JOHANNESBURG: African Cup leading scorer Samuel Eto’o tops a list of high-profile absentees at this year’s tournament after former winners Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa all surprisingly missed out in qualifying.
The 30-year-old Eto’o won’t be able to add to his 18 African Cup of Nations goals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and his absence will rob the cup of one of the continent’s best-ever — if recently controversial — strikers.
Egypt’s almost unthinkable failure to make the tournament it has dominated with three straight wins from 2006-10 means veteran midfielder Ahmed Hassan, who shares the record for the most international appearances, likely won’t get to add to his four titles in an incredible nine tournament appearances.
Without Nigeria, West Bromwich Albion striker Peter Odemwingie, Everton forward Victor Anichebe and AC Milan defender Taye Taiwo aren’t present.
And after a farcical end to its seesaw qualifying campaign, South Africa missed out for the second tournament in a row, leaving Tottenham midfielder Steven Pienaar and Ajax midfielder Thulani Serero to concentrate on club duties in 2012.
In their places, up step Niger, Guinea, Libya and Sudan. Niger sneaked in ahead of South Africa and Egypt, Guinea forced out Nigeria, and Libya and Sudan claimed spots with second-place finishes in their groups ahead of Cameroon because of better points totals.
Eto’o’s complicated relationship with Cameroon’s national federation hit a new low when he was banned for 15 games for his part in a player strike at the end of last year that saw the Indomitable Lions, already humbled by their African Cup failure, back out of a friendly with Algeria. The ban was reduced to eight months — or four matches — after intervention by the government.
The initial sanction caused uproar with the country’s football followers and yet Eto’o was picked out as the player most blamed by fans for not qualifying. It was the first time since 1994 that the four-time champion and second most successful African Cup team ever didn’t make the continental championship.
The striker said recently it should lead to a period of introspection for the nation’s football authorities.
"It’s a big disappointment for Cameroon not to qualify for the African Cup of Nations," Eto’o said. "Cameroon is a big nation in football and the national team has brought much happiness in country.
"They will want to learn with this big defeat. They have to change different things to improve and reach their next goal."
With the next African Cup brought forward to 2013, one of Africa’s great football exports should still appear in another continental tournament — if Cameroon qualifies.
It’s doubtful, however, if the 36-year-old Hassan will be retained by Egypt’s new American coach, Bob Bradley, if the seven-time African champion Pharaohs make it to South Africa next year.
The midfielder, whose international career is nearly at an end, is level on 178 caps with former Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammad Al Deayea and should still pass the mark.
But it would have been fitting if Egypt’s captain and veteran of four Cup of Nations-winning squads had made history at the tournament he had played in without fail since 1998. However, Egypt’s team — distracted by a ground shaking revolution at home — slumped to finish last in its group and will be missing from the championship for the first time in 30 years.
Odemwingie’s eventful 2011 saw him complete a dream debut season in England with 15 goals for Premier League team West Brom. It also brought the disappointment of missing out on the African Cup as two-time winner Nigeria let slip a place at the final tournament to the Guineans with a dramatic 2-2 home draw in the final round of qualifiers.
In between, the striker was involved in a spat with former Super Eagles coach Samson Siasia for apparently walking out on a training camp, had a rant on social networking site Twitter, was dropped and asked to apologize and finally reinstated to the Nigeria squad.
Serero has yet to establish himself completely in the Bafana Bafana team, but there was a feeling that the Soweto-born midfielder — now with Dutch giant Ajax — would have his big break at the 2012 African Cup.
The 21-year-old product of Ajax’s academy in Cape Town never got the chance as South Africa followed Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria’s failure — although at one point it thought it had qualified.
South Africa’s players and coaching team celebrated a 0-0 draw with Sierra Leone in the final round of matches thinking it was enough to see them through on goal difference after tying with Sierra Leone and Niger at the top of their group.
In fact, Niger’s better performance against its two rivals for top spot was the criteria Africa’s football body used to decide the tiebreaker.
The sight of Bafana Bafana players joyously dancing and doing a lap of honor around a stadium to mark their return to the tournament, when they actually hadn’t qualified, made an embarrassing failure even more distressing for the 1996 champions.
South African Football Association President Kirsten Nematandani said in the aftermath he would "like to own up and say we are profoundly sorry for letting the nation down.
"I would like to take this opportunity to unreservedly apologize to the entire nation, our government and our sponsors."