Africa welcoming home its exiles to shine on world stage
When England won the World Cup in 1966 the status of African football could hardly have been lower. Seventeen teams boycotted the tournament when Fifa refused to guarantee Africa a place in the finals, and not a ball was kicked in qualifying -- despite the fact that more than a quarter of the world body's members were from Africa.
The best players would be taken by European teams, among them Eusebio, the 1966 top scorer who spent the first 18 years of his life in what is now Mozambique but made his name for Benfica and Portugal. Perhaps his performance helped to change Fifa's view, or maybe it was the boycott, but within months of England's victory Stanley Rous, then the most powerful man in the world game, said: "Football in Africa is increasing in leaps and bounds. As they learn something of administration we shall hear much more from them."
Four years later they were given a guaranteed slot, eventually filled by Morocco. Thus the ball was set in motion and now African football is looking forward to its most important year yet, when its status should reach a new level.
To start this momentous year the continent's showpiece tournament kicks off next weekend when Angola hosts the 27th Africa Cup of Nations. First held in 1957 -- three years before Europe staged an equivalent -- the Cup of Nations has evolved from humble beginnings to become one of the most eagerly awaited tournaments in the world, featuring some of the finest talent from Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Arsenal, Inter and many more of Europe's biggest clubs.
The favourites are Ivory Coast, their squad packed with players from the top echelons of European club football. The Elephants' biggest strength is their strike force, with Chelsea's Salomon Kalou, Portsmouth's Aruna Dindane and Marseille's Bakari Kone competing to partner Didier Drogba. The midfield includes Barcelona's Yaya Toure and Sevilla's Didier Zokora, while a defence featuring Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure has been generally solid. Goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, who plays for Lokeren in Belgium, is the perceived weak link of the side, though the biggest hurdle facing the Elephants may be psychological -- fresh in the memory is their humiliation two years ago, when they arrived at the tournament in Ghana as heavily fancied favourites but were trounced 4-1 by Egypt, the eventual winners, in the semi-final.
The group stages will pit the Elephants against one of the other main contenders, Ghana. The Black Stars boast six members of the team who won the U-20 World Cup last summer, but will be without two of their established stars: erstwhile captain Stephen Appiah is injured, while Inter's Sulley Muntari has been left out after refusing to apologise for going awol before a friendly in October. Chelsea's Michael Essien also went missing before that game but he has said sorry and is free to resume duty as the team's formidable fulcrum.
Egypt, winners of the last two tournaments, have also lost key players. Talismanic midfielders Mohamed Aboutreika and Mohamed Barakat have been ruled out, as has the former Wigan striker Amr Zaki. The former Tottenham striker Mido is not fully fit and has been omitted.
Cameroon promise to be strong. Their manager, Paul Le Guen, has found a way of ensuring star striker Samuel Eto'o does not feel the need to scamper all over the pitch in search of the ball, and the skilful Betis midfielder Achille Emana has become the prime conduit to the Inter star. In the centre of defence Cameroon boast one of the hottest prospects in African football, the 20-year-old Monaco centre-back Nicolas N'Koulou, who has been compared to a young Franco Baresi.
Mali, who look best of the outsiders, can deploy arguably the strongest midfield in the tournament, with Barcelona's Seydou Keita set to line up alongside Real Madrid's Mahamadou Diarra and Juventus's Momo Sissoko. For goals they will look to Sevilla's prolific former Tottenham striker, Fredi Kanoute.
Kanoute caused consternation at White Hart Lane in 2004 when, despite being born in France and having played for that country's U-21s, he declared for Mali, where his parents were born, and jetted off midway through the season to play in the Cup of Nations. That highlighted a trend that has since become even more prominent.
A decision taken at Fifa's annual congress in the Bahamas earlier this year led to the scrapping of the age limit after which a player used not to be able to switch national allegiance. Harnessing the diaspora is making African football stronger, but not all of the continent's countries are able to take advantage.
Malawi have reached the finals for only the second time but the country's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, refuses to allow the Flames to summon players with dual nationality.
Tamika Mkandawire, the Leyton Orient centre-back who was born in Malawi but is a British subject, is a victim of the decision. "The Malawi FA contacted me a while ago and said they were going to try to get an exception made for me," Mkandawire says. "But the president wouldn't allow it. I'm absolutely gutted that I can't be part of the tournament, especially in what is going to be an amazing year for African football."