AFCON Profile: Niger

Niger will make their Africa Cup of Nations finals debut after securing their passage with more than a hint of farcical controversy

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Niger will make their Africa Cup of Nations finals debut after securing their passage with more than a hint of farcical controversy at South Africa's expense.

Mena booked their spot after finishing level with South Africa and Sierra Leone on nine points in their qualifying group.

The 2010 World Cup hosts, AFCON winners in 1996, thought they had qualified with a superior goal difference - prompting short-lived celebrations after drawing their final group match against the Leone Stars. However, Niger progressed due to a better head-to-head, as per CAF rules.

The West Africans will aim to make the most of their surprise appearance, but could find the going tricky in a tough Group C. Tournament co-hosts Gabon should enjoy fanatical home support, while north African duo Morocco and Tunisia are powerhouses on the continent. The Atlas Lions, who finished top of their pool in qualifying, captured Africa's top honour in 1976 and have made four appearances at the World Cup finals. Tunisia, champions in 2004, have twice finished runners-up in addition to reaching the last eight on three occasions. Like Morocco, they have featured at FIFA's flagship event four times.

Niger tactician Harouna Doula has, since 4 January, been conditioning his charges at the Kadji Sport Academy in Cameroonian city of Douala. He has planned friendly matches against local teams and will conclude preparations on 20 January. The wily Doula, CAF's 2011 Coach of the Year, has the assistance of Frenchman Rolland Courbis. The 58-year-old Courbis last managed Ligue One outfit Montpellier HSC. He has extensive managerial experience, having also held the reins at Bordeaux, Toulouse and Olympique de Marseille, as well as Abu Dhabi-based outfit Al-Wahda and Russian side FC Alania Vladikavkaz among others.

PREVIOUS AFCON INVOLVEMENT:

Mena have either sat out, been forced to withdraw, or failed to negotiate the qualifying hurdle in their previous attempts at reaching the showpiece. Their footballing fortunes have been largely dictated by their economic woes, with the landlocked country consistently ranking towards the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index - rated 186 out of 187 nations in 2011.

SQUAD OVERVIEW:

Coach Douala is relying mainly on players who ply their trade on the continent such as veteran striker Alhassane Issoufou and exciting midfielder Boubacar Talatou.

The 30-year-old Issoufou currently earns his keep at Moroccan heavy-hitters FUS Rabat, who he won the CAF Confederations Cup with in 2010. Issoufou has traversed the continent in his career, enjoying spells at Zumunta AC and JS du Tenere (both Niger), Africa Sports (Ivory Coast), CABBA and ASO Chlef (both Algeria), Kadiogo (Burkina Faso), as well as Belgian Pro League outfit Sporting Lokeren.

Talatou joined South African Premier Soccer League champions Orlando Pirates in November 2010. The 24-year-old, while highly regarded, has battled to secure a regular starting place in a star-studded Bucs midfield, which has helped land two domestic cups this season ahead of their upcoming participation in the CAF Champions League.

Douala does, however, have a handful of European-based recruits in William Tonji Ngounou, Olivier Harouna Bonnes and Moussa Maazou. Midfielder Ngounou is on the books of Swedish club IF Limhamn Bunkeflo, Bonnes plays for France's Nantes, while Maazou features for Belgian outfit Zulte Waregem.

ONE TO WATCH:

Moussa Maazou, who leads the line at Zulte-Waregem, is expected to play a big role for the minnows. The 23-year-old forward made a name for himself at ASFAN in his homeland, before moving to Belgian Pro league club Sporting Lokeren. His displays attracted the interest of Russian giants CSKA Moscow. However, he struggled for regular game-time and has since been farmed out on loan to the likes of Lokeren and French pair Bordeaux and Monaco.

FACTS

FIFA Rank: 97

Coach: Harouna Doula

Captain: Laouali Idrissa

Nickname: Mena

Previous AFCON finish: Did not qualify

SQUAD:

Goalkeepers: Losseni Doumbia (Motema Pembe), Daouda Kassaly (Coton Sport), Saminou Rabo (Sahel SC).

Defenders: Jimmy Bulus (Hussein Dey), Mohamed Chikoto (Platinum Stars), Kader Dodo (Olympique FC), Issiaka Koudize (Garde Nationale), Koffi Dan Kowa (ES Zarzis), Souleymane Mazadou (Marignanaise), Djibrilla Moussa (Garde Nationale), Mohamed Soumaïla (Olympique FC).

Midfielders: Yacouba Ali (Africa Sports), Moutari Amadou (Akokana FC), Olivier Harouna Bonnes (Lille), Issoufou Boubacar (FC Phuket), Laouali Idrissa (AS FAN), Abdoul-Karim Lancina (Coton Sport), Boubacar Talatou (Orlando Pirates), William Tonji Ngounou (IF Limhamn), Idrissa Saïdou (Coton Sport).

Forwards: Alhassane Dante (Raja Casablanca), Kamilou Daouda (CS Sfaxien), Moussa Maazou (Zulte-Waregem).