The best of football artistry will be on display as the 32nd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, the biennial continental men’s football championship organized by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) kicks off in Egypt today. For the first time in the competition’s history, 24 countries will battle for the top prize after CAF expanded the competition from 16. Some countries are returning to the championship after a long absence; others are making their debut in the foremost Africa football fiesta.

Also, CAF moved the tournament from the usual January/February to June/July for the first time, a development which will guarantee the participation of top stars, who were hitherto held back by their European club sides. It is certain that fans would see their idols at their best.

The tournament was initially scheduled to be hosted by Cameroon and the West African nation would have hosted the competition for the first time since 1972 as the title holders after winning the previous edition. But last November 30, the continental football ruling body stripped Cameroon of the hosting right due to delays in the delivery of infrastructure, the Boko Haram insurgency.

On January 8, the last fell on Egypt the host nation. The tournament was also moved from June 15-July 13 to June 21 -July 19 due to the Ramadan.

History

When the Africa Cup of Nations tournament started in Sudan in 1957, few could have predicted the expansion of the tournament, which was precisely the aim of a meeting between seven delegates in Lisbon, Portugal, the previous year.

There, the CAF was born and the organisation planned the first tournament for the following year in Khartoum, Sudan. But, as that date drew near, there were a few hurdles to scale, such as the exclusion of South Africa after the apartheid regime failed to approve a multi-racial team.

With South Africa out, the tournament came down to a play-off among three teams – Egypt, hosts Sudan and Ethiopia. These three countries played the first two tournaments in odd years before it increased to four, six, eight, 12 and then 16 teams.

Ironically, 39 years later, at the end of apartheid, South Africa returned to rescue CAF by staging the expanded 16-team event after Kenya withdrew as hosts. Every adjustment increased the chances of seeing the best players on the continent. Papa Camara, Petit Sory and Cherif Souleymane were the cream of an excellent Guinean side that could easily be compared to the devastating Nigerian and Cameroonian squads of the last decade.

Few Africans today would have heard of the Algerian Lalmas, Ghanaian dribbling wizard Osei Kofi or Ethiopian captain Italo Vassalo – they were among a host of legends to play in the Nations Cup tournaments of the 1960s.

In the space of 30 years there has been an amazing shift of power with the likes of Cameroon and Nigeria taking over from former champions, Ethiopia and Sudan. Egypt remains the best team with seven win in the tournament. Remarkably, the AFCON is now the third world football competition in terms of its cumulative television audience, coming after the FIFA World Cup and the European Nations Championship (Euro).

Super Eagles’ chances

Nigeria is making its 13th appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations and its first since 2013 when it was crowned champions. The Super Eagles arrive in Egypt as one of the tournament’s most successful teams, boasting three titles to their name and having ended at least third in all but three of their previous appearances.

Gernot Rohr’s side were one of the highest scoring teams in qualifying after netting 14 times in six matches. Shanghai Shenhua striker Odion Ighalo scored seven of those goals – the most by any player in the qualification stages – as Nigeria bounced back from an opening day defeat against South Africa to win four of their remaining five matches.

They were held to a draw in the return leg against South Africa but four wins from four games against Libya and Seychelles were enough to ensure that Nigeria topped the group and secured qualification to the AFCON tournament.

With an impressive qualifying run, the Nigerian team will be hoping to win their fourth title as they take on 23 other countries in Egypt. The task is huge, but the Nigeria that won the 2013 edition with mostly rookies, knows the enormity of the task ahead.

After the end of the European season, the invited players reported to camp in Warri to begin their preparation with the coach announcing that two players would be dropped at the end of the camping. To test their level of readiness, the Nigeria took on Zimbabwe in Warri, and the game ended 0-0; the one against Teranga Lions of Senegal ended 1-0 in favour of the Senegalese.

Despite Nigerians feeling upbeat about the chances of their darling team, Coach Rohr has warned that pressure should not be mounted on the players, pleading that they be allowed to concentrate on the task ahead.

Ighalo is confident that Nigeria has the quality to conquer the rest of the continent in a ‘tough’ tournament. “If anybody says the tournament will be easy, it is a lie. It is going to be tough, it is going to be hot but I believe in the team we have and we have all it takes to do well at the AFCON.

“Nigeria has a good team that can play in the semi-final and the final. As I said, we will not get carried away. We have a team that can even win the trophy if we work hard and if we give everything we have on the pitch. We have all it takes to win it but let’s just start with the first game and see how far we can go.

“Anything I do in life, I like people to take me as an underdog because I like to surprise people and I like to take people unaware, that’s for me as a person. If they are taking us [underdog], it is very good because it won’t give the team more pressure,” Ighalo added.

Looking at their group, Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi said it would be ‘war’ when the competition starts today. “Everyone is saying on paper that we should go through and qualify [from Group B] but we know it is not going to be easy,” he stated.

“Every team is there to try and do their best, to try and win. It is going to be almost like a war, it is going to be a serious battle and fight, every game will be competitive. I’m sure Madagascar and Burundi, even though it is their first, they will come to prove to everyone why they had the chance to get to the AFCON.

“We know it will not be easy because it’s been a while we played at the Africa Cup of Nations but we are going with confidence and our heads held up high. And not only that, we are still young and the future is very bright with young talent in the team. There is a lot of hope and a bright future ahead of us.”

“We haven’t really discussed that as a team. We haven’t really pinpointed what we want to achieve but we all have this dream and this idea that we want to win the competition so that’s what we are going to do because we are confident and we are going to keep working hard and hopefully, we can not do just ourselves proud, but our nation as well.”

Nigeria’s squad

Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Anorthosis Famagusta, Cyprus); Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Katsina United); Daniel Akpeyi (Kaizer Chiefs, South Africa).

Defenders: Olaoluwa Aina (Torino FC, Italy); Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor FC, Turkey); Chidozie Awaziem (Caykur Rizespor, Turkey); William Troost-Ekong (Udinese FC, Italy); Leon Balogun (Brighton & Hove Albion, England); Kenneth Omeruo (CD Leganes, Spain); Jamilu Collins (SC Padeborn 07, Germany).

Midfielders: Mikel John Obi; Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City, England); Oghenekaro Etebo (Stoke City FC, England); John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Israel).

Forwards: Ahmed Musa (Al Nassar FC, Saudi Arabia); Victor Osimhen (Royal Charleroi SC, Belgium); Moses Simon (Levante FC, Spain); Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray SK, Turkey); Odion Ighalo (Shanghai Shenhua, China); Alexander Iwobi (Arsenal FC, England); Samuel Kalu (Girondins Bordeaux, France); Paul Onuachu (FC Midtjyland, Denmark); Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal FC, Spain).

Scorers to watch

Liverpool of England duo Mohammed Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mane (Senegal), who scored 22 goals and emerged joint top scorers with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyan (who is absent), will lead the goal charge at the championship. They will face stiff challenge from Mbaye Diagne (Kasimpasa/Galatasaray) 30 goals from Senegal, Nicolas Pepe (Lille) 22 goals of Ivory Coast, Hakim Ziyech (Ajax) 16 goals of Morocco , Ishak Belfodil (Hoffenheim) 16 goals of Algeria, Wahbi Khazri (Saint-Etienne) 13 goals of Tunisia, Pappis Cisse (Alanyaspor) 16 goals of Senegal and Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray) 14 goals of Nigeria. Ighalo, who did well in the Chinese League, will also be in the mix.