*Minnows Ethiopia and Cape Verde looking for upsets
The African Nations Cup (AFCON) gets underway this Saturday with an interesting opening Group A evening fixture between hosts Bafana Bafana and debutants Cape Verde Islands at the National Stadium.
The relatively unknown Portuguese speaking nation were the surprise package of the 2013 showpiece after disposing off Cameroon to reach the finals.
The country with a population of 500 000 and the size a third of Soweto shocked Cameroon with a 3-2 aggregate to deny the once African power house a place at the AFCON finals for a second time in a row.
Although dismissed by pundits, Verde may prove a hard nut to crack, as they recently showed in their preparation matches.
They lost 0-1 to Ghana and held Nigeria to a 0-0 draw to send a warning to their Group A opponents that also include Angola and Morocco.
The Islanders are ranked above all the Group A teams. The island nation is ranked 15th in Africa, while Morocco are 17th, Angola 21st, and Bafana Bafana 23rd.
After narrowly missing out on the 2012 spectacle in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea where they were tied on points with Mali, the Blue Sharks may have a point to prove especially against the hosts.
Coach Luis Antunes is quoted in international media saying the pressure would be on the hosts to win, while his players would be just happy to soak up the pressure and carve out an opening.
“If we make the knockout phase it would be another remarkable achievement,” Antunes told Kick-Off.
Although South Africa would be expected to use their home ground advantage; Gordon Igesund’s charges have been less than convincing in their AFCON warm up matches, losing 0-1 to Norway’s Under 23 side and were held to a goalless draw by Algeria.
Prior to these two recent matches South Africa lost 0-1 to both Brazil and Poland.
However Igesund would hope his side would emulate the 1996 squad that lifted the cup, defeating Tunisia 2-0 in the finals. Rated as one of the best coaches in South Africa, Igesund is also upbeat ahead of the tournament opener tomorrow.
The tactician is also quoted in the media playing down the recent poor results, stating that his side played against tough opposition which could come in handy during the finals.
However Bafana Bafana’s dismal display in front of goal could be their major undoing.
The attacking force of Katlego Mphela and Bernard Phaka has not been convincing and it is not yet clear where Bafana goals will come from.
In 1996 goals from John “Shoes” Moshoeu and Mark Williams who both netted four times heled South Africa reach the finals and eventually lift the trophy.
Except for Benny MacCarthy, the neighbours in the south are yet to produce a clinical finisher in the mould of Williams and pressure would be on Mphela and Parker to deliver.
Igesund would hope to avoid the embarrassing first round exit suffered by the host during the 2010 World Cup, and that possibility cannot be ruled out.
Meanwhile, the return of Ethiopia to AFCON action after 31years has attracted a lot of attention from pundits. The east African team has a rich history in the tournament, having played in the first seven tournaments and lifting the trophy in 1962, defeating three times consecutive winners Egypt.
The Waliya Antelopes as Coach Sewnet Bishaw’s side is affectionately called piped bitter rivals Sudan to make it to the finals since their last qualification in 1982.
The side, pitted in the same group with the Zebras in the World Cup qualifiers have also set their eyes on Brazil 2014 and that dream is within striking distance as they currently lead the group also comprising South Africa and Central African Republic.
They have registered impressive recently in the run-up to the tournament; drawing with Tunisia and defeating Tanzania 2-1.
They however face a mammoth task in their opening match against defending Champions Zambia Monday at 1700hrs.
Bishaw has made it clear that despite being in a tough group that also includes Nigeria and Burkina Faso, they are in South Africa to win the Cup.
“We beat our rivals Sudan and that was not a fluke; now our eyes are on the title,” Bishaw was quoted on the East-African Magazine.
To show that they mean business players have been promised more than $100 000 each if they win the African Cup of Nations on the country’s return to the tournament after a 31-year absence.
Ethiopian Football Federation president Sahilu Gebremariam said Wednesday the players would get $111 000 each to win the Cup and $55 000 to make the final in South Africa.