This week the eyes of the footballing world once again turn to Africa for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, with this edition of the showcase for the continent’s finest footballers being held in Gabon, who previously co-hosted the tournament with Equatorial Guinea in 2012. The tournament is renowned worldwide as one of the most exciting and difficult to predict in world football with the last five finals having seen seven nations up for the cup. This has helped to see it become the third most watched football tournament in the world with its television audience coming behind only that of the FIFA World Cup and the European Championship.
This year’s tournament is particularly special as it marks the 60th anniversary of the Africa Cup of Nations with the first ever version of the competition, which is now held every two years, having taken place in 1957. Stories to watch out for this time round include whether Côte d’Ivoire can defend their 2015 title and whether Morocco coach Herve Renard can become the first ever to win a third Africa Cup of Nations title with a third different country, having previously claimed the trophy with Côte d’Ivoire and with Zambia. Fans will also wonder whether Ghana can finally claim the title after having lost two finals and three semi-finals in the last five tournaments, whether Egypt can add to their record seven titles as they return after failing to qualify at all for the last three tournaments or if Uganda can make a triumphant return in their first tournament since losing in the 1978 final.
The standard of African football has arguably never been higher with just under two-thirds of the players of the 368 players at this year’s tournament playing their football in European leagues. African Footballer of the Year Riyad Mahrez also received the prestigious honour of being the first ever African to be named the best player in the Premier League last season when he also became the first Algerian to win the Premier League.
The matches at the Africa Cup of Nations 2017 will be held across four venues: Franceville, Oyem, Port Gentil and the biggest at Libreville. It is in the 40,000 capacity Stade de l’Amitié in Libreville on 14th January that the tournament curtain raiser will see hosts Gabon take on first time qualifiers and possible surprise package Guinea-Bissau. The final will also be hosted there on the 5th February. when we will find out who will be crowned the champions of Africa.
The tournament is personified by its bright mascot, a black panther named Samba, which means “hello and welcome” in the local Bantu language and celebrates Gabon’s commitment to environmental protection. To add to the festival atmosphere of the competition fan parks are being introduced for the first time for thousands of fans to congregate to watch the games together. The tournament is already rightly famous for its colourful atmosphere, being known for fans who come painted head to toe in the colours of their country’s flag or quirky costumes and demonstrate a uniquely African celebration of football to the world.