Starting this Saturday, 16 nations meet in South Africa hoping to become the soccer champions of Africa.
Ivory Coast, Ghana, defending champions Zambia or maybe the hosts, South Africa? Starting on Saturday 16 nations will compete to become champions of Africa in the country that hosted the 2010 World Cup.
Originally it was Libya that should have hosted the 2013 African Cup of Nations. However, because of the 2011 civil war and the resulting uncertain security situation in the North African country, the continent's football body moved the tournament to South Africa.
"It is an honor for South Africa to be able to host the tournament," said Max Grünewald, the German Team Manager of the South African ABSA Premiership club Ajax Cape Town. "It was a smart decision to do it here - following the 2010 World Cup."
"The stadiums are top notch," Grünewald added. "They have the infrastructure, and thus the environment for a successful tournament."
It will be South Africa's second time hosting the competition since they first staged it in 1996.
The opening match (January 19) and the final (February 10) will be held in Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium. Along with the Moses Mabhida Stadium, it is the only major venue from the World Cup to be used. The city of Cape Town was at a disadvantage in its tug-of-war to host against the provincial towns of Nelspruit, Rustenburg and Port Elizabeth, where smaller stadiums have sprung up.
Zambia's keeper Kennedy Mweene (2nd from left) kisses the trophy after the 2012 victory over Ivory Coast
"There is not a big hype [in South Africa] like with the World Cup," said Grünewald. "The competition is not as popular."
The 2012 edition of the tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea ended with a big surprise. Outsiders Zambia won the final in Libreville 8-7 on penalties against a heavily-favored Ivory Coast to capture the title for the first time.
Grünewald figures these two teams especially have a good chance to win.
"Ivory Coast return with their star striker, Didier Drogba," said Grünewald. "But Zambia are also a favorite to win. Also not to be underestimated there are traditionally strong nations like Nigeria."
The winner of the tournament qualifies for this summer's Confederations Cup in Brazil.
Launch platform into Europe
Hosts South Africa, who were eliminated at the last World Cup in the group phase, meet Morocco, Angola and the surprise team Cape Verde in Group A. The Atlantic island country bested Cameroon in a sensational two-leg playoff.
"South Africa have a good chance to go through," said Grünewald, who has worked for Ajax Cape Town for four and a half years. "To start they have the opening match against the supposedly easy Cape Verde. Then they have this fantastic home-field advantage - right in Johannesburg."
In Group B, World Cup quarterfinalists Ghana go up against Mali, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Defending champions Zambia meet Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia in Group C. Group D brings together a North African duel between Tunisia and Morocco. Also in the group are favorites Ivory Coast and Togo.
While some top African players already make in their money in Europe, many others are hoping for a career move.
"Obviously the tournament is a platform for local players to show themselves to scouts in order to eventually take the step to Europe," said Grünewald, adding that it was obviously a major goal for many players to play in Europe.
A waking giant
Hosts South Africa want to show the world that after the successful World Cup two years ago, they can once again stage a major sporting event.
"It's a huge privilege for us - for the tourism industry and the people in the country who love football," said former national team player David Nyathi. "It gives us the feeling that the world appreciates what we do as a developing country and what we can offer the global sporting world."
Bafana Bafana, the South Africa national team, want to win in their own country like they did in 1996
The 43-year-old Nyathi is also hoping for an improved image for the entire continent.
"The competition shows what makes Africa athletic," he said. "It is a waking giant. We go into the competition with the hope that the Cup of Nations can one day be on the level of the World Cup."
Although rugby and cricket are the number one sports in South Africa, Max Grünewald expects well-filled stadiums, "especially when Bafana Bafana play. We last won the tournament here in 1996. Recreating that is a great motivator."