from ALEXIS DOUMBIA in Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Ivory Coast Bureau
ABIDJAN, (CAJ News) – WHEN the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) kicks off in Ivory Coast on Saturday, not only will Morocco be overwhelming favourites to win the 34th edition of the tournament.
They are among some previous winners desperate to end a trophy drought running for decades.
That the Moroccans are the first team to land in Ivory Coast highlights their determination.
They bear the favourites tag because of a historic run, slightly over a year ago, at the World Cup in Qatar, where they became the first side from this underachieving continent to qualify for the semifinals of the global tournament.
That feat and subsequent rise to the number one ranking in the continent (and 13th in the world) is a source of hope that the Atlas Lions will end a 48-year wait to lift AFCON.
Their only success in the continent’s premier competition was in 1976 in Ethiopia.
The closest they have come since that tournament is a runner-up finish, to then hosts and North African rivals Tunisia in 2004.
In Ivory Coast, coach Walid Regragui’s Morocco are in Group F alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Zambia.
This golden generation of Moroccans are odds-on favourites to win this group. It will take an upset of monumental proportions for the North Africans to fail to at least qualify for the knockouts from this pool.
Morocco, who arrived at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Airport in Abidjan on Sunday, are already in their base in the southwestern city of San Pedro, Ivory Coast’s second-largest port.
This will be their home for their group matches. Their campaign begins against the Congolese at the Laurent Pokou Stadium on Sunday.
Morocco’s only blemish in the eight matches they have played since the phenomenal outing at the World Cup is the AFCON qualifier defeat to faded force, South Africa, last June.
However, that 2-1 setback in Johannesburg was a dead rubber encounter.
Regragui has retained the core of the team that starred in Qatar, including goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, defender Achraf Hakimi, midfielders Sofyan Amrabat and Hakim Ziyech.
The team is also rich in attack with Ismael Saibari, Amine Adli, Ayoub El Kaabi and Youssef En-Nesyri called from top clubs in Europe.
It will however not be smooth sailing for the Moroccans in Ivory Coast where 23 other teams will contest for the trophy, starting this Saturday when the hosts face lightweights Guinea-Bissau at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium.
The Djurtus of Guinea-Bissau, the second side to land in Ivory Coast, after Morocco, have set an ambitious target of reaching the knockout stages.
The Elephants of Ivory Coast are banking on home advantage to lift a trophy which, like Morocco, has largely eluded them since the tournament’s inception in 1957.
Despite a ceaseless array of talent locally and abroad, they have only won it twice, in 1992 and 2015.
The hosts are in a formidable Group A that also has West Africa rivals, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea.
Three-time winners Nigeria are perennial favourites despite the habit to disappoint on the big stage, largely a result of ego issues. Africa’s most populous nation is continentally the biggest importer of talent to overseas leagues.
Italy-based Victor Osimhen, presently one of the best strikers in the world and the reigning African Footballer of the Year, is the latest success story.
Coach José Vítor dos Santos Peseiro’s Super Eagles are overly reliant on the masked 25-year-old towering centre-forward from Lagos for goals.
By virtue of being the defending champions, Senegal also rank among the favourites.
The Teranga Lions, whose title secured at the AFCON in Cameroon 2022 is their only conquest, are in Group C that by coincidence also features the five-time winners… Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions.
Nonentities Gambia and unpredictable Guinea complete a group that is predominantly West African.
Mighty Egypt, record winners with seven titles, are quietly going about their business to reclaim a tournament they last won in 2010 in Angola.
The Pharaohs will contest Group B alongside four-time winners, the Black Stars of Ghana, who have not won this tourney since 1982. Cape Verde and Mozambique complete the group.
North and West Africa have dominated Africa’s prime football tournament. Only Cameroon, the Central African powerhouse, has challenged their dominance.
Congo (1972), Sudan (1970), South Africa (1996) and Zambia (2012) were the winners from outside those dominant regions.
– CAJ News