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Last Updated: Friday, 18 January 2008, 07:29 GMT
Africa Nations ready for kick-off
By Paul Fletcher

Didier Drogba
Chelsea's Drogba will lead the Ivory Coast front line
Marcel Desailly has tipped Ivory Coast to win the 26th Africa Cup of Nations which starts in Ghana on Sunday.

The former Chelsea and AC Milan star will be reporting for BBC Sport at the tournament and is predicting a contest high on skill and rich in atmosphere.

Host nation Ghana play Guinea in the opening fixture, with fans and scouts expected to flock to west Africa.

"Ivory Coast are the most complete team - the way they play is the most European," said BBC Sport's Desailly.

Sixteen teams with world-class players such as Ghana midfielder Michael Essien, Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba and Cameroon forward striker Samuel Eto'o are set to illuminate the continent's football showpiece.

With six of those countries bordering Ghana, stadiums are expected to be busier than previous tournaments with $4 tickets changing hands for as much as $120 on the black market.

And reports have suggested that around one million visitors to the country could inject up to $1bn (510m) into the local economy.

"The Nations Cup is special," said Ghana-born Desailly, who moved to France at an early age and won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 with his adopted country.

606: DEBATE

"It's going to be a huge tournament in terms of quality but with football in Africa you see colours, you see dance and you see people going crazy."

BBC Sport understands that many English Premier League clubs are sending scouts to the tournament - with one chief scout saying the Cup of Nations is now as big as the Copa America and the European Championship.

But Desailly says he does not expect the tournament to unearth many hidden gems.

"Things have changed - 10 years ago we might have discovered a player but we know them all now and they are playing in the top leagues," said Desailly.

"The media have a lot of interest in the tournament. Every two years the media coverage is increasing but also the level of the players is bringing interest.

Ghanaian-born Marcel Desailly
The standard of the competition has increased because of the players who are playing abroad

Marcel Desailly

"African football has improved since I started as a player. The standard of the competition has increased because of the players who are playing abroad."

The host nation has won the last two tournaments - Tunisia in 2004 and Egypt two years later - and Ghana are widely regarded as one of the favourites along with Ivory Coast this time around.

Nigeria, who have not won the tournament since they beat Zambia 2-1 in the 1994 final, are the top-ranked of the 16 finalists.

Leroy Rosenior, a former Sierra Leone international who has also had a coaching involvement with the West African nation, believes this year's Nations Cup will redefine how the tournament is regarded.

"It is a big, big tournament in terms of the future of African football and where it goes from here," Rosenior told BBC Sport.

"After this tournament people are going to look at African football in a totally different light.

"They will see how good African players are, that they are disciplined and can take responsibility. A lot of people think that African players have no discipline but that is not true."

Rosenior is confident that football in Africa will come to play an increasingly important global role - and he feels that the Africa Cup of Nations is finally receiving the recognition that it has previously been denied.

AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS
16 teams
32 fixtures
22 days
4 host cities - Accra, Kamasi, Tamale, Sekondi-Takoradi
Live coverage of all games on BBCi, BBC Two and Three
BBC World Service broadcasting opening game and quarter-finals onwards

"We are talking about a very, very big tournament with lots and lots of talent that is finally being given the importance it deserves," added Rosenior.

"We're only just touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I call exploiting the talent. I say 'exploited' because that is how it has been looked at by people in the past."

Former Nigeria international Efan Ekoku is confident that the major African players in the top European leagues will be the star players in Ghana.

"The stars will be the footballers who have already made their name from whichever European league," Ekoku told BBC Sport.

"But if Ivory Coast duo Bakary Kone and Aruna Dindane can make the Elephants team then they might make a name for themselves in terms of attraction from the Premier League."

Ekoku is tipping Ghana as well as the Ivory Coast, while Rosenior favours Nigeria, who are managed by German Berti Vogts.

Ekoku believes Mali can make an impact if they can qualify from Group B, which also comprises the hotly-tipped Ivory Coast and Nigeria as well as Benin.

But Rosenior believes that regardless of who does win in Ghana, European football can learn from the Africa Cup of Nations.

"What makes this tournament exciting and unique, more exciting that the European tournament, is that it is like a show, it will be an event that will make you smile," said Rosenior.

"Hopefully it will teach the Premier League how to enjoy football a little bit more instead of being so staid."



SEE ALSO
Shooting for success in Ghana
18 Jan 08 |  Africa
Blatter wants Cup of Nations move
17 Jan 08 |  Africa Cup of Nations
Debate: Africa Cup of Nations
18 Jan 08 |  Africa Cup of Nations
Nations Cup pundit predictions
17 Jan 08 |  Africa Cup of Nations
Ghana gears up for the Nations Cup
12 Jan 08 |  Africa Cup of Nations
Clubs want African Cup rethink
12 Dec 07 |  Africa Cup of Nations
Africa Cup of Nations on the BBC
08 Jan 08 |  Africa Cup of Nations


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