By Piers Edwards
We all know that population size is not proportionate to footballing success, otherwise China and India would contest the World Cup final regularly.
But it can still make for some interesting comparisons.
There is Nigeria, for example – a country of around 175 million people, and the 2013 African champions – which has been unable to field a team capable of qualifying for this year’s finals.
And then there is the tiny island nation of Cape Verde – population 500,000 – which will be at the Nations Cup for the second tournament in its history, and the second in a row.
Last time around, Cape Verde got through a group containing hosts South Africa, former champions Morocco and Angola, before putting up a decent fight against Ghana in the quarter-final.
Ranked seventh in Africa, above Nigeria and South Africa, they are rated 40th in the world, above the likes of Turkey and the Republic of Ireland. They have achieved the feat in much the same way Algeria has climbed up the rankings, by luring Europe-based professionals to play for a country with which they have ancestral links.
This time around, the team from the islands that lie 500km (310 miles) off the west coast of Africa will be up against three former champions: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tunisia and Zambia.
David beating Goliath
Just like Cape Verde, Burkina Faso and Zambia have shown that anything is possible at a Nations Cup – with Burkina Faso unexpectedly reaching the 2013 final, having never won any of their previous 21 Nations Cup matches away from home.
When Chipolopolo won the championship against all expectations in 2012, they were driven on by an unseen power – namely, their determination to reach the final in Gabon to honour the 18 players, and 12 other officials, who died in a plane crash shortly after taking off from the capital, Libreville, in 1993.
Should the same sort of inspiration work this time around, then South Africa – already revitalised under coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba – could be a force to be reckoned with following the death of their captain Senzo Meyiwa in October.
He was shot dead during a botched robbery and his replacement, Dean Furman, has already said Bafana Bafana want to win the tournament for the late goalkeeper.
First, they will have to get out of one of the toughest groups in Nations Cup history, with four-time champions and perennial favourites Ghana, Africa’s highest-ranked side Algeria and 2002 runners-up Senegal, who conceded once in qualifying.
That will be a draining exercise, but so will any sort of progress because of the logistical challenges facing most of the teams in Equatorial Guinea, which is unexpectedly hosting the competition.
Congo-Brazzaville have already been told their hotel does not have enough rooms for them, prompting coach Claude LeRoy to describe the experience as unlike anything he had seen at eight previous Nations Cups, which must be saying something.
Burkina Faso found their accommodation so bad they left and looked for another hotel just 48 hours before their first game – while DR Congo’s hotel had no hot water and not enough food to feed the squad.
Did you know?
• All Cape Verde’s current squad play their club football overseas
• Guinea qualified despite playing all their designated home matches in Morocco, because of the ongoing Ebola crisis
• Equatorial Guinea are the only side ranked outside Fifa’s top 70, with the hosts ranked 118th
The carrot for teams prepared to fight is that the accommodation will only improve the further they go – with the pick of the best hotels becoming available as the losers go home.
Ivory Coast, as ever, will fancy staying a long time, as will Cameroon, revitalised after a disastrous World Cup.
How long Cape Verde stick around depends on whether the David-beating-Goliath element that has been so prevalent in recent African football history continues in Equatorial Guinea – another nation of less than a million who reached the quarter-finals when co-hosting the tournament three years ago.