In 2010, the African Cup Of Nations was a fantastic warm-up for the 2010 World Cup and one of the best footballing events of the season from start to finish. A youthful Ghana team was wildly entertaining, Algeria pulled an improbable upset in the knockout rounds against Cote D'Ivoire, and an experienced Egypt team put together their last run to glory, becoming perhaps the greatest generation of African players ever, despite their inexplicable inability to qualify for a World Cup.
Two of those teams - Egypt and Algeria - will not be at the 2012 African Cup Of Nations. Joining them on the outside looking in are three more of the biggest teams in Africa. The most populous nation in Africa, the 1996 champions, and the first African team to make a World Cup quarterfinal will all be without representitives, as Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon will all miss out.
Without those five teams, there will still be some entertainment value. Ghana, one of the most talented young teams in the world, not just Africa, will be on display. Didier Drogba and some of Cote D'Ivoire's aging stars will have at least one more shot at a major international accomplishment. Senegal's qualification record of 16 points and a plus-14 goal differential means that they're going to be an entertaining contender. Co-hosts Equatorial Guinea will get to make their debut along with a very lucky Niger team and an extremely impressive Botswana side.
I plan to watch almost every game of the African Cup of Nations because I wanted almost every game of the 2008 and 2010 tournaments. Heck, I did a daily podcast on the 2010 tournament for a now defunct website that is defunct partially because of the stress that went along with doing things like a daily podcast while working a day job, simply because the tournament is always a ton of fun and a great chance to see some fantastic up and coming talent that isn't yet established in the major European leagues.
But, if I said the 2012 edition of the tournament was going to be the same as the previous two, I'd be lying. It's not going to be as good without the five big sides that managed to miss out. Botswana played brilliantly in qualifying, deserves to be in the tournament, and will almost certainly put up a good showing and be just as enjoyable as the big sides. The rest of the smaller qualifiers, though? Niger, Libya, Sudan and Guinea, to be specific, lack both the star power and consistent results against decent opposition to suggest that they're going to bring anywhere near the quality and entertainment value of the big teams that missed out.
Most of these big teams have no one to blame but themselves, and I'm certainly not pitying them. South Africa, in particular, played for a draw in their last game because they didn't know the rules of qualification. They were rightfully ousted by Niger, who presumably understood the rules. Egypt were an abject embarrassment in the same qualifying group, while Algeria were smoked by Morocco in June to shatter their chances at qualifying. Nigeria perhaps got the short end of the stick as they finished on 11 points and still failed to qualify, but they took one out of a possible six points against first placed Guinea. Cameroon dealt with a similar situation, finishing on 11 points in a tough group, but they failed to beat Senegal and Congo-DR at home. These teams didn't play well enough to qualify, and the teams that qualified ahead of them deserve all of the credit in the world.
But, they will make the African Cup Of Nations less interesting. Egyptian legends Essam Al Hadari, Ahmed Hassan and Mohamed Aboutrika will not get swan songs in the finals. The likes of John Obi Mikel, Peter Odemwingie, Samuel Eto'o and Steven Pienaar will stay with their clubs this January. Hopefully the likes of Ouwo Moussa Maazou and Jerome Ramatlhakwane will become superstars this January, but until then, we'll be left wondering what could have been.
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