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Host South Africa will play debutant Cape Verde in the opening game of next year’s African Cup of Nations.
Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast will be tested by former champions Tunisia and Algeria in the group stage after a tough draw Wednesday for the title favourite.
“This is most certainly the group of death,” Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi said after his team was drawn alongside Togo and the strong North African pair for the tournament next January and February.
Four-time winner Ghana was grouped with Congo, Mali and Niger.
Defending champion Zambia will play against Ethiopia before matches with Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
“I know all those teams are difficult to play,” Zambia coach and 2012 title-winning mentor Herve Renard said. “Now we have to do the same performance like in 2010 and 2012. We finished first in our group and we have to do the same again.”
South Africa, Cape Verde, Morocco and Angola make up Group A.
Bafana Bafana and Cape Verde will open the tournament at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium — formerly Soccer City and the venue for the 2010 World Cup final — on Jan. 19.
Top-ranked African team Ivory Coast will play Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo first in Group D on Jan. 22, then Tunisia and Algeria in a stern challenge for the Ivorians, who lost in the final last time.
“It is a very difficult group with opponents of the highest quality,” Lamouchi said. “It will be tough to beat each one. Ivory Coast will still be the favorites to come out of the group ... now we must try and prepare well on the field.”
The Ivorians are still searching for a first title in 20 years despite being Africa’s strongest team for most of the last decade.
Ivory Coast lost two of the last four African Cup finals, both on penalty shootouts.
South Africa meets Cape Verde and Morocco plays Angola in a double-header on the opening day of the championship at the 94,700-seat stadium in Soweto, which also will host the Feb. 10 final.
The remainder of the Group A games will be played at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban and Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
Ivory Coast will be based in the north west city of Rustenburg, Ghana will be in Port Elizabeth and Zambia in Nelspruit.
The South Africa-Cape Verde match was drawn by South Africa President Jacob Zuma at Wednesday night’s ceremony in Durban. The host country, which won the title on home soil in 1996, also avoided highly rated Nigeria in a favourable draw for its hopes of a second Cup of Nations triumph.
“For a second there I thought it could have been the group of death, so when they picked Angola there was a bit of relief,” South Africa coach Gordon Igesund said. “We won’t underestimate anyone. I think we can go all the way, but obviously we will need momentum and that first game against Cape Verde is hugely important to get the country behind us.”
Cape Verde faces its biggest moment in international football in that opening game after eliminating four-time continental champion Cameroon in a major shock in the qualifying competition.
Ghana’s biggest test will likely come against Mali, which beat the Ghanaians in the third-place match at the last tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
“Three west African countries in the group makes it difficult,” Ghana assistant coach Maxwell Konadu said. “We are neighbors and know each other very well, so the games will all be tight.”
Less than a year after its emotional triumph in Libreville, Zambia will start its defence on Jan. 21 against Ethiopia, which returns to the African Cup for the first time in 30 years.
Zambia also must play a strong Nigeria team, which returns after missing this year’s tournament and which eliminated the Zambians in the quarterfinals two years ago.
“It’s a big revenge match for us (against Nigeria),” Renard said. “We lost to them in 2010 on penalties. We also have Ethiopia, who we must show a lot of respect to.”
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said: “Every team that qualifies here is a good team. We have great respect for all the teams from Ethiopia to Zambia and also Burkina Faso. We have to take every one of the three seriously and come out and do the job.”
The five stadiums hosting games are all former World Cup venues: FNB Stadium, Moses Mabhida, Nelson Mandela Bay, Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg and Nelspruit’s Mbombela Stadium. The showpiece FNB will only host the opening game and the final, with the semifinals at Moses Mabhida and Mbombela.
South Africa is hosting the 2013 tournament in place of Libya, which lost the event because of security concerns.