BY PAUL EREWUBA
The 2017 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) begins in Gabon today, as sixteen African countries converge on the oil-rich nation to lay claim to the coveted trophy.
Nigeria will not appear in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations tournament as the Super Eagles failed to produce the spark that could have earned them the ticket when they fell 0-1 to the Pharaohs of Egypt in Alexandria.
This will be the second time in a trot that the Super Eagles have failed to qualify for the Nations Cup.
The non participation of the Eagles has no doubt dampened the spirits of many Nigerian football lovers who strongly believe that a Nations Cup without the Super Eagles is like tea without sugar.
However, the clamour of the biannual CAF event is already heightened as African Superstars have been talking tough ahead of their group matches.
The only nation making its Cup of Nations debut is Guinea-Bissau, who have the honour of facing Aubameyang’s Gabon in the opening game at the Stade de l’Amitie in the capital Libreville today.
Gabon, an oil-rich country of barely 1.8 million people, has been in some disarray ever since incumbent President Ali Bongo was declared the winner of the country’s election last August.
Defeated opposition Jean Ping continues to dispute the result and post-election violence left at least three people dead and saw more than 800 arrested.
Opposition activists have called on citizens to boycott the tournament, which will see games staged in Port-Gentil, Franceville and Oyem as well as the capital.
Gabon, which in 2014 was awarded the hosting of the tournament due to the turmoil in Libya, is also struggling with economic crisis.
However, Bongo, who invited Lionel Messi to the country to lay the foundation stone of the stadium in Port-Gentil in 2015, is hoping the football can act as a distraction.
He has called for the Cup of Nations to be a time for “joy, coming together and sharing happiness” and insisted that “political dialogue will open the day after the tournament” in an attempt to usher in a period of calm.
In group A are: Gabon, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau. Group B is made up of Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal and Zimbabwe while Group C has Cote d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Morocco and Togo and Group D is made up of Ghana, Mali, Egypt and Uganda.
CAF African Footballer of the Year runners up, Pierre – Emetic Aubameyang will lead the host nation, Gabon.
The Borussia Dortmund striker Aubameyang will carry the hopes of the small central African nation on his shoulders at the biennial African football showpiece.
On the other hand, fleet-footed reigning African Footballer of the Year, Riyad Mahrez will aim to take Algeria to the tournament final and the continental title.
Mahrez heads for Gabon fresh from winning the Confederation of African Football player of the year prize for 2016.
Speaking after the award, French – born Mahrez, who plies his football trade with English Premier League side, Leicester said he was going to add the Nations Cup title to his award.
“The next thing after this award is the Africa Cup of Nations. My team will try to do good things there.”
With such talents as reigning African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez and Dinamo Zagreb’s star striker El Arabi Hillel Soudani, scoring goals should not be a problem for the Desert Foxes.
In addition to Mahrez, Leicester City’s record signing Islam Slimani will also appear for Algeria, having scored 23 goals in 44 appearances for the national team.
Senegal is another title contender. Led by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, the Senegalese are the major contenders to chase the Ivoireans, who beat Ghana on penalties in the final in Equatorial Guinea two years ago.
Aside Algeria, the Senegalese will also face Tunisia and outsiders Zimbabwe.
But Mahrez acknowledges the fact that the championship is not going to be easy, as there are no minors in football anymore.
“Our group is difficult, with some top African sides. It is not going to be easy with the conditions in Africa but we are prepared and we have a great team.”
In Group C, defending champions, the Elephants of Cote d’ Ivoire will be without their inspirational playmaker Yaya Toure who retired from international football in 2015. They also might not be with their forward Gervinho who is said to be injured.
Indeed, It will not be easy for the Ivoireans as there are fine teams who aspire to also win the trophy,
The Elephants will come up against their old coach Renard who now coaches Morocco.
The Moroccans are however favourites to reach the quarterfinals ahead of DR Congo and the Togo of Emmanuel Adebayor.
“I have made reaching the quarterfinals an objective that we absolutely must attain. If we get there then we will see what we can do,” said the perennially bronzed Renard, who also coached Zambia to glory the last time the Cup of Nations was staged in Gabon – jointly with Equatorial Guinea – in 2012.
Egypt are back for the first time since winning a record seventh Cup of Nations in Angola in 2010 and will pin their hopes on Roma winger Mohamed Salah.
They are one of the six teams who qualified having missed out in 2015.
Another, Uganda, will come up against Egypt in Group D, as will Mali and Ghana.