The 31st edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will kick off at 16:00 GMT today, Saturday when hosts Gabon take on debutants Guinea-Bissau.
Sixty years have passed since the first Nations Cup, which took place in Sudan in 1957, consisted of only three teams and was won by Egypt.
This year’s edition has 32 matches over 23 days, featuring 16 teams – who begin their quest in four groups of four – and will end on 5 February with the winning finalists lifting the Italian-made trophy and taking home $4m (£3.28m).
Africa remains enthralled by the tournament, which has steadily grown to become the continent’s biggest sporting event, and the 2017 finals are guaranteed to provide a mix of flair, surprise, controversy and historic moments.
Gabon welcomes back the cream of African football only five years after it co-hosted the Nations Cup with Equatorial Guinea.
The country was awarded the finals by the Confederation of African Football as replacement for Libya, which had been due to host in 2013 but swapped years with South Africa which had been selected to host in 2017.
The civil war in Libya meant it had to withdraw entirely and in stepped Gabon.
However, the oil-rich country with a population of 1.8m has been experiencing its own troubles since incumbent President Ali Bongo was declared the winner of a contested election in August. His victory was followed by deadly clashes on the streets.
Opposition activists have called on citizens to boycott the tournament as part of their plans to highlight their protests against Bongo’s rule.
On the pitch, Gabon are the lowest ranked team in the finals, occupying 108th spot in Fifa’s world rankings for January.
But they do have in their side one of the world’s most coveted strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang. The Borussia Dortmund forward goes into the tournament in scintillating form, having scored 20 goals in 22 games this season for his German club.
Who can win it?
Reigning champions Ivory Coast have a new-look squad following the international retirements of legendary players such as Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba. They struggled in qualifying but the same was true before they won the trophy two years ago. New recruit Zaha is tipped to be used as the main striker for the Elephants – it will be intriguing to see how that works out.
Ghana might be considered the Germany of Africa – they always seem to come good at tournaments. But the last of their four titles came in 1982 and they have suffered defeat in the final three times since then, including on penalties to Ivory Coast last time out. Can they go one better in Gabon?
Algeria boast Africa’s hottest property in 2016, Mahrez, and his Leicester team-mate Slimani as well as Porto midfielder Yacine Brahimi. They were unbeaten in qualifying and have strength in depth in their squad. They will be confident in their chances of winning a second title.
Senegal qualified with a 100% record and if they can maintain that kind of form, and Mane clicks up front, they will surely have a good chance of being there at the finals stages of the tournament. Alongside Mane, they have big talent in the likes of Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, West Ham midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate and Fenerbahce striker Moussa Sow.
Egypt also enjoyed a strong qualifying campaign and have the pedigree to perform when it matters most. Like Senegal, they will look to one player more than any other – Salah is charged with providing the inspiration to win matches.
However, it is notoriously difficult to predict Nations Cup winners – Zambia caused a huge upset to take the title in 2012, giants Nigeria are once again absent, Ghana’s fifth title is proving elusive and the competition is getting tougher all the time.
As Ghana’s Andre Ayew says: “I think the Cup of Nations is becoming increasingly difficult to win because all the teams are getting stronger.”
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