(Reuters) - The African Nations Cup begins next week against a backdrop of civil strife in host nation Gabon and ever more strident complaints from European clubs about the tournament taking away key players midway through their season.
On the footballing front, the Ivory Coast seek to defend their title, Egypt bid to revive former glories and tiny Guinea Bissau aim to continue their fairytale run.
The trio are among 16 countries at the biennial tournament played at four venues across the oil-rich central African country, which only months ago was beset by civil strife after a disputed election kept President Ali Bongo in power amid allegations of widespread fraud.
The possibility of more protests around the tournament, which will bring an international spotlight the country rarely enjoys, means the likelihood of stifling security as a backdrop to what is supposed to be a celebration of African soccer.
Excitement over the event has also been tempered by ongoing controversy over its timing as the Confederation of African Football doggedly refuses to change the scheduling, much to the frustration of the main European leagues who lose players for a month in the middle of their seasons.
FIFA rules allow countries to call up players, causing a club versus country conflict every two years which this time has led to more players than ever opting to stay with their clubs.
Cameroon, usually among the favourites, will take a weakened side to the tournament after eight players told coach Hugo Broos they wanted to stay with their clubs rather than risk losing their places by going to Gabon.
But holders Ivory Coast have been able to add to their talent pool with Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha eschewing overtures to stay loyal to England and embarking on a new course with his international career.
He will make his debut next week to become the first England international in more than half a century to play for another country, strengthening an Ivorian side without stalwarts Yaya Toure (retired) and Gervinho (injured).
They are among the favourites along with Algeria - spearheaded by newly-crowned African player of the year Riyad Mahrez - Ghana, Senegal and Egypt, who have won a record seven Nations Cup titles but not played in the last three tournaments.
Their last appearance was in 2010 when they won a third successive title before the fall-out from the Arab Spring protests impacted heavily on the country’s football.
Reaffirming Egypt’s place among the continental heavyweights is the goal of their Argentine coach Hector Cuper. “I know well that the fans adore trophies so we go to try and bring one back,” he said.
Gabon will open the tournament on Jan. 14 at Libreville’s Stade l’Amitie against Guinea Bissau, who defied all conventional wisdom to reach the finals for the first time.
One of the world’s poorest countries, the team from the former Portuguese colony have not played a match since September but are eager to continue their heroics after dumping out former champions Congo and Zambia in the qualifiers.
“We are up against vultures who have great experience of the Nations Cup,” said Guinea Bissau coach Baciro Cande.
”But we will give the best of ourselves and our goal is to get to the quarter-finals.”
Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town, editing by Mitch Phillips/Ed Osmond