While the Asian Cup may be drawing to a conclusion with Japan facing Australia in the final on Saturday, keen observers of international football don’t have long to wait until their next fix. The second African Nations Championship (CHAN) gets underway on 4th February in Sudan, a tournament similar to the Africa Cup on Nations but with the fundamental difference that it is open only to players who play their football in their domestic leagues.

The Politics

There have been questions asked as to whether this year’s competition should be going ahead in a place which is still attempting to conduct a referendum as to whether or not it should split into two separate nation states, but, the politics being as it may, CHAN is very much set to begin on schedule. As Sudan makes a conscious effort to re-establish itself on the world stage, the cities of Khartoum, Medani, Port Sudan and Omdurman will play host to the sixteen participating teams and attempt to sell a vision of a country with a democratic future to the rest of the continent. That may all be well and good, but the teams will likely still be nervous during their time in Sudan with carjackings, lootings and terrorism still regular occurrences in the northeast African country.

The Sudanese referendum was conducted a matter of days ago, and although early signs suggested a landslide in favour of partition, initial doubts over the validity of polling data have seen the final decision on the matter postponed. It looks highly likely that partition will be the eventual outcome of the vote, it seemingly the wish of the vast majority of Sudanese people, but that has not prevented sporadic violence from breaking out in pockets around the country.

The African Union is soon to recognise the existence of the new state of South Sudan, and while the country is a safer place now than it has been for years, the political situation is still fragile at best. CAF’s judgement has been called into question, but the governing body have insisted that the competition go ahead despite the shifting nature of the Sudanese political landscape.

The Favourites

DR Congo arrive in Sudan as the defending champions, their squad – largely drawn from African Champions League winners TP Mazembe – having won convincingly in Ivory Coast two years ago. This year, The Leopards attempt the defence of their title under the stewardship of their French coach Robert Nouzaret, the team armed with stars of the World Club Cup such as Mulota Kabangu and Dioko Kaluyituka. Mazembe may have drastically imbalanced Congolese football with the huge levels of investment in the club, but the players it has grouped together have greatly benefited the national team in the short-term.

Only five or six Mazembe players regularly make the national squad, but there are a number of young players coming through the club who represent the exciting future of football in DR Congo. This group of players in their early twenties (of which Kabangu and Kaluyituka are two) now form the crux of the Mazembe side and will surely soon constitute the spine of the national team, this year’s CHAN presenting them with a chance to prove their ability on the international stage. DR Congo will be one of the favourites in Sudan next month, but their group also includes Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Mali, some of which being amongst the chasing pack of teams looking to snatch the title away from Nouzaret’s side.

DR Congo ahead of the 2009 CHAN Final

Of the other fifteen teams participating in the competition, Ghana is thought to be one of the most likely to come away with the silverware. With a flourishing domestic league and a national team which has been going from strength to strength over the last four years, the Black Stars are expected to be a major force in Sudan even without their global superstars. Training in Kenya ahead of the tournament, coach Herbert Addo (Goran Stevanović has recently been appointed to the senior side) has assembled a strong squad which includes the highly-rated Berekum Chelsea attacking trio of Bismark Idan, Emmanuel Clottey and Osei Banahene. If the Serbian can incorporate at least two of the three into his system then his side will have supreme firepower and should make short work of Group B which also contains South Africa, Zimbabwe and Niger.

South Africa, although yet to announce its squad, will nevertheless arrive in Sudan recognised as one of the tournament’s stronger sides. A healthy domestic league which is home to regular national team players such as Itumeleng Khune, Teko Modise and Siphiwe Tshabalala gives coach Pitso Mosimane an array of options, although it is still unclear whether or not he will take a team of established stars or a more experimental squad with him to Sudan. If he chooses the former, then South Africa should be well capable of challenging the relative might of DR Congo and Ghana

While Zambia, the third-place team in 2009, failed to qualify this time around, another of the semi-finalists, Senegal, will be hopeful of a second consecutive last four appearance in Sudan. The latest Senegalese national squad contained just two domestically based players, the two reserve goalkeepers, but there is a wealth of talent available to manager Amara Traoré. Although the Lions of Teranga have yet to announce their final squad, ASC Diaraf – the reigning Senegal Premier League Champions – will likely provide the bulk of the squad along with 2009 winners ASC Linguére.

Diaraf right-back, Papa Maguette Kebe, could well be the defensive lynchpin of the side, the man who was once loaned to Rubin Kazan being vastly more experienced than the majority of the other players who will make up the squad. Some of the stars of two years ago such as Pape Maly Diamanka and may have moved on, but Alpha Oumar Sow and other stars of Senegalese domestic football are still present and should be confident of another run to the latter stages of the competition.

The Dark Horses

Perhaps not one of the clear favourites for the tournament, Algeria will be amongst a second grouping of countries looking to experiment with a number of players on the fringe of the full national side. None of the players called up have more than eight full caps, but Abdelkader Laifaoui – who played at last summer’s World Cup – will captain the side and should be a strong influence amongst a relatively young and inexperienced pool of talent.

Another North African side, Tunisia, will also be expected to progress from their group, Group D, which sees them pitted against Senegal, Rwanda and Angola. Esperance, the country’s most famous club, were runners-up to TP Mazembe in last year’s CAF Champions League and will provide a number of players for Faouzi Benzarti’s squad. Having won the domestic championship on eight occasions in the last decade, Esperance harbour the majority of Tunisian players who have yet to try their hand overseas. Should they be selected, midfielders Oussama Darragi and Khaled Korbi as well as left-back Khalil Chemmam should be amongst the most exciting talents the competition has to offer.

The northern teams aside, it will also be interesting to watch the progress of Emmanuel Doumbe’s Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions have selected a young squad with a dearth of experience, and although little is expected of what is an experimental selection of players, the tournament could well provide a window on the future prospects of Cameroonian football.

The Venues

Al-Merreikh Stadium: Built in the early 1960s, Al-Merreikh Stadium is the largest venue with a capacity of 42,000 and is the regular home of the Sudanese national team. As well as hosting the final on 25th February, some Group C games, the third quarter-final and second semi will be played there.

Khartoum Stadium: The primary sporting venue in the capital city, Khartoum Stadium has a capacity of 23,000 and will host a number of the matches to be played in Group A and Group C as well as the first semi-final.

AlHilal Stadium: Based in the town of Omdurman, AlHilal stadium was completed in 1965 and has a capacity of 15,000. As well as playing host to one game each in Groups A, B and D, the second quarter-final and the third/fourth place play-off will also be held there on the 18th and 24th February respectively.

Stade Port Sudan: The home of Sudanese Premier League side Hay al-Arab Port Sudan, this venue – with a capacity of just 7,000 – will be the setting for the majority of games in Group D.

Stade Wad Medani: The smallest of the arenas with a capacity of 5,000, Group B games will be played there along with the first of the quarter-finals.

Al-Merreikh Stadium

The Groups

Group A: Sudan, Gabon, Uganda, Algeria

Group B: Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Niger

Group C: Congo DR, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali

Group D: Senegal, Rwanda, Angola, Tunisia