Today sees the 28th African Cup of Nations kick-off.
This edition of the third biggest footballing continental championship is being co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, the latter making its début appearance in the competition.
The two small neighbours won the rights to host the tournament back in 2007 ahead of Angola and Libya, while Nigeria was awarded the position of reserve host in case anything went wrong.
Think of it as Switzerland and Liechtenstein hosting Euro 2012.
Fourteen other nations secured their place last year, and on 29 October 2011 the draw was made.
NOTE: The nation’s current FIFA World Ranking is shown in brackets next to them.
The first match of the championship sees Equatorial Guinea (151) taking on Libya (63) who sport their stylish new flag in Group A this evening, while the other two teams – Senegal (43) and Zambia (71) – begin their campaign later tonight.
Group B is also being played in Equatorial Guinea. It features: the favourites Côte d’Ivoire (18 – the highest ranked team in Africa), (North)Sudan (120), Burkina Faso (66) and Angola (85).
Gabon hosts Groups C and D.
Gabon (91) are in Group C along with: Niger (98), Morocco (61) and Tunisia (59).
Finally we have Group D, made up of: Ghana (26), Botswana (94), Mali (69) and Guinea (79).
Past champions taking part this year are: Ghana (1963, ’65, ’78 & ’82), (North)Sudan (1970), Morocco (1976), Côte d’Ivoire (1992) and Tunisia (2004).
Nations making their first appearance are: co-host Equatorial Guinea, Botswana and Niger.
Now then, the eagle-eyed among you would have noticed some big names missing from the 16 listed above.
In fact ‘some’ big names is an understatement.
The top two ranked sides in Africa (Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana) are there yes, but: 1990 champions Algeria (32), twice champions Nigeria (45), four-time champions Cameroon (56), 1996 champions South Africa (56) and Cape Verde Islands (58) didn’t qualify.
But that’s not the most shocking thing, oh no.
Triple reigning and seven-time champions Egypt (36) not only failed to qualify, they failed to qualify spectacularly.
Their Group G qualification campaign got off to a stuttering start when they had to salvage a 1-1 home draw against Sierra Leone, then lost 0-1 away to Niger.
Then came the Arab Spring, but former president Hosni Mubarak had gone by the time they lost 0-1 away to South Africa who scored in the 93rd minute.
Egypt drew 0-0 with South Africa in Cairo and lost 1-2 away to Sierra Leone courtesy of an 89th minute penalty.
This dumped the triple reigning champions out, but they did beat Niger 3-0 in Cairo in their last match to salvage some pride.
People have told me they [Egypt] had other things on their mind, but Libya qualified and they were in a full blown Civil War during the second half of qualifying.
South Africa could have qualified from this group ahead of Niger, but they didn’t read the rules properly.
They, Niger and Sierra Leone all finished the group on nine points, but Niger’s goal difference was -2, Sierra Leone’s was zero and South Africa’s was +2.
South Africa believed they’d qualified after playing for and getting a 0-0 draw against Sierra Leone in their last match, only to be told that CAF (the governing body) splits tied-teams on head-to-head records first, then goal difference.
This meant that Sierra Leone had five points and a -1 goal difference, South Africa had five points and a +1 goal difference, but Niger had six points and zero goal difference, thus Niger won the group and qualified.
The 2010 World Cup hosts appealed at first but later withdrew it, with their tales between their legs me thinks.
Remarkably only four of the top ten ranked nations in Africa are taking part in this Cup of Nations, meaning that unless Tunisia win (and because Egypt, Cameroon, South Africa and Nigeria can’t win) there will be a different champion for the first time since Côte d’Ivoire triumphed in 1992 (against Ghana in the Final no less) when I wasn’t even born.
With such an open field this time around, it is hard to see Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana not getting to the Final and giving us the game we all want to see.
As I’ve mentioned before Côte d’Ivoire are the favourites, but I’ll be cheering on The Black Stars of Ghana, who came runners-up to Egypt two years ago.
They won me over in the last World Cup, and unlike The Elephants they have experience of playing in the knock-out stages of World Cups and once had all of Africa willing them on.
The Final is on 12 February, and afterwards I’ll post a summary blog.
But in the mean time, let’s just sit back and enjoy the football.