AAP Soccer

Concerns cloud expanded Cup of Nations

By AAP Newswire

The Africa Cup of Nations will commence in Egypt on Friday sporting a new look but the 32nd edition is clouded like none before by security concerns and the failings of the game's administrators.

A switch to mid-year hosting and an expansion to 24 teams hold out high hopes that the continent's showpiece sports event will continue to enjoy growing international attention.

However, the changes come on the heels of a crisis of confidence for the game in Africa, where leading officials stand accused of corruption.

Controversy raged for years over the event's previous timing in January, when top African players were forced to leave their European clubs mid-season to play in the tournament, and the change to mid-year has been universally welcomed.

The decision to expand to 24 teams produced a more sceptical reaction given that many of the past tournaments have been characterised by the poor standard of matches.

But the success of UEFA's expanded European Championship in France three years ago emboldened the Confederation of African Football to follow suit.

It means three new faces in this year's line-up although Burundi, Mauritania and Madagascar are not expected to make much impact.

But this is not a tournament with any clear favourites.

Hosts Egypt, who will kick-off the tournament against Zimbabwe at the Cairo International Stadium, are seeking a record-extending eighth title but much of their hopes rest on the form of Liverpool's Champions League winner Mohamed Salah.

The same is true for Salah's club mate Sadio Mane, who leads a credible challenge from Senegal. Although he is suspended for their Group C opener against Tanzania.

Nigeria return after missing the last two finals and are always contenders, while Ghana continue their quest for a first title since 1982.

Cameroon were surprise champions at the last Nations Cup in 2017, when they beat Egypt 2-1 in the final in Gabon, and they are in a similar position this time with mediocre form since that triumph.

Heavy security is expected around the tournament, to forestall any political dissent and in the aftermath of turmoil in the ranks of the continent's soccer governing body, the Confederation of African Football.