January 17th, 2012
12:40 PM ET

Will Africa's new stars shine at Cup of Nations?

Can Chelsea striker Didier Drogba lead the Ivory Coast to African Cup of Nations glory? (Getty Images)
Can Chelsea striker Didier Drogba lead the Ivory Coast to African Cup of Nations glory? (Getty Images)

Most of the talk leading up to this weekend's start of the 2012 African Cup of Nations has focused on the teams who won’t be there, rather than on the ones who will.

It's understandable, considering Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria – who have a combined total of 13 titles – didn’t qualify for the tournament, which will take place in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. That means we won’t be seeing the likes of Mohamed Zidane, Samuel Eto’o or Jon Obi Mikel, among others, in action over the next month.

However, just because three traditional contenders didn’t make it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about the competition. Quite the opposite. There are other emerging powers on the continent and plenty of new players to discover over the event's three weeks.

Here are my tips on some of the teams and young players to watch out for. What do you think? Please let me know if you've spotted players that I've missed.

The contenders

Ivory Coast: My favorites to win the competition. The Elephants are the complete package: they have the talent, the spirit and the experience, with eight players of the regular starting XI boasting over 50 caps each. With a backbone featuring the Toure brothers and Didier Drogba, this is a team that will be hard to beat. They won all six qualifiers, scoring an average of over three goals per game, and are on track to capture their first crown since 1992.

Morocco: So much potential, so little substance. For years and years, Morocco has produced skilful players only to see them underachieve in major tournaments. This year it could be a different story. Manager Eric Gerets, one of Belgium's most-capped internationals, has introduced a winning mentality and the players seem to be taking to it. Watch out for the trio of talented midfielders: Houssine Kharja, Mbark Boussoufa and Adel Taarabt, who play in Italy, Russia and England respectively.

Senegal: The Lions of Teranga shouldn’t have any trouble finding the back of the net. Their forward line boasts the likes of Demba Ba, Moussa Sow and Papiss Cisse, all players who have been scoring goals for fun in England, France and Germany respectively. Add captain Mamadou Niang to the mix and you get an idea of just how good Senegal will be going forward. What about their defense? Well, they showed during qualifying that keeping clean sheets isn’t a problem either, conceding only two goals in six matches. Believe or not, the western African nation has never won the title. This year could change that.

Young and promising players

Mehdi Benatia (Morocco): Finding skilful attacking players has never been a problem for Morocco, but to get a defensive general like Benatia is truly a blessing. The 24-year-old center-back has marshalled the last line impressively for Italian Serie A club Udinese and is now looking to carry over his stellar form into the African Cup of Nations.

Kwadwo Asamoah (Ghana): When talking about Ghana, it’s easy to praise the talents of Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari. However, there is a new kid on the block who we should definitely not overlook. Kwadwo Asamoah is a central midfielder who could be the heir to Stephen Appiah’s throne. The 23-year-old, who also plays for title-chasing Udinese, is calm and composed on the ball. His tenacious tackling earns him a lot of respect in the center of the park.

Djalma (Angola): The speedy striker has improved dramatically over the last couple of seasons, plying his trade in Portugal’s first division. He impressed at Maritimo, earning a move to Europa League champions FC Porto in the summer. Many pundits expected him to struggle to make an impact, but Djalma has broken into the starting XI and at the age of 24 is showing that he could have a bright future with his club and country.

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soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. alehandro

    Informative analysis to a point but can't help noticing that all the "players to watch" play their football in Europe. Aren't there any African based players who might make their mark? Traditionally European club foot ball is the Holy Grail for African footballers and the AFCN is renowned as a shop window for undiscovered talent. The names you've mentioned have already been discovered by European teams so their goal has been achieved. If you really do follow African football it would have been interesting to read which players you think might follow in their footsteps.

    January 17, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  2. Killian Donnellan

    I like this article pedro, very accurate and informative. I think it will be a final between Ghana and Senegal. Some of the young players you listed like including Asamoah, who I think could do a job for Man Utd and Liverpool.

    January 17, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  3. Jeffrey Youngmann

    Hey Pedro, you left out Ghana. Although, they last won the trophy over 30 yrs ago, they are quite a powerful side. Remember the world cup? they played tactically well and lost unlikely in the quarter finals to Luis Suarez's Uruguay. With up and coming stars like Kwadwo Asamoah (Udinese), Dede and Jordan Ayew (Marsielle), Emmanuel Agyeman-Badu (Udinese), Suley Muntari (Inter) and their talesmanic striker Asamoah Gyan, they can make a great impact. Mind you they were finalist last year

    January 17, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  4. Musinu Zakari

    The real title contender is Ghana. The stats are there to show. The others will just be adding up to the numbers.

    January 17, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  5. mar4evr

    I would like to add three other Moroccan players to watch for: speedy Oussama Aissaidi (Holland), Lamrabt (Turkey), and Belhanda (France)

    January 17, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  6. Afonso

    I think Ivory Coast is the best. Although last World Cup they disappointed, this is a new chance for them to show what they're capable of. I think also that it's just a matter of time until an african national-team wins a World Cup.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  7. wa

    I miss Ayew, j Ayew, belhanda assaidi

    January 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  8. chokay

    You guys should also watchout for Agyemang Badu in Ghana's midfield.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  9. Inabus Amesu Richard

    Nice work Pedro, but leaving out Ghana couldn't possibly be a mistake. Indeed, Ghana hasn't won the trophy in a very long while, but certainly are contenders, of course, Ivory Coast , Senegal and perhaps Zambia are a must watch, but i think Ghana is worth mentioning, Watch out for Agyeman Badu, The Ayew's especially Dede and Kwarasey, apart from Kwadwo Asamoah. These lads are hungry for success. I wish all the representing teams best of luck. Let the winner be the pride of Africa!!!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  10. Umwina Zambia

    Lets go Zambia....Lets go....the Trophy as eluded us for too long...this is our time! Watch out for Zambia

    January 18, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  11. mamadou

    i hope senegal and chana will be a final no questione

    January 18, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  12. Jamal

    I admire you Pedro.....God knows I do; and that is why I'm going to give a chance to explain why you skipped Ghana by...unbelievable, simply unbelievable.
    Just explain to me...maybe I can understand...i have a listening eye u know

    January 18, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  13. yawdee

    The writer certainly isnt a soccer fanatic or does not follow African soccer. Sulley muntari is no more a star for Ghana..and its incredible why he didnt acknowledge Ghana as a favorite..Agyeman Badu and Andre Ayew will illuminate the tournament.. mark my words

    January 18, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Reply
  14. Thatayaone Monty Marapo

    Guys need to watch out for the Zebras ( Botswana National Team). Botswana is going to make history.

    January 19, 2012 at 11:51 am | Reply
  15. Inabus Amesu Richard

    Gentlemen, go easy on Pedro, Ghana's absence in his list must sure have been a mistake. Yawdee i totally agree, Sulley has lost it, this perhaps will be a chance for him to redeem his long lost image plus rebrand and resell himself. I truly believe guys like Manucho wil and Demba Ba wil give the Ghanaian stars a run for their money.

    January 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  16. Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Wishing the players, fans and media an exciting Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

    January 19, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  17. LAWAL AHMADU

    Pedro Pinto I will start by recommending you as a top sport journalist.The way you play with your words and the proffession is too admirable.

    As far as CAN is concerned, is a pity that the indomitable lions could not make it due corruption in the team which Eto;o exposed and was banned.That will not stop me from watching the tournament and I think Senegal,Ghana and Ivory coast are the team to watch.I have that strong feeling that Senegal and Ghana will make it at the final

    January 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  18. Mwachisemo Mwengu

    Look out for Zambia. Senagal this game is Checkmate.

    Chipolopolo boyz are on you.

    January 20, 2012 at 9:00 am | Reply
  19. Mohamed FALL

    Come on guys!! we all know that Ivory Coast is winning this cup. Mark my word but good luck to everyone.

    January 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  20. ONYE EZE

    people are saying of Senegal going through ? how can ? talk of wining the Cup if you are dreaming of this cup Ivory Coast is there Ghana,Zambians are there as well, i cant see Senegal coming out of group 8 there should forget it because there marabu will not help them.

    This is Soccer and not re-sling if you doubt it then lets go on beeting,but believe me there will be a sup-prize in this game mark my word again i dont see Senegal coming out of Group 8Good Luck to Ivory Coast and Ghana as well Chipolopolo

    January 20, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Reply
  21. pankah natty

    Ghanians are ready and poise to on any country,the stars are going to bring the cup home this season.I would not like to say or talk much so lets keep our fingers cross and watch out for the stars."It's said football is made in Germany but the soccer is made in Ghana".

    January 21, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  22. BKB

    You think this is going to be easy for GHANA.No,it is not.I watched Asamoah Gyan's interview with the British sports commentator.He warned of complacency-and that is what i am scared of.I am Ghanaian and i am rooting for them but it has been complacency and player loyalty which have caused us the cup sometime.Rememeber when Abedi Pele Sr. and Sam Yeboah were playing?We have all the Asamoahs and the Gyans and the Abedis,butplease let us pray.On that note i wish all the teams GOOD LUCK.

    January 21, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  23. lima

    Ghana is the best team in africa says hadji from saint kitts.

    January 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  24. alonzo

    I don't believe Ivory Coast has a chance to even make it to the finals. Their players are skillful but do not have the energy to get to the top as age is not on their side either. It took them quite some luck to get past Sudan who are ranked nowhere in the world rankings.
    Ghana is definately winning this cup and with youths like Andre and Jordan Ayew there is nothing one can do to stop this train.
    It will exactly be 30 yrs since Ghana last won the cup and the guys will finally be bringing the cup home.

    January 23, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  25. Sheda

    Wonderful attempt Pedro; mark my words Ghana is a force to reckon with; Dede & Agyeman Badu are the catalysts. Also forget not the Senegalese; their initial set back is a thing of the past. The golden quartet of Moussa Sow; Demba Ba; Pappiss Demba Cisse & N Doye the FC Coppenhagen bullet are set to redeem their lost pride.. Senegal & Ghana all the way. Finally the pace;the hunder and the determination of the Chipolopolo bullets will surprise many marshalled by their robust midfield..

    January 25, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
  26. Nafuti nafuti

    Senegal... :-)

    January 25, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  27. Peoples

    This is a crappy analysis. How do u even talk about Senegal. This is the tournament where underdogs shine ! Where do u get your information from ? This is a trophy that is owned by teams who have players based in the continent – players used to rough pitches, no Euros, no narcissism but sheer willpower to deliver a dramatic display.

    January 26, 2012 at 8:21 am | Reply
  28. alonzo

    As the cup of nations progresses one can see why its difficult to predict who gets where. Senegal who were favored to win the cup is out and unhappy to see their players cry so much. The other "big" team to go out next will be Ivory Coast and i can see a lot of the smaller footballing nations are determined to make a point. Gone are the days when giants like the Green Eagles basked in glory at such tournaments and the sooner they start taking notes the better for the future

    January 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  29. cidis

    So far I think ghana and ivory coast will go to the final with ghana emerging as newly african champions mark my words

    February 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  30. Thomas Winter

    Ivory Coast!!!

    February 13, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply

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