Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Half-way to Ghana

While much of the footballing world had its attention focused squarely on the Euro 2008 qualifiers two weekends back, Africa quietly went about the business of undertaking its own equivalent - The 2008 African Nations Cup.

The first competition took place in 1957 and in the fifty years that have followed, many big names have emerged to not only dominate the game in Africa but also make a big impact on the world stage.

2008 hosts Ghana have won the tournament four times but haven't raised the trophy since 1982. They'll be hoping to make their home advantage pay off as Egypt did in 2006 and should start as favourites following their spirited run to the second round of the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Egypt themselves have started their qualifying campaign for Ghana 2008 well. They now lead Group 2 with seven points from a possible nine following a 3-1 win over Mauritania nine days ago. Egypt hold the record for most African Nations Cup titles - five in all - and a good showing next year will make up for a recent lack of World Cup Finals appearances.

Of the countries who played in Germany last year, Ivory Coast and Angola have 100% records at the top of ANC Group 1 and Group 6 while Togo and Tunisia have dropped points but still lead Groups 9 and 4 respectively. All four teams won their games at the end of March although Togo's progress was derailed temporarily back in October 2006 when they lost 1-0 to Mali.

Ivory Coast finished as runners-up to Egypt in the last African Nations Cup while Nigeria beat Senegal in the third-place match. The Nigerians, now under the leadership of Berti Vogts, continued their perfect start in Group 3 of the 2008 qualifiers, beating Uganda 1-0 on March 25th. A goal from Nwankwo Kanu secured all three points for his team in a close game, while El Hadji Diouf had a hand in the first of Senegal's four goals as they shut out Tanzania in Group 4. Senegal head a close group in which they've already lost to third placed Burkina Faso.

Cameroon are four-times African Nations Cup winners just like Egypt and they currently top Group 5. With three goals scored against each of their three opponents so far, the Indomitable Lions already look like clear-cut favourites to qualify ahead of Liberia, Equatorial Guinea and Rwanda, and all that so far without the goalscoring contribution of star player Samuel Eto'o who is yet to get off the mark.

One team that seems to raise their game for the World Cup qualifiers but not the African Nations Cup are Morocco. They've only won the latter once back in 1976 with their only other honour being a runners-up spot in 2004. This year they're in the only group of three teams (the others having four) and already they've dropped points following the recent 1-1 draw with Zimbabwe. Despite this setback, the Moroccans lead the group ahead of Malawi who are two points further behind.

South Africa's return to international football in the mid-90's was emphatic following decades of political isolation. In 1996 they won the Nations Cup for the first time and two years later were runners-up to Egypt. Later that same year, South Africa reached the World Cup Finals in France and repeated the feat once again in 2002, but that was the last major achievement of the 'Bfana Bfana'.

The last two Nations Cup Finals have seen South Africa fail to even qualify from their first round groups but that trend could be reversed following a good start to their 2008 qualifying campaign. Blackburn Rovers defender Aaron Mokoena scored in their 1-0 win over Zambia back in October and a recent 3-0 win over bottom-placed Chad means they lead Group 11 with seven points from a possible nine.

The same can be said of Algeria in Group 8 but all is not as it seems for the North Africans. Though Algeria lead the group by three points, they've only scored an average of one goal a game against the likes of Guinea, Gambia and Cape Verde and only scrambled to a draw against the former. Given that the Algerians didn't even qualify for the last African Nations Cup Finals and their last win in the competition was back in 1990, many of their supporters are quite rightly expecting something better this time around.

And that just leaves Group 10 which is arguably the most open of them all. The Democratic Republic of Congo head the group on goal difference with four points ahead of Libya but Namibia in third and Ethiopia in fourth are only one point behind. Ethiopia's heyday was in the early days of the tournament back in the 1950's and 60's but they've already picked up a win against Libya who in turn have already beaten Namibia and drawn against the Congolese.

The only blot on the horizon for DR Congo is the current political unrest which has already caused their match against Ethiopia to be cancelled. Further disruption in the country may force the former Zaire to withdraw allowing one of the chasing pack to take their place in Ghana next year.

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