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African Cup of Nations shows glimpse of football's future

By James Montague, CNN
  • African Cup of Nations begins in Angola with the hosts playing Mali on January 10
  • European stars including Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o will appear
  • The tournament has become one of the most watched events in world football
  • The event will give a good guide to form on which African team will be strong for the 2010 World Cup finals

(CNN) -- Football coaches are fuming, club owners are counting the financial implications and some fans are incredulous: just as Europe's top clubs reach a crucial part of their seasons, dozens of the their best players will be missing for up to a month as they head for Africa's biggest football tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations.

This year, the likes of Chelsea's Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, Inter Milan's Samuel Eto'o and Barcelona's Yaya Toure will all be heading to Angola for the biennial torunament, which is hosting its first major international sporting event following a bloody thirty-year civil war.

Cup of Nations: Headache or adventure?.

Despite its critics, for many around the world the Nations Cup will be a glorious exhibition of a continent's footballing prowess, and, given the huge numbers of truly world class players making the journey to southern Africa, further evidence of an emerging football superpower.

Africa's regional tournament, the continental equivalent of the European Championships or the Copa America, had come a long way since its humble beginnings, where it started as a three-team affair involving Egypt, Ethiopia and hosts Sudan in 1957.

[It's] the third most watched international football tournament behind the World Cup and European Championship
--Ian Hawkey, African football writer

It has since grown in to a multi-billion dollar event, watched by a global TV audience of tens of millions, and which provides fertile hunting ground for scouts searching for the next African superstar.

"The tournament has improved hugely and is now the third most watched international football tournament behind the World Cup and European Championship," explained journalist and African football expert Ian Hawkey, author of "Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Football."

"The standard has really improved and the big factor in that is the quality of pitches which has been a big African problem in the past. It makes a big difference to quality of the tournament."

The huge improvement in the standard of the tournament, its pitches and footballers has risen in tandem, Hawkey suggests, pointing out that at the 1992 tournament in Senegal, there was just one African footballer who played in England. In the 2010 edition, 25 English-based players will compete.

"That's down on 2008's tournament in Ghana because Senegal and South Africa didn't qualify," he added. "[But] there will be 67 players at the tournament who play in French professional football for example."

The Angolan Africa Cup of Nations is arguably the continent's most important -- with South Africa hosting Africa's first World Cup finals in the same year -- it will give the world an idea of just how strong teams like Drogba's Ivory Coast, Essien's Ghana and Eto'o's Cameroon will be in football's showpiece event in June.

"The world will be looking very closely," Hawkey agreed, before sounding a note of caution. "At the 1990 Nations Cup, Cameroon were embarrassing, atrocious. Then they got to the quarterfinals at Italia 90. But at least one of the five World Cup finalist won't make the semifinals, and I'd be surprised if they keep their head coach. So at least a couple of teams will be plunged in to turmoil before the World Cup."

Yet for all the media coverage about departing players in Europe, for Africans the biggest story before the tournament concerns one team that will definitely not be booking any flights to South Africa in the summer: reigning champions Egypt, and their bid to win a record third straight title.

Egypt lost out to Algeria in a bitterly contested,politically charged World Cup playoff in Sudan last November. But The Pharaohs have dominated the continent in recent times and will be eager to prove that their World Cup absence was the biggest shock of qualification. They even have the chance of redemption with a potential rematch against the Desert Foxes in the semifinals.

"I think they're favorites, yes," Hawkey told CNN. "They not quite as dominant as a couple of years ago but they will be really motivated after the Algeria game. They will really want to prove a point."

Coaches and fans across Europe may well be nervously keeping their fingers crossed, praying their stars return uninjured for their final push towards domestic or Champions League glory. But for the rest of the world, Angola's Africa Cup of Nations will simply be a month packed full of glorious, colorful football involving some of the best players in the world who could yet shine in South Africa.