The 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations group qualifiers begin on Friday after a troubled build-up dominated in part by the deadly Ebola epidemic.
Guinea, a West African country at the epicentre of the Ebola crisis, have been forced to move a home fixture against Togo to Morocco. And only a late u-turn by the Côte d’Ivoire government allowed Sierra Leone, where the virus has claimed hundreds of lives, to play in Abidjan.
Other dramas included Rwanda being barred over a dual-identity player and Mali wanting a fixture moved from Algeria after Cameroonian Albert Ebosse died there when struck by a rock leaving a pitch.
The qualifiers offer top-ranked African team Algeria a chance to build on a great 2014 FIFA World Cup™, forcing eventual champions Germany into extra time before ending gallant 2-1 losers.
Cameroon, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire hope to put behind them disastrous campaigns in Brazil with team-mates fighting each other, stars sent home for indiscipline, and the inevitable bonus rows. Nigeria start the defence of a title won in Soweto last year by hosting Congo Brazzaville in Calabar.
There will be notable absentees as the quest begins among 28 countries for 15 places at the January 17-February 8 tournament with hosts Morocco automatic participants.
Old icons, new heroes
Talismanic strikers Didier Drogba of Côte d’Ivoire and Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon have retired as they enter the twilight of their careers and Ghana dropped veteran midfielder Michael Essien. That leaves Côte d’Ivoire midfielder and triple CAF Footballer of the Year title-winner Yaya Toure and Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor to lead the way until new superstars emerge.
Manchester City dynamo Toure is thrilled at the appointment of Herve Renard, who guided Zambia to an emotional triumph in 2012, as coach after a World Cup first-round exit led another French handler, Sabri Lamouchi, to quit.
"It's fantastic," Toure told reporters. "This is a coach with a lot of experience in Africa. He has great charisma and temperament. I hope he can take us far. I really want to win something for my country before retiring," added the 31-year-old colossus.
Côte d’Ivoire are serial Africa Cup 'chokers', going into the last five tournaments as favourites but failing to win any. Côte d’Ivoire (ranked second in Africa), against Sierra Leone (seventh) is one of two top-10 matchday 1 clashes. The other brings Senegal (10) and Egypt (fifth) together in Dakar at the start of Group G, branded the 'group of death' as it also includes Tunisia.
Egypt are out to regain a place among the elite having failed to qualify in 2012 and 2013 after lifting the African trophy a record three consecutive times. Coach Shawky Gharib, assistant to Hassan Shehata during the golden 2006-2010 period has put the emphasis on youth but still found room for 41-year-old goalkeeper Essam al-Hadary.
Stephen Keshi this year became the first black African coach to reach the World Cup last-16, but Nigeria did not renew his contract after a second-round loss to France. He will guide the 'Super Eagles' against Congo and South Africa, working with a squad chosen by officials before he agreed to a caretaker role.
South Africa will lack injured goalkeeper-captain Itumeleng Khune and several axed regulars of recent years in Sudan with new coach Ephraim 'Shakes' Mashaba vowing his youthful team will "fight".
Other attractive pairings include Ethiopia-Algeria in Addis Ababa, Democratic Republic of Congo DR-Cameroon in Lubumbashi and Ghana-Uganda in Kumasi.