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Beware the Blue Sharks in Africa's showpiece

THE Africa Cup of Nations has never seemed so remote and exotic to Scottish clubs.

Sol Bamba is one of the  few competitors with links to the game in Scotland
Sol Bamba is one of the few competitors with links to the game in Scotland

While a whopping 188 of the 368 players taking part in the competition which kicks-off in South Africa tomorrow play their club football in one of the 26 European national leagues, only a solitary one, Efe Ambrose of Celtic, currently earns his crust in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League.

With Bobby Williamson's Uganda and Victor Wanyama's Kenya unable to make the cut in qualifying, there is a distinct dearth of tangible Scottish links to the tournament. Sol Bamba, who will line up for one of the pre-tournament favourites, Ivory Coast, may have had a relatively high profile during his time at Dunfermline Athletic and Hibernian, but Dean Furman, the Oldham Athletic captain who will feature in the engine room for the hosts, made just a solitary appearance in the Rangers first team. David Silva, who will line up against Furman for first-time finalists Cape Verde, didn't pull up too many trees in his time as a bit-part player for Kilmarnock in the last two years before signing a two-year deal at Portuguese side Olhanense.

Each African nation comes with its own larger-than-life nickname, customs and characteristics, but the narrative of the Blue Sharks from the green cape is more diverting than most. The horseshoe formation of 15 islands and inlets some 570km off the west coast of the continent has a landscape so arid that the state of Cape Verde doesn't feature a single grass pitch; just part of the reason why they are regarded as the smallest minnows in the history of the competition, smaller still than 2012 co-hosts Equatorial Guinea.

The islands, which were settled by Portuguese traders in the 15th century, have been ravaged by emigration, with Manchester United winger Nani, Swiss midfielder Gelson Fernandes, Malaga winger Eliseu and even Celtic legend Henrik Larsson, all football superstars with some kind of Cape Verdean lineage to speak of.

Yet these sharks possess some bite, as witnessed by the manner in which they navigated their way through a qualifying group at the expense of continental heavyweights Cameroon. Perhaps it also helps that they are coached by Lucio Antunes, a man whose day job is an air traffic controller and who was congratulated for his efforts in qualifying by none other than Jose Mourinho. Twenty of their squad are based in Europe, a tally second only to Ivory Coast, and their star names include Silva's club team-mate Djaniny – a striker who is on-loan from Benfica – in addition to players named Platini and Josimar. To put it all in some context, they are ranked 70th in the world, just one place behind Scotland.

If the overall emotion in Scotland is indifference – apart from Celtic fans who would expedite Nigeria's run in the tournament in order to see Ambrose back in Scotland unscathed in time for the Champions League meeting with Juventus, not to mention checking out transfer target Juwon Oshinawa – the same cannot be said for the other major leagues in Europe. Unsurprisingly, considering French influence in Africa, Ligue One clubs contribute the largest amount of players to the tournament, with 55 from that country arriving in Africa, and clubs Ajaccio, FC Evian, and Stade Brestois all contributing five, but some key departures from the English Premier League are likely to have a large influence on both the title race and the relegation stakes.

While Manchester City lose three of their number in the form of Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, and Abdul Razak to Sabri Lamouchi's Ivory Coast side, Chelsea give up John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses to Nigeria, Tottenham lose Emmanuel Adebayor and Arsenal give up Gervinho, Manchester United are sitting pretty with their squad intact. Down the table, Newcastle United lose the influential midfielder Cheick Tiote, Wigan Athletic will miss striker Arouna Kone and Queen's Park Rangers will surrender Samba Diakite. Ethiopia, a nation who finished runners-up without scoring a single goal in 1957 when they were given a bye through to the final of a four-team event after South Africa were disqualified for naming an all-white squad, buck the trend by naming a squad which contains just one European-based player.

If Ivory Coast and Ghana, who feature Juventus mainstay Kwadwo Asamoah, are deservedly favourites, it was another team with no stars, Zambia, who shocked a continent to win last year's crown and they are back this year hoping to make it an improbable double. Returning Utrecht striker Jacob Mulenga should add to their chances.

This is the second Africa Cup of Nations in 12 months, but from now on it will proceed on odd-numbered years so as not to clash with World Cup year. The 2013 event might not be up there with the 2010 World Cup but it will use much of the same stadiums and promises to be the next best thing. Furman certainly thinks so. "It's a great honour for me to play for South Africa and representing my nation in a massive tournament will be one of the pinnacles of my career," he said. "It will be an incredible tournament to play in. We'll have the nation's backing and hopefully we can give them a team to be proud of."

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