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Afcon to start following Ebola controversy

There was hasty late switch of hosts to Equatorial Guinea in the wake of concerns over the Ebola virus.

The Africa Cup of Nations trophy. Picture: CAF Facebook Page.

MALABO - The Africa Cup of Nations ( Afcon) finally gets underway on Saturday after a controversial build-up to the 30th edition which included a hasty late switch of hosts to Equatorial Guinea in the wake of concerns over the Ebola virus.

Sixteen nations again line up for the biennial continental championship, seeking Africa's top sporting prize at the tournament which starts on Saturday and finishes on 8 February.

Few previous editions have had such a dramatic backdrop with the hosting of the 2015 finals being switched two months ago after Morocco asked for a postponement in the wake of the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa.

That request precipitated a crisis that left the tournament having to be organised almost from scratch in a few weeks.

Fears that travelling fans could spread Ebola and damage Morocco's tourist industry were seen as alarmist by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), who rejected the request and then stripped Morocco of their hosting rights.

From a country with plentiful resources, who have previously bid to host the World Cup, Afcon is now being played in one of Africa's smallest and most enigmatic countries.

Equatorial Guinea is a family-ruled former Spanish colony which has new-found oil wealth and is revelling in rescuing the continent's most eagerly anticipated sporting event.

It was the only country willing to step in at the last moment, saving the finals from being moved to Qatar.

It is a tournament that this time has no clear favourites and in which almost all the teams will believe they can emerge as champions at the end of the three-week event.

Algeria, who reached the second round at last year's World Cup in Brazil, are Africa's top-ranked team and would have been a firm favourite were the event still taking place in Morocco.

So too would Tunisia, who were impressive in an unbeaten qualifying run in a preliminary group competition that lasted three months from September to November.

But North African teams are rarely get into their stride in the difficult conditions of central Africa.

Holders Nigeria did not qualify but there is still the perennially strong challenge from the west African region with Ghana, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, who were surprise runners-up in South Africa two years ago.

Mali has won the bronze medal at the last two editions and Ghana have played in the last four semi-finals.

SENEGAL'S CREDENTIALS

Senegal, who will have one of the strongest squads, has never won Afcon but arrive with top credentials

The Ivory Coast have often been favourites but crashed out at the last five tournaments, unable to add to their one success in 1992. This time the Ivorians, now without their talismanic striker Didier Drogba, stumbled through the qualifiers.

It could be a country close to the hosts that will win.

Neighbours Cameroon has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence since their controversial World Cup in Brazil.

Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon also offer a strong central African presence while South Africa and Zambia are the only two sides from the south of the continent.

Tiny Cape Verde Islands return after their shock run to the quarter-finals two years ago and they are even stronger this time with the potential to provide more surprises. The tournament will be played at four venues.

Stadiums in Bata and Malabo were extensively renovated for the co-hosting of the 2012 finals since when smaller venues have been built in the towns of Ebebiyin (8,000 seats) and Mongomo (15,000) on the far eastern border of the country.

The latter is made up of an island in the Atlantic Ocean, where the capital Malabo is situated, and a block of real estate on the African mainland where Groups A, B and C will be hosted.

Bata will stage the opening match and the final.

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