10 January ~ For the first time, a major international tournament begins without anyone knowing how many teams will be taking part. Such is the case with the 2010 African Cup of Nations in the wake of the tragedy that befell the Togo squad on their journey to Angola. Three people died when the Togolese team bus was fired upon as it travelled through Cabinda, a province of Angola where a separatist movement has been involved in armed conflict with the central authorities. The Togo government told their team to quit the tournament but at the time of writing it seems that the players intend to stay. Meanwhile, the three other teams due to play group matches in Cabinda are also said to be considering withdrawal.
Nonetheless it seems that 2010 CAN will kick off tonight, with hosts Angola welcoming Mali to their new national stadium in Luanda, the national capital. Although they took part in the 2006 World Cup finals, Angola are the lowest ranked team in the tournament and could yet be the first host nation to be knocked out at the group stage since 1994. Without their injured captain Andre Makanga, Angola will look to striker Manucho for leadership and inspiration. His goals in the last Cup of Nations, in 2008, took Angola to the quarter-finals for the first time. His efforts, including the "goal of the tournament", earned him a move to Manchester United, where he duly flopped, making only one appearance, as a substitute against Stoke City.
With few outstanding individual talents, Angola will rely heavily on the organisational skills of their new coach Manuel Jose. The Portuguese has won three African Champions Leagues with Egyptian giants Ah Ahly, and has the experience needed to mould a combative team from a relatively limited bunch of players. Home advantage could also be telling in Angola's quest for respectability. Host nations have traditionally excelled in the Cup of Nations, having won 11 of the previous 26 tournaments.
Before Angola can start to think of lifting their first Cup, however, they will have to overcome a strong Mali team. The Eagles have past experience of stunning the hosts in the tournament's opening fixture, having humbled Tunisia with a 2-0 defeat in 1994's curtain-raiser. The Tunisian president Ben Ali was so disgusted by the performance of the home team that he stormed out of the stadium long before the final whistle.
Frédéric Kanouté, formerly of Spurs, and the only European-born player to be named African Footballer of the Year, will lead the line for Mali. The team's real strength lies behind Kanouté in a midfield that boasts Seydou Keita of Barcelona, Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid and Momo Sissoko of Juventus. Mali coach Stephen Keshi has every confidence that his team can cause an upset: "You only need to look at the calibre of players in this team, the body language, attitude and spirit to know we mean business. Our preparations have gone according to plan and my team can go all the way to the final," said Keshi, who won the Nations Cup as a player with his native Nigeria and coached Togo to the 2006 World Cup, though he quit before the tournament.
At the end of the first week, Ivory Coast and Ghana, two tournament favourites, are due to meet in Group B – in Cabinda. The Angolan government is insisting that the venue will be safe for the competing teams but it remains to be seen if these matches take place as planned. Whatever happens at CAN 2010, the tournament is already destined to be remembered for the tragic events that took place before any games were played.