It’s also a tournament that has its fair share of haters. For one thing, like the Asian Cup, it takes African players away from their club teams for a good spell of time. In the Premier League, that means neither Yaya Toure nor Sadio Mane for nearly a month. It’s also been in the headlines for the wrong reasons, as Morocco pulled out of its hosting duties due to fears of Ebola. Despite its bad press, at its core is free-flowing football that often provides thrilling moments.
There have been 30 AFCON tournaments since 1957 (which was won by Egypt and had just four teams contesting the title). Since then, there have been 16 winners, with Egypt topping the charts with 7 wins. Several big names are still to win the cup, including Senegal and Mali, both of whom will feel that this could be their year. Online polls reveal that Algeria is the predicted winner, followed closely by Cameroon and Ivory Coast.
The draw for the 30th edition of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations was held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on Wednesday, as the 16 squads that qualified for the tournament finally found out the teams they'll be facing. The draw was moved back one week to accommodate new host, Equatorial Guinea, which stepped in to replace Morocco. Defending champions Nigeria are one of many top squads that failed to qualify for next year's event, with Egypt and Angola also surprisingly absent.
Group A (Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Congo) seems to be a fairly close group, with no big names set to dominate proceedings. Group B (Zambia, Tunisia, Cape Verde, DR Congo) is similar, and is difficult to call, as it contains many of the smaller nations. The real competition however, lies in Groups C and D. Group C in particular holds Ghana (one of the most successful African teams), Algeria (touted as the eventual winners by many), South Africa (whose undefeated qualifying campaign has given them a strong contention), and Senegal (yet to win the cup and fielding arguably their strongest team yet). Group D is no less competitive, with two of Africa’s most successful teams, Ghana and Ivory Coast, playing against Mali and Guinea.
Generational change will be a big factor for Ivory Coast, who head into a major tournament without talismanic striker Didier Drogba for the first time in a decade. enjoyed great success at the Cup of Nations, racking up 11 goals and being named in the team of the tournament in 2006, 2008 and 2012. Yet for all his efforts – and for all the bluster around their so-called golden generation – the Elephants have been frustrated in their efforts to secure an AFCON crown. With Wilfried Bony in their ranks, the Ivory Coast will not be short on firepower, but Drogba's leadership qualities are likely to be missed.
The African Cup of Nations has never been so closely contested, as more and more African teams are emerging as major players on the world stage. As young players are scouted by big teams and veterans of the AFCON look to add to their medal collection, 2015 could certainly be the year in which the competition gets the attention it deserves, with the world eagerly anticipating who will become champions.