AFCON Preview: John Bennett Q&A

At The Offside Rule Podcast, we’ll be previewing the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations tournament every day this week, right here on our website.

Starting on Monday with an interview with BBC correspondent John Bennett, we take a look at what a late change of host nation will do for preparations, the favourites, the surprises and which players will light up…Equatorial Guinea…

Obviously, the host nation has changed and Equatorial Guinea isn’t exactly well-known on the landscape of international football. What kind of tournament can we expect and how prepared is the nation for AFCON 2015?

JB: It won’t be the festival of football we would’ve had in Morocco that’s for sure. Sadly I think the atmosphere will be poor apart from the matches involving the host nation. It’s difficult for fans to travel to a Cup of Nations at the best of times but getting into Equatorial Guinea is extremely tough. Some countries like Algeria aren’t sending the subsidised fans groups that they would normally organise for the tournament. Having said that, low attendances are always a problem at AFCON so empty seats will be nothing new.

As for how prepared the host nation will be? There are bound to be problems and the President of CAF Issa Hayatou has admitted to me that it won’t run smoothly. The cities of Bata & Malabo hosted the tournament in 2012 and should be fine but Mongomo and Ebebiyin will struggle to cope with the logistics. Senegal have already complained about training facilities.

The saving grace though will be the football. It’s looking like a really open tournament and there’ll be some great games as soon as the tournament gets underway. Group C, containing Ghana, Algeria, Senegal and South Africa is one of the most exciting I can remember in the first round.

Despite being 120th in the rankings, could the hosts spring any surprises and should we watch out for any home nation player making a name for themselves?

JB: It’s very difficult to know what we’ll get from Equatorial Guinea. They were thrown out of qualifying in the early stages so there’s no accurate form guide.

The national team is very controversial and has been criticised before for fielding naturalised players. At the last AFCON only two members of the squad were born in the country. This time 14 members of the squad were born in Spain. Congo coach Claude Le Roy once called them the “United Nations of football.”

I can’t see them doing well, particularly because the coach Esteban Becker only took over 12 days before the tournament. The one doubt in my mind though is that they made the Quarter-Finals in 2012 inspired by their home crowd so there’s a chance that could happen again.

Tough to pick one to watch but how about Rubén Belima who plays for Real Madrid’s reserve team.

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Working for the BBC, what has attracted you to working closely with African football and the goings on there?

JB: My main job is working for BBC World Service and we’re lucky that a massive amount of people across Africa listen to our programmes like “Sportsworld” and “Sport Today” so African football is huge for us.

We always send a team out to provide the best possible coverage of the tournament and we want to be across all the African football issues to keep our listeners informed.

For me personally I’ve been totally swept up by African football and it’s become a real passion. Going to the last two AFCONS, the World Cup and various qualifying games made me appreciate just how special the African fans are.

For example I was at the match in Yaounde when Cameroon qualified for Brazil 2014. I’ve never seen anything like the emotions I witnessed at the final whistle. There was the most incredible pitch invasion; One guy did back flips from the touchline to the centre circle. It’s a unique atmosphere and there are some great games. Ivory Coast 3 DR Congo 4 in qualifying for this tournament is one of the best matches I’ve ever seen.

Who’s the favourite now in your opinion? Can Zambia spring a surprise again, will someone else surprise or will it be one of the heavy-hitters?

JB: I think it’ll be tough for Zambia, they haven’t made progress since that victory in Gabon.

The usual suspects will be favourites, like Ivory Coast, Algeria and Ghana but for me the top half of the draw feels a lot more comfortable than the bottom half.

For example two major players will definitely be knocked out from Group C which leaves things very open.

You can’t call them a dark horse because they made the final in 2013 but look out for Burkina Faso. They’ve kept the spine of that 2013 team and have the same coach, Paul Put, who the players seem to really respond too.

I know that the likes of Yaya Toure and Salomon Kalou are desperate to end Ivory Coast’s trophy drought so you can’t rule them out despite their dodgy defence.

And a squad in real form is Cameroon. Coach Volker Finke appears to have dealt with the egos who turned that team into a soap opera. They have talented young players and I could see them making a big impression in Equatorial Guinea.

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The landscape of African football appears to have changed somewhat since people in my generation grew up watching Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa rule in terms of World Cup qualification. Now we have Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria and Zambia, why do you think things have changed so much?

JB: African football can be so unpredictable.

Who would’ve thought that Nigeria would fail to qualify for this tournament just two years after lifting the trophy? If you’d told me that after I commentated on the final in 2013 I would’ve thought you were crazy.

Nigeria’s failure is partly down to terrible decision making and squabbling behind the scenes in their federation and I do think that certain Football Associations in Africa are holding their teams back. Look at the World Cup, three of the five African teams had bonus rows.

Teams like Zambia and Algeria seem to have great backing behind the scenes and that contributes to their success.

Things are looking up for some of the teams you mentioned though. Senegal have a great crop of attacking talent, South Africa were unbeaten in qualifying and Cameroon look like a very unified outfit too. Those three sides are getting their act together.

Egypt have had great success in the AFCON but along with Nigeria they haven’t made it. African football at least sounds incredibly unpredictable?

JB: Egypt have paid the price for the political problems in their country, it’s made things so tough for the team. It’s a real shame that they’ve failed to qualify for the third time in a row.

Unpredictability is what will make this tournament so special. There will be at least one story that will capture the imagination.

It could be Cape Verde being a dark horse after three years of real progression? It could be Guinea causing a surprise or two despite all the problems their country is suffering at the moment due to Ebola? I know for a fact that the Guinea players are hugely motivated. Or how about DR Congo inspired by Premier League star Yannick Bolasie?

There will be some surprises during this AFCON that’s for sure.

Finally, stick your neck on the line. Tournament winner?

JB: Very tough.

I’m going to say Cameroon because they’re in great form but the winner of Group C has to be a real contender.

That will probably be Algeria who were fantastic at the World Cup but what about Ghana?

They have talent but are a real unknown quantity because new Coach Avram Grant has just taken over. Early momentum is key for them.

Because of the unpredictability of group C I’ll go for Cameroon. Don’t hold me to it though!

You can follow John on Twitter @JohnBennettBBC
You can follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty

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