The Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on Saturday in Ivory Coast with the host nation and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt among the leading contenders to succeed Senegal of Sadio Mane as continental champions.
The 24-team tournament, which concludes with the final on February 11, is the first in the West African country in four decades, since just eight nations featured in the 1984 edition won by Roger Milla’s Cameroon.
Senegal are defending the title they won in Cameroon in 2022, but a strong field also features Morocco and a Nigeria side spearheaded by African footballer of the year Victor Osimhen.
The tournament opens with the Group A meeting of the hosts and Guinea-Bissau at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium at Ebimpe, on the outskirts of the economic capital Abidjan.
The 60,000-seat stadium was built for a tournament initially supposed to be played in June and July last year to avoid a clash with the middle of the season in Europe, where so many top African players are based.
However, fears over staging it during the rainy season led to it being pushed back to its more traditional January and February slot.
Matches will be staged in six stadiums, with two venues in Abidjan, including at Ebimpe, which will host the final.
Games will also be played in the capital Yamoussoukro and neighbouring Bouake, as well as in San Pedro on the coast and in Korhogo, in the north near the frontiers with Mali and Burkina Faso.
It is the first Afcon in West Africa since Ghana in 2008, and $1.5 billion has been invested by the Ivorian government.
“Let’s all mobilise to make this Afcon a great celebration of youth, Ivorian hospitality and African brotherhood,” said President Ouattara in his New Year’s speech.
Authorities will be hoping to avoid anything like the event that overshadowed the last Afcon in Cameroon, where eight people were killed in a crush and stampede outside Yaounde’s Olembe Stadium.
Locals are also hoping that their team, the Elephants, can go all the way and claim a third title.
Salah leads Egypt
The most recognisable face in their squad is Borussia Dortmund striker Sebastien Haller, who appears regularly on billboards lining Abidjan’s traffic-choked streets.
As they aim to retain their crown despite stiff competition, Senegal will again lean heavily on Mane, the former Liverpool forward now playing in Saudi Arabia for Al Nassr.
“I cannot recall a stronger field. All the giants are going to be in Ivory Coast and all of them will be plotting to dethrone us,” Mane, now 31, said recently.
Senegal are in Group C with Cameroon, Gambia and the Guinea of Serhou Guirassy, prolific in the German Bundesliga with Stuttgart and reportedly fine after an injury scare this week.
Egypt boast the biggest star of all in Salah as they target a record-extending eighth title to banish the memory of defeats in the 2017 and 2022 finals.
That is what Egyptians are dreaming of, although fans of his club, Liverpool, will hope he returns early as they chase the English Premier League title.
Egypt should have few serious problems getting out of a group also featuring Ghana, Cape Verde and Mozambique.
Can Morocco live up to billing?
Morocco are hoping to live up to their billing after becoming the first African nation ever to reach the semi-finals at a World Cup, just over a year ago in Qatar.
“I want to at least get to the semi-finals,” coach Walid Regragui told local television channel Arryadia, as Morocco aim to win a second Afcon and first since 1976.
They are in Group F with DR Congo, Zambia and a Tanzania side who have never won a game at the tournament.
Morocco’s biggest star is Achraf Hakimi, the Paris Saint-Germain right-back who was runner-up to Osimhen for the 2023 African footballer of the year.
The presence of Napoli striker Osimhen gives Nigerians hope their team can go far but they have been dealt a blow with the loss of Bayer Leverkusen forward Victor Boniface to injury.
The Super Eagles will play the hosts as well as Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in Group A.
Winners in 2019, Algeria are in Group D with Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Angola.
South Africa are back after missing the last edition, and their team leans heavily on the country’s leading club side, Mamelodi Sundowns.
They meet Tunisia, Mali and Namibia in Group E.
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