Posted by News Express | 13 January 2017 | 2,469 times
Gabon’s lethal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang is one of the stars to watch at the 2017 AFCON.
The 31st edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will kick off at 16:00 GMT on Saturday when hosts Gabon take on debutants Guinea-Bissau.
Sixty years have passed since the first Nations Cup, which took place in Sudan in 1957, consisted of only three teams and was won by Egypt.
This year’s edition has 32 matches over 23 days, featuring 16 teams – who begin their quest in four groups of four – and will end on 5 February with the winning finalists lifting the Italian-made trophy and taking home $4m (£3.28m).
Africa remains enthralled by the tournament, which has steadily grown to become the continent’s biggest sporting event, and the 2017 finals are guaranteed to provide a mix of flair, surprise, controversy and historic moments.
Gabon welcomes back the cream of African football only five years after it co-hosted the Nations Cup with Equatorial Guinea.
The country was awarded the finals by the Confederation of African Football as replacement for Libya, which had been due to host in 2013 but swapped years with South Africa which had been selected to host in 2017.
The civil war in Libya meant it had to withdraw entirely and in stepped Gabon.
However, the oil-rich country with a population of 1.8m has been experiencing its own troubles since incumbent President Ali Bongo was declared the winner of a contested election in August. His victory was followed by deadly clashes on the streets.
Opposition activists have called on citizens to boycott the tournament as part of their plans to highlight their protests against Bongo’s rule.
On the pitch, Gabon are the lowest ranked team in the finals, occupying 108th spot in Fifa’s world rankings for January.
But they do have in their side one of the world’s most coveted strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang. The Borussia Dortmund forward goes into the tournament in scintillating form, having scored 20 goals in 22 games this season for his German club.
Players to watch
As well as Aubameyang, many eyes will be on reigning BBC African Footballer of the Year and Caf African Footballer of the year Riyad Mahrez and Africa’s most expensive player Sadio Mane.
Leicester winger Mahrez will be a key figure in an Algeria team which until recently had been ranked the best team in Africa.
Mane, who cost Liverpool £34m, leads the line for Senegal. The Teranga Lions have never won the event but Mane could be the key to changing that statistic.
Twenty three players from English Premier League clubs will be in Gabon including Mahrez, Mane, Manchester United’s Ivorian defender Eric Bailly, West Ham’s Ghanaian Andre Ayew, Leicester’s Algerian Islam Slimani and Crystal Palace’s Ivorian Wilfried Zaha.
Winger Zaha has only just switched international allegiance from England and started his career with the Elephants in sensational style by scoring on his second appearance for the team in a friendly against Uganda earlier this week.
Egypt’s Mohamed Salah has been outstanding since his switch from Chelsea to Italian giants Roma. Once labelled the African Messi, the winger has recently recovered from injury but if he can find his best form he could light up the tournament.
At the other end of the spectrum, Guinea-Bissau skipper Bocundji Ca was playing for third division French club Paris FC last season. (BBC)