The 29th edition of the Africa Cup of Nations gets under way at South Africa’s Soccer City stadium on Saturday.
The 2013 iteration of the CAF tournament—which has been moved forward a year to prevent it clashing with World Cup years—will not feature traditional African powerhouses like Egypt, Cameroon or Senegal.
But it will feature reigning champions Zambia, Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast… and plenty of vuvuzelas.
Here are the most likely contenders for the Nations Cup trophy, and the key players to watch out for.
The Ivory Coast have won the competition only once—in 1992 when the final against Ghana went to 11-10 on penalties!—but they enter this year’s tournament as favorites.
In their final preparation game, the Elephants beat seven-time winners Egypt 4-2, with two goals from Arsenal’s Gervinho. They are now unbeaten in 23 games.
All but one of the Ivory Coast’s squad play in Europe, with familiar faces including Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, the Toure brothers (Yaya was ill for the Egypt game but is expected to recover), Emmanuel Eboue, Cheick Tiote and Didier Zokora.
Drogba is an ambassador of the game across the continent, and his teammate Gervinho believes winning this tournament is his final objective before retiring.
The Ivory Coast are expected to top Group D, which is informally being considered the “Group of Death.” It contains Tunisia, Togo—who will boast Emmanuel Adebayor —and potential dark horses Algeria.
Four-time AFCON champions Ghana may not have won the competition since 1982, but James Kwesi Appiah’s side are strongly tipped to go far in this edition.
The Black Stars boast a strong midfield, which features Juventus’ Kwadwo Asamoah, Osasuna’s Anthony Annan and Udinese’s Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu. At right-back, they are likely to benefit from the experience of journeyman defender John Paintsil, formally of Fulham and West Ham, and currently playing in Tel Aviv.
Controversy has surrounded the absence of Marseille’s André Ayew from the squad. He was given until Saturday to report to Ghana’s training camp in Abu Dhabi, but he didn’t turn up, even though he had been released by his club and assigned plane tickets.
And don’t expect to see a penalty from captain Asamoah Gyan. He missed from 12 yards in the 2010 World Cup and last year’s Nation’s Cup, and his mother told him not to take penalties anymore before she died in November (via BBC).
Ghana—who beat Group D side Tunisia 4-2 in a friendly over the weekend—will contest Group B with Mali, Niger and DR Congo.
Nigeria have won the Nations Cup twice (in 1984 and 1990) but have become serial bronze medalists in recent years: they finished third in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010.
The Super Eagles didn’t qualify for the 2012 edition of the competition, but they are third favorites with the bookies to take the glory this time.
Their squad includes Chelsea pair John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, Villarreal striker Ikechukwu Uche and former Everton centre-back Joseph Yobo.
Coach Stephen Keshi has also selected six local players, the largest amount in more than 20 years (via BBC).
Nigeria have been based in Portugal prior to the tournament, but could only draw 0-0- with tournament minnows and debutants Cape Verde in a friendly last week. They will play their last practise match against FC Rotterdam before jetting to South Africa.
They will kick off their Group C campaign against Burkina Faso on January 21st, and will also face Zambia and Ethiopia at the first stage.
South Africa haven’t qualified for the Nations Cup in the last two attempts, but they will want to capitalise on home advantage. When they won the tournament in 1996, they were handed the Neil Tovey trophy by president Nelson Mandela on home soil.
The Bafana Bafana also boast the most players who still play in their homeland, with 16 of the 23-man squad featuring in the ABSA Premiership. Local heroes like Kaizer Chiefs striker Bernard Parker and Orlando Pirates defender Siyabonga Sangweni will surely be buoyed by rapturous support.
Players based abroad include Crystal Palace midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi, Oldham’s Dean Furman and PAOK defender Bongani Khumalo.
But Gordon Igesund’s side may struggle without South Africa’s most famous player, Steve Pienaar, who retired from international duty last October.
The Bafana will contend Group A with Angola, Morocco and aforementioned debutants Cape Verde.
They have an unbeaten record against all three teams in competitive and friendly matches so will feel confident of progressing to the knockout stage.
The Ivory Coast were denied the trophy in last year’s Africa Cup of Nations by plucky underdogs Zambia, who took them to 8-7 in a penalty shootout.
The reigning champions, led by Frenchman Hervé Renard, will be looking to pull another surprise victory this year, but their recent form has been troubling. The Chipolopolo haven’t scored in any of their four pre-tournament warm-up matches, and have cancelled a final friendly with Namibia on Tuesday to give players a rest (via Eurosport).
Preparation has also been disrupted by the absence of defender Stopilla Sunzu, who has been allowed to leave the training camp to take a trial with Reading.
Players to look out for include Southampton forward Emmanuel Mayuka, Petro Atletico’s Felix Katongo and his older brother, national captain Christopher Katongo.
Zambia face fellow title contenders Nigeria in Group C, along with Burkina Faso and Ethiopia (who are contesting their first Africa Cup of Nations in 31 years).