Africa's 23rd Cup of Nations soccer tournament will kick off Saturday in Mali's capital, Bamako.
"The Eagles" of Mali will host "The Lone Star" of Liberia in the opening match. Mali is staging African football's premier event for the first time. In rankings released Wednesday by world football's governing body, FIFA, Mali was ranked 20th in Africa. The host team will have a difficult time advancing to the second round.
Meanwhile, the Liberian team has been embroiled in a pay dispute. Players threatened to boycott the Nations Cup unless they were paid a bonus of $15,000 each for qualifying for the tournament. They reached an agreement with their country's football association for less than half that amount, $6,500. Now, the Liberians are trying to put the pay dispute behind them and focus on the competition.
Star striker, James Debbah, comments on the teams Liberia will face in the first round of the Nations Cup. "Our zone (Group A) is crucial, because we have Nigeria, Algeria and Mali," he says. "Algeria is a very good side, while Nigeria is a very good team. If we can win two games, and draw one, we'll obviously qualify for the next phase. But our zone is very, very difficult. I don't see Mali as an obstacle, because I have seen the Malian team, and I know the caliber of players on my team. So I don't think Mali will be a threat to Liberia if we really decide to play."
James Debbah and "The Lone Star" of Liberia narrowly missed qualifying for this year's World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The Nations Cup in Mali will serve as a good warm-up for the five African teams that did qualify for the World Cup. They are Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia and defending Nations Cup champion Cameroon.
Of the five, Cameroon has the proudest pedigree in Nations Cup competition, having won the trophy three times in the past, in 1984, 1988 and 2000. Cameroon's success two years ago foreshadowed more football glory for the country at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where Cameroon won the gold medal in men's soccer.
If Cameroon can win a fourth Nations Cup championship in Mali, the "Indomitable Lions" of Cameroon will tie the record for Nations Cup titles currently held by Ghana and Egypt, which also have sent teams to the three-week tournament. The other countries that will be represented at the 2002 Nations Cup are Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Togo, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The championship match is scheduled for February 10th in Bamako.
Mali is one of the world's poorest countries. South Africa agreed to help Mali improve its telecommunications system for the Nations Cup tournament. South Africa and Tunisia are also providing aircraft to help move players around the country during African football's biggest event.