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Gabon gets to stage the African Cup for the second time in five years, hoping that home advantage will help carry the team to at least the semifinals this time. As co-host in 2012, Gabon topped its group and did it by playing some compelling soccer. An agonizing loss in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals cut short the euphoria. Gabon has slipped down the world rankings since then and a couple of results last year, including a 4-1 hammering by Ivory Coast, signaled that this team may also struggle to get to the semifinals for the first time. But home crowds can be a powerful motivator and Gabon has Africa’s top tournament all to itself for the next three weeks as the sole host.
Key player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
No doubt Gabon’s standout player, the 27-year-old Borussia Dortmund striker is the top scorer in Germany’s Bundesliga with 16 goals in 15 games this season. The burning question will be: Can his teammates provide Aubameyang with the help he needs?
Best result: Quarterfinals, 1996 and 2012.
Burkina Faso surprisingly made the 2013 final, narrowly losing to Nigeria. That team was led by the attacking duo of Aristide Bance and Jonathan Pitroipa, who are still regulars. But Burkina Faso has always had an up-and-down time at the African Cup and consistency has never been its strength. Two years after being within touching distance of the title, Burkina Faso was eliminated in the group stage at the last African Cup without winning a game.
Key player: Bertrand Traore
Although Bance and Pitroipa are important to Burkina Faso, maybe this tournament will be a coming-of-age for Chelsea’s Bertrand Traore. The 21-year-old creative midfielder, now on loan at Dutch club Ajax, first played for Burkina Faso’s national team at the age of 15, a sign of serious talent.
Best result: Runner-up, 2013.
Roger Milla’s hip-wiggling celebration and Cameroon players dancing their way into the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup – the first African team to do that – is now a very distant memory. Cameroon failed to even qualify for the Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2013 and left the last tournament, which was meant to be a glorious comeback, without winning a game. Cameroon also embarrassed itself at the last two World Cups, losing all six of its games. There were signs of a turnaround, with Cameroon unbeaten in competitive games last year, only for more problems to emerge in the lead-up to this tournament when eight players, including Premier League-based defenders Joel Matip and Allan Nyom, and striker Eric Maxim Choupo Moting, decided they didn’t want to play at the tournament. It doesn’t bode well.
Key player: Benjamin Moukandjo
The new captain has the task of uniting the Cameroon team. If he strikes up a profitable partnership with Vincent Aboubakar, Cameroon might start winning back some pride.
Best result: Winner, 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2002.
One of the stories of the tournament, even before a ball is kicked. Guinea-Bissau qualified for the African Cup for the first time ever, allowing players at clubs in the second division in Romania and third division in Portugal to brush shoulders with world-class stars like Aubameyang. Guinea Bissau, a little dot of a country on the far west coast of Africa, only had its first shot at qualifying for the African Cup in 1994.
Key player: The team
There are no stars in this team. Captain Bocundji Ca, a midfielder with second-tier French club Stade Riems, said it best in a recent interview with a local radio station: “We attack and defend together.”
Best result: Debut.