Africa Cup of Nations Countdown Begins


Equatorial Guinea and South Africa kick off a 13-fixture warm-up schedule Friday ahead of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations tournament.

Sudan have lined up three friendlies, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Tunisia two each and Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea and Zambia one apiece.

Libya, Mali, Morocco and Niger have not informed world football governing body FIFA of any friendly fixtures they will play before the African showcase between January 21 and February 12 in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

Bafana Bafana (The Boys) travel to the Equatoguinean mainland city of Bata for a match that will officially open the 40,000-seat Estadio Bata, one of four venues for the biennial championship.

South African officials say they will not award caps for the game or other friendlies at home against Zambia and Ghana because too many players called up by coach Pitso Mosimane are unavailable.

Europe-based stars like Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Steven Pienaar are ruled out because the matches do not fall on official FIFA friendly dates while several domestic clubs insist players rest during the mid-season league break.

It will be the first match in charge of Equatorial Guinea for Brazilian coach Gilson Paulo, who took over less than a month before the Cup of Nations starts after Frenchman Henri Michel resigned.

Vastly experienced African campaigner Michel, who had made progress during a year in charge of a national team ranked 42 in Africa, quit a few months earlier but officials persuaded him to carry on.

The number of warm-ups is significantly fewer than previous years when many teams indulged in frenetic schedules to try and mould individuals unused to playing together into cohesive units.

Most of the 16 challengers for the biggest prize in African football have chosen to prepare in other countries on the continent with South Africa a popular destination as Botswana, Ghana and Zambia are based there.

Ultra-modern facilities near north-west mining town Rustenburg that were used by England during the 2010 World Cup attracted Botswana and Ghana, who make up Group D with Guinea and Mali.

Zambia are staying in a hotel on the fringe of the bustling Johannesburg central business district and training at the nearby ground of South African Premiership club BIDVest Wits.

Ivory Coast, co-favourites with Ghana for the title after defending champions Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria were shock qualifying casualties, have opted for a Middle East countdown.

A squad boasting 2011 CAF Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure from Manchester City faces Cup of Nations 'dark horses' Tunisia in neutral Dubai on January 13 and improving Lebanon in Beirut four days later.

Kenya ended the late search of Senegal and Guinea for opponents by agreeing to friendlies in Dakar on January 14 and Conakry on January 18, which will be the final fixture before the 23-day Africa football spectacle begins.