RARELY does a tournament throw up such an intriguing opening round but when the elite of African football gather in Egypt from January 2006 for the 25th African Cup of Nations, they will do so fully aware that we could be in for one of the most fascinating tournaments ever.
The 2006 Cup of Nations was always going to be tight, especially after the dramatic events in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers but which one of us could have bargained for the groups we got.
Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Senegal are in Group D, Cote d'Voire, Morocco, Libya and Egypt thrown into Group A and Cameroun up against World Cup debutants Angola, Togo and DR Congo in Group B. South Africa are paired alongside Tunisia, Zambia, and Guinea in Group C.
Already some have declared that Egypt 2006 could be the most interesting tournament ever in the history of the tournament, given the elements that would be at work Take the countries who thought World Cup qualification was a right and missed out to the so called infants in African football.
Cameroun, Nigeria and Senegal still can't believe they will be watching Germany 2006 on television, as we in Ghana have been doing all this while. A mix of sour grapes and reality check has dominated the talk in these countries after they were dumped by less experienced sides in the search for a place at Germany.
The thinking among most analysts, therefore, is that those sides would use the tournament in Egypt to state their case and emphasise that the happenings in the World Cup qualifiers was an unplanned obstruction to the hierarchy of the African game.
The countries who upset the big boys like Togo, Cote d'Voire and Angola are on the other hand determined to prove that World Cup qualification was no fluke and will more importantly be desperate to use the platform in Egypt as a good preparatory grounds for the Cup of Nations.
Those factors coupled with the powerful element of wearing the tag African champions for at least two years, is what makes Egypt 2006 worth looking forward to.
For us in Ghana, it will be a very important tournament. With four Cup of Nations triumphs, matched only by Egypt and Cameroun, Ghana will have a big reputation to protect. And then of course, with a World Cup appearance due barely six months after the Cup of Nations, a good show in Egypt will do our national confidence a world of good.
It is against this background that Ghana's group (Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe) for the opening round of the tournament looks such a hard bargain. Every nation would wish to beat Zimbabwe who are making a second straight appearance at the Cup of Nations, leaving the real battle in that group between the three West Africans countries.
It is a group that will have everything — pride, rivalry, revenge and some of the finest players on the African continent. No wonder, it has been dubbed the “group of death”.
And the inevitable question for most Ghanaians is whether Ghana can emerge from that group into the quarter finals.
In all fairness, it would be one hell of a job but after the monumental feat of reaching the World Cup, clinching a top two places in that group should well be within Ghana's means.
The group's opening game will be between Ghana and Nigeria and it will be fundamental and needless to say that the match is going to be a cracker. Until South Africa emerged from apartheid to claim football enemy number one status amongst Ghanaians, it was the Nigerians who had given us unbridled joy when victory came against them.
I still vividly remember that semi-final tie in Senegal at the 1992 Cup of Nations. It was sweet, sweet victory made even better and dramatic by that wonder goal by Abedi Pele, his tears afterwards and how he had throughout the ninety minutes made nonsense of Stephen Keshi's famous defensive skills. Since then however, we've had little joy against big brother. They beat Ghana to qualify for the World Cup in Japan 2002 and when the chips came down at the quarter final stage of the 2002 African Cup of Nations, it was only the heroics of Sammy Adjei that prevented Jay Jay Okacha and his men from mauling and humiliating the Black Stars in Bamako.
So that match in Egypt will be as much about three points as it will be about national pride. It will be a clash between the old masters of the African game against a side who have learned quite well to better a lot of the things that Ghana has done on the football field except Nations Cup record.
When Ghana took Africa's first Olympic medal in the form of a bronze medal in 1992, Nigeria went for gold four years later. When Nigeria won the World U-16 title in 1985, Ghana emerged to play in four straight finals between 1991 and 1997 winning two. After Ghana equaled Nigeria's record of being the only country to have reached the finals of the FIFA Youth Cup and went a step further to play the finals again in 2001, Nigeria stomped back early this year only to lose to Argentina.
And when in previous years it was the likes of Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah who hogged all the limelight as Africa's best exports to Europe, the likes of Okocha and Kanu have taken over the stage.
Aware of the intense rivalry between the two countries, Nigeria's coach Austin Eguavoen was careful in his reaction even though he did state the obvious. “It's a tough group but this will really motivate my players,” Eguavoen said. “The good thing is that we know each other well. Ghana is a team that we respect and I know they respect us too.”
After failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, Eguavoen says his charges have learnt their lessons well.
“We paid for underrating Zimbabwe and Angola by not qualifying for the World Cup. We now have the chance to prove ourselves again and this is going to be the real test of our character. We know that Ghana and Senegal are not weak opposition and they will step up their game. We'll only pacify Nigerians angered by our World Cup failure by winning the Cup in Egypt”, he added. The acting Chairman of the Ghana Football Association (GFA), Kwesi Nyantekyi, acknowledged it is a tough group but like Eguavoen, he is confident the Stars can pull through.
Yet, for all the talk about Nigeria, it is Senegal that could pose the biggest threat to Ghana. They have no African Nations Cup win to it's name but their record in the last three editions of the tournament when they twice reached the eighth position and the finals once, shows they are developing an appetite for the big occasion.
But same can be said about Ghana. Stopped by Rwanda from going to the last Cup of Nations, the Black Stars have recovered well to reach Egypt and Germany. Now they will go to Egypt eager to add to the four Cup of Nations triumphs and erase the unimpressive showing by the Stars in recent tournaments. It will be a tough job getting out of the group stages but after qualifying for the World Cup, what can Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien and those glittering Stars do for Ghana?