in superlative quality. In football terms this is an invaluable asset and possibly all they need to break the jinx that has been their lot since 1982.
Topping the favourites of the bookies for Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana is almost routine now. What has not been equally recurrent is winning the cup at all. The much less fancied Copper Bullets of Zambia dazed them both with sheer brilliance, self-belief and willpower to lift the cup in 2012, and Zambia is coming back to prove their victory was a lot more than a fairy tale with a happy ending.
Although South Africa will be banking on home advantage to favour them, there is really nothing like a clear favourite in AFCON these days, not even for hosts unless we want to plot yet another narrative for yet another big surprise. To put it in perspective, Cameroon and Egypt, two of the most successful African teams, failed to qualify for the second time in a row. Instead, their places at the continental soccer banquet have been earned by others hitherto unsung.
Debutants have never really been uncommon in recent tournaments. In this AFCON it is Cape Verde that is making it for the first time. They will find a hard nut to crack in Morocco, Angola and hosts South Africa before progressing any further. Yet the small island nation of about half a million people is unflustered. They are coming to seal their name in the annals of African football and they intend to do so with a remarkable run.
After 31 years of total absence it appears the Ethiopians have been running a long distance to the touch line and they have made it finally. Many know them for their athletes and most do recall the legendary Haile Gebrselassie with fond memories. What some do not remember is that Ethiopia also won this much coveted African Cup in 1962.
If destiny is on their side, the world might be reminded of their other sporting prowess when they come against Burkina Faso, Nigeria and reigning Zambia in the continental soccer fiesta.
Certainly, whichever country lifts the trophy will be making history with the coronation of the odd years. It will be a double do, more reason to sweeten the victory if a sweetener was ever needed for this priceless gem. And if Zambia loses in their defence they will still be making history as the champions who reigned for one odd year only. Indeed, all sixteen nations who qualified for South Africa have cause to feel the hand of history on their shoulders.
But come on, this is AFCON, an African festival of friendly rivalries, so let's not lose focus of the real ball. It is a pan-African funfair, one of the most colourful football tournaments on planet Earth. The fans make all the difference even when teams falter. They drum, they sing, they dance, they celebrate in flamboyant costumes and drama.
The plurality, diversity and uniformity of African culture find its fullest and most passionate expression here at one and the same time.
AFCON is a people's affair, far more than a love for trophies. It touches almost every home throughout the continent. And 19th January to 10th February 2013 is AFCON time. Just bring on the vuvuzelas and let's go to South Africa.
Samwin Banienuba (UK)
International Spokesperson for Humanitas Afrika