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Host’s Success, Big Names’ Absence Bodes Well for Cup of Nations

posted by – January 31st, 2012

Gabon and Equatorial Guinea don’t normally attract many headlines. The two West African nations are little-known beyond the region, though oil reserves are starting to add a sheen to the countries and co-hosting the African Cup of Nations won’t do their image any harm either.

For Equatorial Guinea, it is its first time in the competition proper; for Gabon it’s its fifth.

There has been an increase of interest in the ACN in recent years, not least because of the large number of European-based players who get call ups and head to the continent amid grumbling from the clubs and coaches who signed them.

Among the familiar faces at this year’s event on the field are Chelsea’s Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast) and Newcastle United’s Demba Ba (Senegal). There are also a few familiar faces in the dugout, and one, Henri Michel, who left just days before the competition was due to begin.

After 16 successful years with Nantes, Frenchman Michel went into management and guided the French to third place in the 1986 World Cup with a team that featured the likes of Michel Platini, Alain Giresse (more about him later) and Jean Pierre Papin.

France was just the first national team to appear on Michel’s CV. He has spent most his career since then in Africa and has worked with Cameroon, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Ivory Coast before landing a job with co-host Equitorial Guinea. In November last year he stepped down, complaining he didn’t have the best players to choose from, only to be reinstated. A few weeks later he was gone again; this time he complained about interference from outsiders, something many coaches from our region no doubt can identify with.

The managerial upheaval doesn’t seem to have affected the team too much as it has won both its opening games in its debut and goes into its final group stage game against Zambia with qualification already assured.

It’s a shame Michel didn’t stick around. Had he done so, we could have witnessed a clash between a master and his pupil.

The aforementioned Giresse was part of France’s formidable midfield of the 1980s that won the European Championship. Now, like his one-time mentor Michel, Giresse has found himself in West Africa. Initially with Gabon, he now is working with the Mali team where he has in his squad Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita.

Mali won its opening game 1-0 against Guinea but couldn’t repeat the feat against Ghana, one of the region’s powerhouses, losing 2-0 and leaving qualification from the group stage in the balance. It must beat Botswana and hope Ghana does the same against Guinea to go through.

Belgian Eric Gerets brought a whole heap of experience to the Moroccan national team, but it didn’t help with his team checking out of its Libreville hotel after its final group game against Niger and taking the next flight back to Rabat.

The Moroccans, with Arsenal striker Mouranne Chamakh in their ranks, lost their opening game 2-1 against Tunisia and went one better losing by the odd goal in five against co-host Gabon.

Gerets, a consistent fullback for Standard Liege for more than a decade, has had a successful career as manager, winning titles in his native Belgium as well as the Netherlands, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Cup of Nations has proved to be a challenge too far but, like Michel, it’s hard to see Gerets being without a club for too long.

Many of Africa’s big guns have been missing from this year’s competition, including Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria who have won it 13 of the 27 competitions. Egypt has dominated in recent years; 2010 was its third consecutive triumph, but the absence of the big games will offer hope to nations like Ivory Coast and Senegal, which have managed just three final appearances between them.

The games have been exciting, and the early exit of Morocco proves in cup football there is always the possibility of an upset.

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