Equatorial Guinea, Libya get Cup of Nations started
The Africa Cup of Nations starts on Saturday after a mad scramble to be ready and after massive investment by co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon but without the continent's biggest hitters.
No edition of the colourful biennial showpiece would be the same without its fair share of controversy, and 2012 is no different.
This time around the run-up to the start of the show in Bata where Equatorial Guinea take on Libya has been marked by complaints from Burkina Faso and Zambia over accommodation with both teams forced to switch hotels.
"When we arrived here, they gave us a restaurant/cafe to sleep in. It wasn't even a hotel. There was no video room, no conference room. Each time we have to improvise. That's what the Nations Cup is like," complained Burkina Faso coach Paulo Duarte.
"I think people need to have respect for the Zambian national team. It's not our first qualification," added his Zambian counterpart Herve Renard.
Competition organisers CAF responded by stating the allocation of team hotels was conducted by lots "to avoid any injustice".
Like a regal banquet without the principal guest this enticing feast of football takes place bereft of Cup kings Egypt, winners of the last three editions.
Adding further intrigue in a topsy turvy qualifying race African superpowers Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria and South Africa also failed to clamber aboard the Cup train.
In this quintet's absence World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana and Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast are favourites to claim a prize that has alluded both for far too long.
The 2012 Nations Cup cast list is full of surprises, not least Libya who succeeded in qualifying against the backdrop of the bloody overthrowing of Moamer Kadhafi's regime.
Plaudits should also be flung at Niger and Botswana's feet, these two minnows with Equatorial Guinea taking their place at the high table of African football for the first time.
Gabon and Equatorial Guinea have spent millions of their oil income in improving or building from scratch stadia, roads and hotels to prepare for their sojourn in the spotlight.
Both nations have met the deadline, but it has been a close run thing - the keys to Gabon's stadium in Franceville were only delivered on Monday.
Equatorial Guinea take on Libya with far more than national pride at stake.
The son of the country's autocratic president Teodoro Obiang is offering the players' a stunning $1 million cash incentive to win the Nations Cup curtain raiser, and $20,000 for every goal they score.
President Obiang wants the Nations Cup to serve as a shop window for his country.
"The only reason for winning (the right to host) the Cup is to present the best image of our country, to sell our image," he declared.
Pride, not money, is what is motivating Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Ghana last grabbed gold 30 years ago when pipping hosts Libya in a Tripoli penalty shootout.
Ivory Coast, whose sole success came two decades ago, have earned the unwanted reputation as 'chokers' after fluffing their lines in the quarter-finals in the last two Cups.
Newcastle United's Ivorian midfielder Cheik Tiote said: "Every time there is an African tournament people tell us that we are favourites to win, but when you look at our trophy cabinet there is nothing there. Absolutely nothing."
A plethora of Premier League stars have answered their countries' call to African arms, often at the frustration of their club managers back in England.
As well as Tiote, Newcastle will miss in-form Demba Ba, the big centre-forward who has scored 15 goals in 19 appearances since his arrival.
If fortune smiles on Ba or new recruit Papiss Demba Cisse's Senegal or Tiote's Ivory Coast and they manage to make it to the February 12 final they can expect a familiar face in the crowd in Libreville.
"The one thing I will do is that if either is in the final I?ll be going out to make sure they come home," promised Newcastle manager Alan Pardew.
"They won?t be partying for a week after or anything -- they?ll definitely see me in the stand if they get to the final."
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