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The battle for African soccer supremacy

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  January 20, 2012 12:22 PM

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LIBREVILLE, Gabon -- Eighteen months ago, the eyes of the soccer world were glued to South Africa, where, for the first time, the FIFA World Cup arrived in the second-most populous continent, home to passionate fans and skilled players, the best of whom increasingly migrate to Europe for work.

Now attention turns to the central African nations of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, hosts of the 2012 African Cup of Nations.

Every two years, in their continental equivalent of the World Cup, the survivors of a grueling year of qualifying matches gather to compete for the right to be called African champions.

This edition of AFCON, known to the Francophone world as CAN 2012, kicks off this week, with the sixteen teams organized into four groups.

Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Senegal, Zambia
Group B: Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Angola
Group C: Gabon, Niger, Morocco, Tunisia
Group D: Ghana, Botswana, Mali, Guinea

Ghana and Ivory Coast, traditional heavyweights, arrive as the consensus tournament favorites, with Senegal, Morocco, Mali, and Burkina Faso the dark horse picks.

The Black Stars of Ghana narrowly missed advancing to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup under controversial circumstances, when Uruguay’s Luis Suarez deliberately handled a ball on the goal line in the 121st minute, near the close of extra time.

Asamoah Gyan, who would go on to be honored as African footballer of the year, missed the resulting penalty, and the South Americans ultimately triumphed on penalty kicks and earned the right to face the Dutch.

Ivory Coast flamed out in South Africa, never making it out of a group of death that included Brazil and Portugal, but the national team is studded with stars of European club soccer.

The roster of the embattled West African nation includes Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, Arsenal’s Gervinho, and Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, recently named 2011 African Player of the Year.

Their English Premier League sides will have to account for their extended absences if the Elephants make it to the Feb. 12th final in Libreville as expected.

Both Ghana and Ivory Coast are hungry for glory and hardware. Ghana, four-time cup winners, last hoisted the trophy in 1982, while Ivory Coast’s sole championship came 20 years ago.

But AFCON 2012 may be more about the minnows than the mighty. Continental giants Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Algeria, and Egypt, winner of the past three AFCON cups, all failed to qualify and are back home facing wrathful supporters.

Meanwhile, unheralded upstarts like Sudan, Niger, and Botswana are looking to make their mark on the world soccer scene.

Botswana, a nation of less than two million, qualified for the first time and earned the double distinction of being the first team to book a trip. The Zebras will face a stiff test against Ghana in the opening match of Group D in Franceville.

One of the best stories to emerge from AFCON qualifying was Libya, whose team persevered through a brutal civil war and the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, changing their flag and national anthem in the process and providing a unifying symbol for New Libya.

Libya will face off against Equatorial Guinea in the tournament’s opening match in Bata tomorrow.

Correspondent Adam Burrows will be reporting from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea through the group stage of AFCON 2012.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Corner Kicks: Julian Cardillo offers insight and analysis about the New England Revolution as well as European and international soccer.

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