Africa’s showpiece footballing event, the African Cup of Nations, is set to hit us today with the host nation, Ivory Coast setting the ball rolling.
The Elephants of Ivory Coast will kick things off against the less-fancied Guinea-Bissau, who are participating at the Afcon for the fourth time in their history, at the 60,000-capacity Alassane Ouattara Stadium situated in Abidjan.
The West African hosts are bidding to reclaim the title they last won in 2015 in Equatorial Guinea. On that occasion, a star-studded Golden Generation, with only talismanic forward Didier Drogba missing, but ably led on the pitch by Yaya Toure and off it by French tactician, Herve Renard, delivered the country’s second continental crown.
Interestingly, Nottingham Forest’s Serge Aurier is the only surviving member of that triumphant squad, while Franck Kessié of Al-Ahli narrowly missed the final cut nine years ago.
The Ivoriens have turned to French Coach, Jean-Louis Gasset to rewrite the history books by becoming the first hosts in eighteen years to lift the trophy, a feat last accomplished by The Pharaohs of Egypt in 2006. Since then, the closest any host of the tournament have come has been the semi final with Ghana (2006) and Cameroon (2021).
A daunting task it seems, but can be made possible by the array of stars called up by the ex Montpellier, Saint-Étienne and Bordeaux manager, Gasset.
Tasked with goal scoring duties will be Borussia Dortmund’s Sébastien Haller, who might be a doubt for the opener later tonight, but should recover in time for their subsequent games.
The most noticeable name in the midfield has to be former Milan and Barcelona player, Franck Kessié who now plies his trade in Saudi Arabia at Al-Ahli, while Jean-Michael Seri of Hull City will assist him to run things in the middle of the pitch.
Serge Aurier of Nottingham Forest will bring his vast experience to bare as he leads the defense line from his favourite right back position.
Going into the opening match this evening, The Ivory Coast are in very good form, winning their last three matches scoring sixteen times and conceding just once in the process; whereas their guests have had just one victory, a draw, and a 6-2 bashing at the hands of Mali in their last preparatory game.
A closer look at The Elephants in their previous games leading to the Afcon will reveal their diversity in terms of goal scoring, as they’ve found joy from the boots of a variety of players in the final third of the pitch, thereby making the temporary loss of Haller less worrisome.
Just five of the nineteen host countries have successfully won the Afcon title on home turf since 1982, with the last nine all failing in that regard. Will The Elephants of Ivory Coast add to these numbers positively or otherwise?
Most importantly, can The Elephants of Ivory Coast displace the Teranga Lions of Senegal as the One, True King of the African Jungle ?
One thing is certain…their quest begins tonight against Guinea-Bissau by 20:00 GMT.