PREVIEW-Soccer-Cup of Nations kicks off under the COVID cloud

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Soccer Football – African Cup of Nations 2019 – Final – Senegal v Algeria – Cairo International Stadium, Cairo, Egypt – July 19, 2019 Algeria celebrates its victory at the African Cup of Nations with the REUTERS / Sumaya trophy Hisham / File Photo

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JOHANNESBURG, Jan.6 (Reuters) – The African Nations Cup kicks off in Cameroon on Sunday amid controversy over player calls, tournament schedule, host nation readiness and the possibility of widespread infections in the COVID-19.

Still, what’s not clear is who is likely to be crowned continental champion after the Feb.6 final, as a host of potential winners mean the tournament will likely continue its tradition of rarely delivering the form.

Algeria defends its title and enters the tournament with a long series of unbeatenances, including its triumph in the last edition in Egypt in 2019.

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Led by Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez, they have rarely been stretched over the past 24 months, but the rigors of tournament competition, as well as difficult conditions in Cameroon, will provide a harsh test.

Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia are the other North African countries which are perennial contenders but which have disappointed in recent editions. Morocco, in particular, recently embarked on some very popular tournaments, but were unable to live up to their expectations.

West African giants Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria are all past winners with high hopes, but haven’t been convincing in recent times.

Nigeria fired coach Gernot Rohr last month, unhappy with his form despite winning their World Cup qualifying group.

Hosts from Cameroon were even less convincing, but their home win over the Ivorians in the World Cup qualifiers in November was a huge moral boost and has now placed a burden of expectations on their shoulders.

This leaves Senegal as the team with the best references. They were finalists in 2019 and have strengthened their squad since, persuading several French players of Senegalese origin to join their team.

Liverpool’s Sadio Mane could play a key role in helping the country to their first Nations Cup triumph.

All applicants hope to avoid any outbreak of COVID-19, which could impact their chances.

Most countries’ preparations over the past fortnight have been affected by players returning positive tests and due to go into quarantine.

Senegal’s departure for the tournament on Wednesday was delayed by three positive cases and the Cape Verde Islands recorded an astonishing number of 21 individual positive cases during their pre-tournament training camp.

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The size of the teams for this tournament has been reduced from 23 to 28 to take into account the potential impact of the new coronavirus.

The teams will also face substandard hotel and training facilities, with Cameroon, stretched by poor infrastructure, rushing to prepare before kickoff on Sunday.

The late preparations prompted an emergency meeting last month of the executive committee of the Confederation of African Football, which considered canceling the tournament.

After an emergency trip to seek assurances from the Cameroonian government, CAF President Patrice Motsepe has bet on the outcome, hoping to avoid any major calamity and that football will return to the spotlight when the action begins.

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Editing by Toby Davis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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