When Pele said an African nation would win the World Cup before the end of the [20th] century, he was probably puffing on something exotic. The Africans made the breakthrough into the World Cup, and have provided a few thrills – Cameroon, Nigeria et al – but they are unlikely to ever come out on top. One senses that Pele’s comment was a political statement to please FIFA’s vital voters at a time when FIFA was courting the “emerging markets”.

African football will remain an export commodity rather than a domestic treasure and it’s not because of a lack of quality for the continent has produced some great players over the past 20 or 30 years. Africa has sent hundreds of fast, athletic and powerful footballers into Europe for decades and virtually every major club has African players in its squad. Look at some of the names: Didier Drogba, George Weah, Samuel Et’o….these are great individuals.

That last word is relevant, because what African football has failed to do is create a cohesive and consistent team on the global stage. There’s also an emphasis on attack, rather than defence, which will always come unstuck when say, Zambia, meet an Italy, Spain or Germany.

But that’s not to say that African countries are not capable of creating a shock or two. Tunisia were the first team to win a game in the World Cup finals when they beat Mexico 3-1 in 1978. In 1982, Algeria beat eventual finalists West Germany 2-1 and four years later, Morocco were the first to get through to the round of 16. But it was Cameroon, in 1990, that really woke the world up to the potential in Africa. They beat holders Argentina 1-0 and gave England a fright in the quarter finals before bowing out 3-2. Who will forget the octogenarian Roger Milla?

It’s now not unusual to see an African nation in the last 16. Nigeria (1994 and 1998) and Ghana (2006 and 2010) have done it, and Senegal even went as far as the last eight in 2002, losing to Turkey after extra time. And in the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa, Ghana reached the quarter-finals, going out to Uruguay.

Africa have clearly made progress, but the national teams rely on foreign guidance and domestic football is weak and somewhat indisciplined. Until this changes, the game will continue to produce players that become stars – outside of their own country – but teams that lack the robustness and organization to challenge on the world stage.

That doesn’t mean that the upcoming African Cup of Nations – a simple 16-team tournament that takes you back to the golden age of the World Cup – will lack excitement. It’s a colourful competition – is it my imagination, but do they all seem to play in green and yellow? – with lots of emphasis on attack, drums, tribal tunics and all the other clichés.

The favourites this year, not for the first time, are Ivory Coast. They finished runners-up to Zambia last year and to Egypt in 2006. In between, they ended up fourth in 2008. This could be Drogba’s last chance to win the gold medal. My money is on Ghana, the “Black Stars”, have just beaten Egypt, seven times winners of the CAN, by 3-0. You can’t rule out the holders, Zambia and the hosts, South Africa, either.

The African nations have some great nicknames. As well as Ghana’s hint at the predominant pigment across the continent, Gabon are known as “The Panthers”, Tunisia the “Carthage Eagles”, Cameroon the “indomitable lions”, Ivory Coast the “Elephants” and so on and so forth.
So it all gets underway on January 19 with South Africa against the “Blue Sharks”, or to be precise, Cape Verde. Games to look out for in the first week could be Ivory Coast against Togo and Zambia v Ethiopia, who return to the competition after more than 30 years.