Big guns missing
Will the 2012 AFCON be able to cope with the absence of some of its biggest names?
Last Updated: 19/01/12 7:02am
Samuel Eto'o: One of the continent's biggest stars will be absent in Gabon & Equatorial Guinea
An African safari would be pretty average if you're expecting the Big Five and only two show up. While you're happy to escape the office and the mundane of everyday life, you can't help but feel cheated. There are, unfortunately, parallels to be drawn from the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Continental giants Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria are all conspicuously absent from this year's bill, which is being held together by Ghana and Ivory Coast. The missing trio, a staple at previous editions, boast 13 AFCON titles between them, with Egypt reigning supreme on seven, Cameroon four and Nigeria two.
Egypt, the current champions, completed a hat-trick of triumphs two years ago by edging the Black Stars 1-0 in Angola. The ageing Pharaohs would finish bottom of their 2012 qualifying group comprising South Africa and West African minnows Sierra Leone and Niger. Their failure led to the departure of long-serving mentor Hassan Shehata, who now oversees domestic titans Zamalek. Shehata had presided over Egypt's hat-trick of titles.
Cameroon, the first African country to reach a World Cup quarter-final, were unable to navigate a pool that included the successful Senegal, the DRC and Mauritius. Much-fancied Nigeria, Olympic champions in 1996, lost out to group winners Guinea. Coach Samson Siasia paid with his job as the Super Eagles suffered the indignity of missing out on the finals for the first time since 1986.
Mustapha Hadji, the 1998 African Footballer of the Year, concedes the 28th edition of CAF's flagship event has an unfamiliar feel about it.
The Morocco legend said: "It is really disappointing. Football fans in Morocco are more disappointed because these are big football nations and the realisation of the fact that they will not be available for African's biggest football event is a different feeling entirely.
"These are countries that used to be in the final and semi-final of the Nations Cup because we always expect them to be there, but this time around they won't be participating. It is not a good feeling."
Other notable absentees from the event are 2010 World Cup hosts South Africa. Although they have shown little sign of emulating their 1996 AFCON success, they enjoy a high profile as Africa's economic powerhouse and for their growing reputation as a popular venue for global events. Bafana Bafana missed out to Niger in somewhat farcical fashion.
Coach Pitso Mosimane and his backroom staff thought they had successfully negotiated their passage to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea by virtue of a superior goal difference. The erroneous assumption prompted short-lived celebrations after the draw in their final group match against Sierra Leone. However, it was Niger who progressed on a better head-to-head record, as per CAF rules.
Of course, when big-name teams fail, by extension big-name players miss out. Samuel Eto'o, Africa's most decorated footballer, heads the list. It's doubtful his current ban would be in effect were the Indomitable Lions in contention. Team-mates Benoît Assou-Ekotto, Alex Song and Eyong Enoh are also out of the picture, as are Nigerian stars Peter Odemwingie, Taye Taiwo and Dickson Etuhu. Significant gloss has also been taken off the tournament by the absence of such players as Egyptian forward Mohamed Zidan and South African playmakers Steven Pienaar and Thulani Serero.
The challenge now rests on the likes of Ghana and Ivory Coast to take full advantage of their traditional rivals' misfortune and justify their billing as favourites. It is also the perfect opportunity for a few minnows to make a name for themselves.
There is still ample quality on display with Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita, Andrew Ayew, Asamoah Gyan, André Ayew, Sulley Muntari and others expected to light up the tournament.
Still, one gets the sense it can't be helped that others will be missed.