The West African state is a last-minute replacement for Libya, which was originally scheduled to host the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, but was forced to withdraw due to the ongoing violence in the country.
However, Gabon’s preparations to host the tournament have been marred by the country’s own political crisis, which was sparked by last summer’s controversial re-election of President Ali Bongo. Opposition candidate Jean Ping contested the election results and in dozens of people were killed and hundreds arrested in several days of violence last August. Security forces are expected to be highly visible, with opposition protests surrounding the tournament a real possibility.
Unemployment in the country of 1.7 million stands at more than 20 percent and organizers have had trouble selling tickets for AFCON games, even though the prices of some are as low as $0.80 cents (60 euro cents).
Against this backdrop, workers put the finishing touches on the stadiums and hotels in the four host cities; the capital Libreville, Port Gentil, Oyem, and Franceville.
Sixteen teams will play out the first round in four groups of four, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the knockout stage. The tournament kicks off on Januar 14 with the hosts playing Guinea-Bissau and Burkina Faso facing Cameroon in Group A.
Four group-stage matches to look forward to:
Cameroon vs. Gabon, 22 January
Gabon is powered by Borussia Dortmund superstar striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The 27-year-old may have come up short in the 2016 African Footballer of the Year awards, but he did win the honor one year earlier. The Gabon captain, who has scored 16 goals in the current Bundesliga campaign, was also picked as the player of the year by his peers in a survey conducted recently by the German sports newspaper “Kicker.”
Gabon, coached by former Real Madrid bench boss Jose Antonio Camacho, know how muscular the four-time AFCON champions are. While many of the players turned down Belgian coach Hugo Broos’ invitation, Cameroon do have a number of impact players including Clinton N’Jie, Vincent Aboubakar and Nicolas Nkoulou.
Senegal vs. Algeria, 23 January
Senegal are to face Algeria in their final Group B encounter and these two teams boast some of Africa’s finest talent.
Senegal will be looking for at least a repeat of the 2002 performance when they finished as runner-ups. Among their key players are Sadio Mane, Cheikhou Kouyate, Idrissa Gueye and Mama Biram Diouf, each of whom can pose a danger to any defense.
Algeria has Riyad Mahrez, the Confederation of African Football’s 2016 African player of the year and Islam Slimani. The Leicester City duo will lead the lineup for Algeria along with the likes of Napoli full back Faouzi Ghoulam, Saphir Taider, Yacine Brahimi and Schalke midfielder Nabil Bentaleb.
Morocco vs. Ivory Coast, 24 January
Ivory Coast’s match against Morocco will certainly be one to watch out for considering the quality of players on both teams. The defending champions will have to be at their best against a young and determined Morocco side who are eager to make their presence felt on the internationalstage. Ivory Coast, are in a transition period, after time caught up with the “golden generation” of Kolo and his brother Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora and Didier Drogba.
Egypt vs. Ghana, 25 January
Egypt and Ghana have been two of the most successful teams in the AFCON with 7 and 4 titles respectively. Egypt have a lot of technically gifted players including Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Elneny. Salah, 24, is regarded as Egypt’s most exciting player since the retirement of Mohamed Aboutrika.
On the other hand, Ghana, guided by former Chelsea boss Avram Grant, will use the pace of Ayew brothers (Jordan and Andre) and Christian Atsu to feed the ball to their key striker and captain Asamoah Gyan.