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AFCON opens with 90,000 sell out in Soweto
The 2013 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Soweto later Saturday in front of a sell-out 90,000 crowd at Soccer City with favourites Ivory Coast desperate to claim the continental crown.
At the magnificent Soweto stadium where Spain secured the 2010 World Cup title hosts South Africa get the Cup roadshow rolling against Cape Verde, the tiny nation making their debut after upsetting Cameroon in qualifying.
Morocco face Angola in the second leg of the opening day's double bill.
This year's Cup, which promises to be as colourful and chaotic as ever, offers veteran Didier Drogba and his fellow Ivorians yet another chance to live up to their status as the golden generation.
Agonising penalty shoot-out defeats in the finals of 2006 against Egypt and last year against Zambia will only serve to motivate the Elephants in what is 34-year-old Drogba's last throw of the Nations Cup dice.
But they may miss out yet again, if South African psychic and spiritual healer Jamil Ahmad is to be believed.
"Ivory Coast or Ghana will take the Cup. Ivory Coast were runners-up in the last tournament and Ghana are just the cream of the crop. They play with passion," said Ahmad.
The competition has grown from humble beginnings into a global event watched by a TV audience running into hundreds of millions tuning in to be dazzled by the top players on the continent.
While the build-up has lacked the buzz generated by the 2010 World Cup, ticket sales have smashed the half million mark, and the tournament is getting blanket coverage in South African newspapers and on television.
South Africa, who only stepped in as hosts just over a year ago, were praised by organisers CAF.
"I think South Africa as hosts have done an amazing job considering the time they had to prepare for this tournament after it was moved from Libya," Hicham El Amrani, secretary general of African football's ruling body, said.
Over the coming four weeks, 16 teams, among them 10 former champions, are braced to do battle, with Drogba for one tired of going home trophyless.
"We have a team capable of great things at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations," remarked the Chinese-based striker.
"It would be great to win the trophy now. Honestly, we are getting tired of losing out each time."
Other front-line contenders for 2013 honours are defending titleholders Zambia, the ever dangerous and youthful Ghana, the well organised 1992 champions Algeria, west African superpower Nigeria, while South Africa have invaluable home support to spur them on.
The perennial problem of players' bonuses has already emerged with veteran French coach Claude Le Roy furious that his Democratic Republic of Congo squad had failed to receive promised payments.
Le Roy, who guided Cameroon to the title in 1988, vented his anger on Friday, 48 hours before DR Congo face Ghana in Port Elizabeth.
"I was very bitter to see that all our work had been screwed up (by the crisis over unpaid bonuses)," Le Roy told French radio station Rfi.
"It's mad, devastating to wreck a preparation like this, with such a lack of respect."
The local organising committee meanwhile has fallen short in some areas, notably accreditation which has been a shambles.
Embarrassingly some Cape Verde players were forced to return to the accreditation centre on Friday on the eve of their curtain-raiser with South Africa, AFP witnessed.
The reason? They had been issued with the wrong passes, preventing them from playing in Saturday's curtain-raiser.
Following last week's searing heat, Soweto, former home to ailing Nelson Mandela, has been subjected to deluges of biblical proportions in recent days, with more downpours forecast for the opening game.
But the tens of thousands of vuvuzela-touting fans will have to grin and bear the wet conditions, as brollies are banned from inside Soccer City.
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