New year. Fresh start. That’s always the thinking.
This is a World Cup year, so the footballing world has plenty to look forward to. And June’s Brazilian showpiece will form a major part of Africa’s goals for the next 12 months. First, it’ll want a team, perhaps more than one, to progress from the first round. Then, it’ll want one of the big five to go further than anyone from this continent has gone before.
If an African team lifts the trophy, a billion dreams would come true. If one gets to the final, it would be almost as much of an achievement. But even to have a country in the final four would be a sign of progress, because it is uncharted territory. If African football made a resolution when the clock struck midnight a week ago, that would have been it.
Bagging achievement in Brazil is the big goal for the next 12 months, but it is not the only one. Africa’s other 49 countries are not going to the World Cup and will have their own targets for the year, and some of them start as early as this weekend.
The African Nations Championship (CHAN), not to be confused with the African Nations Cup (ANC), kicks off on Saturday. It is a 16-team, three-week-long event that features only home-based players. It will run from Jan. 11 to Feb. 1 in South Africa, which also hosted the ANC in the same window last year, and will be played in some of the places that missed out on the 2013 event.
Cape Town has two stadiums set aside for the competition; Bloemfontein and Polokwane are the other host cities. Prepare to see a fair number of empty seats because of the tournament’s low profile and to hear plenty of questions about the reason for this event’s existence, which is so short it cannot even fall back on tradition to justify it taking place.
CHAN was born five years ago and has been played only twice since. The Democratic Republic of Congo were the inaugural winners, a testament to the strength of their domestic league (TP Mazembe won the CAF Champions League that year as well), and Tunisia beat political turmoil to claim the second crown. Although considered second-tier, the event is a chance for little-known players to showcase their skills and attract the attention of other countries on the continent or abroad.
Picking a likely winner is difficult because many teams look a completely different outfit without their overseas-based stars — think Ivory Coast and Ghana — which could see the likes of Ethiopia and Congo throw their local weight around. Much is also expected of the hosts, South Africa, whose coach, Gordon Igesund, could well be sacked if he doesn’t deliver.
Igesund was initially tasked with taking South Africa to the final four of the last ANC — they lost in the quarters — and it is understood that unless he produces silverware at CHAN, he will not be around for another continental tournament. There’s one looming with ANC 2015 just a year away.
Qualification begins in July and will hopefully take place without being beset by the problems that last year’s 2014 World Cup qualifiers had. Nine of the 120 results had to be awarded because of teams fielding ineligible players. On most of those occasions, that was because players who should have been suspended were allowed to take the field. If the rules are properly read and records properly kept, that embarrassment can be avoided this time.
At club level, many of the thousands that dot this continent are already involved in their domestic leagues, and their attention will turn to African glory next month when the CAF Champions League begins. Al-Ahly have, against the odds, won the past two titles.
While that reflects admirably on their ability to overcome, it is also provides a stern examination of the rest. Can anyone topple them? Some may see a chance to now that Mohamed Aboutrika is no longer there to act as talisman and hope his absence is felt in more places than just the midfield.
It will take a team with the aggression to seldom slip up at home and the discipline to compete away to do it. Esperance, TP Mazembe, Coton Sport and Al-Hilal are some of the leading candidates, but as Al-Ahly have so often showed, it also takes a lot of heart.
The African game can seem as though it is played as much on emotion as it on skill. Should those two combine, 2014 is set to be a spectacular year.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNCricinfo and ESPNFC’s correspondent in Africa. She also writes for Forbes Africa and has a weekly column in the South African version of the Times newspaper. You can follow her on Twitter @FirdoseM