The competition kicks off in Egypt this week, with 24 teams in the running. Several changes and alterations mean that this year's Africa Cup of Nations has several surprises in store, not to mention some quality squads.
Preparations for an Africa Cup of Nations have rarely been this problematic, despite a crowded field competing for that title.
The difficulties began with proposed hosts and defending champions Cameroon. Despite being earmarked as host nation for five years, the home of the "Indomitable Lions" was not able to adequately prepare in time. Africa's CAF football federation ultimately withdrew the competition from Cameroon in November 2018, citing both delays readying infrastructure for the tournament and the ongoing conflict with the country's Anglophone community. The replacement hosts, Egypt, were only confirmed in January.
The Comoros went a step further, appealing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport that Cameroon should be suspended from the tournament as a whole, not just lose its hosting rights. But the island nation's petition did not bear fruit, ultimately failing earlier this month.
Also in June, just two weeks before the competition, CAF President Ahmad Ahmad was picked up by police at his Paris hotel and taken for questioning by corruption investigators. As if to pour salt in CAF's many gaping wounds, this directly followed a two-day meeting of a special commission that was supposed to reach a decision on the scandalous CAF Champions League final between Esperance of Tunisia and Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca. (They ruled that the abandoned second leg should be replayed, although that decision could face a legal challenge. In any case, any replay won't take place before the end of the Cup of Nations.)
Welcome chance to focus on football
So it's little wonder that many actors in African football can hardly wait for the tournament to start on June 21. Between then and the July 19 final, 24 teams will duke it out in six stadiums — three of them in Cairo, and one each in Alexandria, Ismailia and Suez.
Probably to the delight of European club managers, it's the first Africa Cup of Nations to take place in the summer. But temperatures well in excess of 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) will pose serious challenges to competing teams, and their worries don't end there.
"Most of the players in the Africa Cup of Nations have already completed 40 matches this season; for those playing in Europe it's even more than 50," said Tunisian football expert Zoubaier Baya, a former Freiburg player who now works as an analyst for Abu Dhabi Sports. "And now they have to prepare to go again. That doesn't just take its toll on the body, but the psyche too; these are just ordinary people."
As in Euro 2016, this year's Africa Cup of Nations has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
"I'm completely against it, because it will reduce the quality," Baya told DW. As at the Euros, finishing third in a group of four can also suffice to reach the last 16. Critics argue that this allows for a slower start to the tournament, unlike a 16-team competition where the risks of elimination are very real from Day 1. But proponents see the new format as a chance for added excitement. At least, former Carmeroon striker and two-time champion (in 2000 and 2002) Patrick Mboma thinks so:
"Earlier, the big teams could rotate a bit after a couple of [group stage] wins. Not any more. The favorites will have to pay more attention to the smaller countries, which will have a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages until the very end of the group phase," Mboma said.
The favorites: Egypt, Senegal and Morocco
For many, the principal charm of the Africa Cup of Nations is its utter unpredictability. Two years ago, Cameroon went into the competition with one of its weakest-looking squads in living memory and came out of it as champions.
This year, three other countries are being treated as the heavy hitters: Egypt, Senegal and Morocco.
"In Africa you can always assume that the hosts are among the favorites," Zoubaier Baya said. "In Mohamed Salah, Egypt have a top player at the peak of his powers. And obviously the Egyptian crowd will hope to play its part as well."
Already the most successful country in the competition's history, surely The Pharaohs wouldn't object to an eighth crown.
There's a strong case for Senegal too. This includes stars like Napoli's central defender Kalidou Koulibaly and Liverpool winger Sadio Mane.
"Even though Mane's name stands out on this team sheet, he remains the type of player that works for his team. That increases Senegal's chances," Baya said.
Morocco also belong on your radar. The North Africans have an extremely talented attacker in their ranks in Hakim Ziyech of Ajax. But Baya pointed out that this is by no means their lone trump card: "Morocco have many experienced players, but above all, in Herve Renard, they have a vastly experienced coach who has won the title with two different teams. That makes them a particularly strong prospect."
The outsiders: from Algeria to Cameroon and the DRC
There's a series of countries that will be hoping to upset 2019's big three. Title holders Cameroon can never be discounted, "even if you never really know how they are going to fare," said retired Cameroon striker Patrick Mboma. "Nobody would have bet on Cameroon winning the 2017 title. And what happened? The Indomitable Lions triumphed. Then everyone expected them to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but they failed monstrously. We'll have to wait and see what kind of a team coach Clarence Seedorf has built."
Nigeria and Ghana could also play a defining role, even though Baya cautioned that "they are currently not exactly stable." But Baya's own chosen dark horse is Algeria.
"The coach [Djamel Belmadi] may still be young, but he's very competent. And many Algerian players have had excellent seasons. Baghdad Boudjenah has been rolling goals off a conveyor belt in Qatar, while Sofiane Feghouli has just won the double with Galatasaray."
Experts also afford Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of Congo outside chances of glory. Whether they can realize these will become clear when the action starts. All involved are ready for the games to begin, if not for the best reasons. They hope the action will finally confine the scandals to the background and allow African football to show off one of the things it has to offer: a wealth of top quality talent.