In light of Friday’s Africa Cup of Nations group-stage draw in Cairo, ESPN pick out five mouth-watering games to look forward in the first round.
The expanded 24-team format has meant more inclusion for the continent’s lesser lights, while the traditional heavyweights have been spread around the groups.
However, there’s absolutely no shortage of intrigue in the first round following a compelling first-round draw.
Tanzania vs. Kenya, June 27, 30 June Stadium, Cairo
East African derbies are a rarity at the Nations Cup (the colloquial name for the tournament), with the region historically underrepresented on the continent’s grandest stage.
However, several CECAFA teams have taken advantage of the expanded tournament, with neighbours and regional heavyweights Kenya and Tanzania both returning to the competition for the first time since 2004 and 1980 respectively.
They’ll fancy their chances of qualifying from Group C, but after being pitted against Senegal and Algeria, they’ll be aware that this second match will be critical to their chances of progressing.
“Tanzania will also be a fantastic derby and they are not an easy team,” Kenya coach Sebastien Migne told Capital Sport.
“They won 3-0 against Uganda to qualify, and that shows their level. It will be three fantastic matches, and we will try our best to give a good image of Kenyan football.”
Will Migne’s well-drilled Harambee Stars or Emmanuel Amuneke’s expansive Tanzania give themselves the advantage in the group when these two regional rivals meet in Cairo?
Cote d’Ivoire vs. Morocco, June 28, Al Salam Stadium, Cairo
Herve Renard had a wry smile when his Morocco side were drawn against the Cote d’Ivoire in Group D.
To say there’s history between the two parties would be an understatement, with Renard playing a direct role in the Elephants’ fortunes at three previous Afcon tournaments.
In 2012, his Zambia side defeated the Ivorians’ Golden Generation on penalties in the final in Gabon, before Renard was appointed Elephants boss and duly ended their 23-year wait for a continental crown at the 2015 edition in Equatorial Guinea.
In 2017, now Morocco boss, Renard defeated his former charges 1-0 in their final group game in Oyem to eliminate the reigning champions at the first hurdle, before dispatching the Ivorians in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign as the Atlas Lions reached Russia.
“We eliminated the Ivorians at the last Afcon, and we also succeeded in qualifying for the World Cup by going and winning in Abidjan,” Renard told journalists.
“It’s going to be a new confrontation against the Ivory Coast.”
Will the Frenchman again torment the team he once lifted to the pinnacle of the continent, or will the West Africans have the final laugh in this Herve Renard derby?
South Africa vs. Namibia, June 38, Al Salam Stadium, Cairo
Namibia have qualified for their third Africa Cup of Nations, their first since 2008, and it’s the second time that they’ve been pooled alongside neighbours South Africa, with the pair memorably contesting a Group C clash in 1998.
On that occasion, Bafana Bafana hitman Benni McCarthy netted four goals in 23 first-half minutes, including an 11-minute hat-trick, as the reigning champions ran riot, before the Brave Warriors responded 20 minutes from time through Simon Uutoni.
It remains the only time a South Africa player has scored a hat-trick for the national team since their readmission to the world stage after the end of Apartheid.
Don’t expect a repeat – Bafana can struggle to break down lesser sides – although this match will definitely have a derby feel to it. Six of the 13 players who were involved in Namibia’s last qualifier currently play their football in the South African game.
There’s plenty of off-field history here too; South Africa conquered and occupied the territory now known as Namibia during the First World War, with the former German colony of South West Africa only gaining independence in 1990 following the 23-year War of Independence.
Ghana vs. Cameroon, June 29, Ismaila Stadium, Ismaila
With Ghana, Ivory Coast and Algeria all placed in Pot Two ahead of the draw, there was always going to be a handful of match-ups between bona fide heavyweights in the opening round.
Perhaps the most mouth-watering of the lot will be the duel between Cameroon and Ghana in Ismaila on June 29.
There’s genuine pedigree here; this pair are among the three African nations to have reached the World Cup quarter-finals, while they boast nine Afcon titles between them, making them the second and third-most successful sides in the tournament’s history respectively.
They’ve never met in the final, but Cameroon eliminated Ghana in the semis in 2017 en route to their fifth title, having previously defeated the Black Stars – in Accra – in the 2008 semi.
Despite their standing within the continental game, however, these two demonstrated a vulnerability during qualification, as a pair of new managers – Clarence Seedorf and the returning Kwesi Appiah – struggled to settle issues such as personnel and captaincy, while battling off-field discontent.
Will either demonstrate their championship credentials in their early meeting between African glitterati, or will enduring structural limitations be exposed?
Zimbabwe vs. the Democratic Republic of Congo, June 30, June 30 Stadium, Cairo
1960 has been referred to as the ‘Year of Africa’ due to the fact that 17 African states gained independence between January 1 and the end of November.
On June 30, 1960, it was the DRC’s turn, as Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister and Le Grand Kalle’s classic Congolese Rumba – the Independence Cha Cha – rang out in the streets and bars of Leopoldville.
In host nation Egypt, the date also marks the Egyptian Air Defence Force’s construction of a missile wall to deter Israeli air force attacks during the War of Attrition.
June 30 was chosen as the national day for the Egyptian air force, and they are commemorated by the June 30 Stadium – constructed by the air force, and named in their honour.
The date also holds a more recent poignancy for Egyptians, as on June 30 2013, protests began against President Morsi and his ruling Freedom and Justice Party, ultimately leading to the Egyptian coup d’etat.
This year, on June 30, the stadium will play host to the DRC’s final group game against Zimbabwe, with the Warriors getting the better of the Leopards during qualification.
The stars appear aligned for the Leopards to romp into the Last 16 in some style, and if they do, expect the lotoko to flow, and the Independence Cha Cha to blast out once again across Matongé.