maiden african tourney starts

The first African Nations Championship tournament kicks off on Sunday in Ivory Coast with the hosts and Ghana the likeliest winners.

Unlike its "big brother", the biennial Africa Cup of Nations, this two-week gathering of eight countries is restricted to footballers who play in their country of birth.

Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou says the latest addition to the continental calendar is designed to showcase the abilities of stars who stay at home and boost national leagues.

And though Europe-based stars will be absent, the 16 games in Abidjan and Bouake have generated considerable interest among Ivorians.

It will be the first CAF competition staged by the cocoa-producing west African state since the 1984 Nations Cup.

Cameroon failed to qualify for the Nations Championship after losing home and away to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the final elimination phase, and six of the other top 10 ranked countries also missed out.

Nigeria, Morocco, Guinea, Mali and Tunisia were casualties of the regional qualifying process and Nations Cup title holders Egypt withdrew to concentrate on getting to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

That leaves Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal from the "elite" at the Nations Championship with the DRC, Libya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe completing the line-up.

With the Congolese, Libyans, Senegalese, Tanzanians and Zimbabweans failing to make the final qualifying phase of the 2010 World Cup and Afcon, Ivory Coast offers hope of some consolation.

Abidjan-based Group A seeds Ivory Coast warmed up with home victories over Burkina Faso (3-0) and Equatorial Guinea (2-0). While they are almost certain to advance, it is unclear who of Tanzania, Zambia and Senegal will join them in the semifinals.

Group B in Bouake is similar as Ghana, who eliminated Togo and Nigeria, are favourites ahead of the DRC, Libya and Zimbabwe.

The opening match on Sunday afternoon at a renovated Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium features Ivory Coast and Zambia followed three hours later by Tanzania and Senegal at the same venue. - Sapa-AFP