The fifth African Nations Championship begins today in Morocco with the home-based stars in 16 countries jostling to be African champions at the end of the competition on February 4.
The biennial tournament, which is exclusively for players who ply their trades in their countries’ domestic leagues, began in 2009 with eight countries in attendance.
With matches to be played in four Moroccan cities of Casablanca, Marrakech, Agadir and Tangier, the 2018 edition will crown new champions after 2016 winners DR Congo failed to qualify for the tournament. They lost to neighbours Congo on the away goals rule.
The home-based Super Eagles are in Group C along with former champions of the competition Libya, Rwanda and Equatorial Guinea. The Eagles will play their first match on Monday against Rwanda in Tangier.
In Group A, hosts Morocco are with Mauritania, Sudan and Guinea while Ivory Coast, Zambia, Uganda and Namibia are in Group B. Group D houses Angola, Cameroon, Congo and Burkina Faso.
Nigeria made their first appearance in 2014, when they finished third. They did not progress from the group stage in the 2016 edition.
However, captain of the side Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Eagles assistant coach Salisu Yusuf, who is in charge of the CHAN team, are optimistic of the country’s chances of lifting their first title in Morocco.
“Our group is a tough one with Rwanda, Libya and Equatorial Guinea because they good sides when it comes to the CHAN. At the last edition, Rwanda were very tough and they performed better than us. Libya are former champions, so they are no newcomers to the competition and for Equatorial Guinea, they will be coming with the players that played the World Cup qualifiers for them. So, to be honest, it’s going to be a very tough group for us but we are up to the task,” Ezenwa told thenff.com.
Salisu said, “I will say Nigeria is due to win the CHAN trophy after several attempts, and we are going to Morocco with the belief that we can win it. We have worked very hard to ensure that we do not disappoint the country.”
With prize money of $1.25m for winners, $700,000 for the first runners-up and $400,000 for the third-placed team, the competition is expected to be keenly-contested.
Hosts Morocco will look for a fast start in the competition when they face Mauritania in the tournament opener at the Stade Mohamed V in Casablanca on Saturday.
Like Nigeria, Morocco are making a third successive appearance at the tournament, having reached the quarter-finals on their debut in 2014. They followed it with a group stage exit at the last CHAN in Rwanda two years ago.
Coached by Jamal Sellami, expectations are high this time round for the Atlas Lions – after the country recently qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup following a 16-year absence at the competition.
Following CAF’s decision to hand Morocco hosting rights for the 2018 CHAN, after stripping Kenya of the rights, the home-based Atlas Lions believe they have a chance to add to the country’s growing list of football achievements.
According to Moroccan daily Al Akhbar, Sellami said despite the absence of two key players from the squad due to injury, his team will do their best to clinch the title.
“The year 2017 witnessed the great reawakening of Moroccan football and its return to the forefront of the continental and international scenes,” Sellami said.
“Far from putting pressure on the players, the qualification to the World Cup 2018 in Russia and the coronation of WAC in the Champions League is a motivation for players to apply to the maximum and to fill the list of exploits by a new coronation.”
The hosts’ opponents, Mauritania, are making their second appearance at the CHAN. They debuted in South Africa 2014, where they exited in the group stage.
Mauritania coach Corentin Martins only recently revealed his 23-man squad for the competition, having overseen preparations in camps in Tunisia and Nouakchott.
The French tactician included highly-rated attackers KaramokoTraore, Ely Samba OuldVoulany and Moulaye Ahmed Khalil.
Saturday’s match will be the first official international match between Morocco and Mauritania, according to FIFA’s statistical database.