Three weekends ago millions of African football fans were glued to their TVs (or radios in case the match was not broadcast on TV, as frequently happens when one's team plays an away game) as they monitored the last round of qualifying matches for the 2012 African Cup of Nations (Afcon). The tournament will be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. This will be second time that the prestigious competition would be hosted by two countries, after Ghana and Nigeria co-hosted in 2000.
When the last sword was sheathed, a number of surprising results suggested that African football was in a new era in which traditional underdogs were no longer pushovers.
In Group A, winners Mali gained the automatic qualification spot. In Group B, Guinea stole the top spot, qualifying ahead of Nigeria. Zambia gained the automatic spot in Group C, and group runner-up, Libya, gained one of the two spots reserved for the two best runners-up among all the groups. In Group D, Morocco qualified. Senegal were winners of Group E, qualifying ahead of Cameroon's Indomitable Lions.
Burkina Faso and Niger qualified from Groups F and G respectively. In Group H, Ivory Coast were runaway victors, winning all the group matches, scoring a whopping 19 goals and conceding only 4. Ghana topped Group I, while runner-up, Sudan, also squeezed through as the other best second-placed team. Angola won Group J's sole ticket. Hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon complete the list of 16 teams.
The actual draw takes place this weekend. The draw will place the 16 teams in four groups, each composed of four teams. Already some pundits are tipping either Ghana or Ivory Coast to win it all. But judging from recent topsy-turvy results from the qualifiers, one should be cautious of making premature predictions. Lastly, although the skills of players such as Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon and Zidan of Egypt will be missed next January, one can expect that new stars would be born. After all, isn't African soccer at the dawn of a new order?