What’s host country Gabon like? Who are the Eagles of Carthage, the Sparrow Hawks, and the Wild Dogs? Which big-name players are there, and who’s likely to win in the end? And why are Ugandan politicians taking a pay cut in the name of soccer?
Some things to know about the African Cup of Nations, which kicks off on Saturday:
The African Cup is getting pretty familiar with Gabon, returning to the former French colony on the west coast of Africa for the second time in four tournaments. Gabon did a good enough job as co-host with Equatorial Guinea in 2012 to be given this year’s event alone when war-torn Libya decided it couldn’t stage it. A nation of Atlantic Ocean beaches in the west, deep tropical jungles in the north and east, and petroleum plants in the south, Gabon financed its two African Cups through its oil wealth.
This time there’s an uneasy feel in the seaside capital of Libreville after deadly clashes in the streets last year following President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s disputed re-election by a razor-thin margin. Still crying foul, opposition parties say they want to use the tournament, with international journalists present, to protest Bongo’s rule. In this part of Africa that’s normally met with force by the national police force, which is run by the military in Gabon.
CONTENDERS AND BIG-NAME PLAYERS
Ivory Coast is the defending African champion, Ghana is always in the running, and Algeria and Senegal are making strong cases as possible title winners. All of those teams have players from the big leagues in Europe. Acccording to the European Club Association, nearly 65 percent of the 368 players at the 16-team African Cup are with European clubs.
Some of the top names: Striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Germany’s Borussia Dortmund is the Gabon captain. Rihad Mahrez and Islam Slimani of English champion Leicester play for Algeria. Liverpool’s Sadio Mane is Senegal’s star forward. Ivory Coast has defenders Eric Bailly of Manchester United and Serge Aurier of Paris Saint-Germain. Ghana has three players from the English Premier League: Christian Atsu, Andre Ayew and Daniel Amartey. Roma’s Mohamed Salah is on Egypt’s squad.
At the other end of the scale, the African Cup often features little-known teams and players on the real outskirts of professional soccer who are enjoying their biggest moments. As surprises go, Guinea-Bissau is one of the biggest, qualifying for the first time ever. While its opponents show off their Premier League, Bundesliga, and Serie A talents, Guinea-Bissau captain Bocundji Ca was playing for third division French club Paris FC last season.
IT’S ALL IN THE NICKNAME
African soccer teams love their nicknames, and you really have to have one if you are going to be taken seriously. Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions became famous 27 years ago when they reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Italy. Here are some of the best from the 16 teams:
The Panthers: Gabon. Les Pantheres in French. Gabon’s team is also known as the Brazilians because of their yellow and blue uniforms that match the five-time World Cup winner.
The Wild Dogs: Guinea-Bissau. Fits the team’s underdog status perfectly.
The Eagles of Carthage: Tunisia.
The Sparrow Hawks: Togo.
Black Stars: Ghana.
The Cranes: Uganda.
Lions are popular this year, with Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, Senegal’s Lions of Teranga, and Morocco’s Atlas Lions.
GENEROUS POLITICIANS? UGANDA HAS THEM
Money, or lack of it, is often an issue for African soccer teams, with players threatening strikes over unpaid wages and bonuses. This tournament is no different. Guinea-Bissau players ended a strike this week after their demands were finally met, and some Zimbabwean players refused to board a plane for the tournament until they were paid. But there’s a feel-good tale this year, too. Ugandan politicians have helped out their team after it qualified for the African Cup for the first time in 39 years. Each one of Uganda’s members of parliament agreed to give up $138 from their January salary, raising an extra $60,000 to help the squad prepare.
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