JOHANNESBURG - Title holders Zambia head a list of 10 past winners in a strong field at this year’s African Nations Cup finals, but it is the Ivory Coast who start as strong favourites.
It will be the fifth successive tournament that striker Didier Drogba and his teammates are the team to beat but they could find the ‘favourites’ tag substituted for that of ‘chokers’ if they are again unable to deliver.
The spotlight will be focussed on the 34-year-old Drogba who is Africa’s most high-profile player but has never tasted Nations Cup success.
The Ivorians have enjoyed fluctuating fortunes in the four previous editions, but there is a growing belief that Drogba, in the autumn of an international career that has delivered 56 goals in 90 matches, can drive the side on to the title.
Drogba is joined in the Ivory Coast squad by African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony, top scorer in the Dutch league this season and seen as Drogba’s successor.
“There has been a mental block left by the past failures, but we know about it and the pressure does not scare us,” said coach Sabri Lamouchi.
West African rivals Ghana and Mali represent a potent threat along with the north African pairing of Morocco and Algeria, second ranked in Africa behind the Ivorians.
Nigeria return after missing the last edition with a fresh look to their squad while hosts South Africa will be hoping to emerge from a difficult time to ride a wave of home support.
Ghana have not won in more than 30 years, but are still expected to launch a strong challenge despite being a side in transition, stripped of the many experienced players.
Mali, who have never won the trophy, are an unknown quantity but have picked a team full of regulars from clubs in Europe’s major leagues.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Tunisia are past Nations Cup winners, but would consider advancing to the knockout stages a success this time.
This year’s finals come just 12 months after the last tournament because of a change in the timing of the event from every even to every odd year.
It will likely be played against a backdrop of contrasting interest with 90 000 tickets sold for the opening game featuring the home team.
Sales at other venues, however, are slow enough to suggest the prospect of embarrassingly empty terraces.
South Africa kick off the tournament on Saturday against the Cape Verde Islands, the only newcomers in the field and the smallest country to qualify, with a population of just over 500 000.