The 34th edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations kicks off this week with Ivory Coast set to host the tournament just for the second time in their history – their first since 1984.
All eyes will be on star-studded Senegal who will be looking to retain the title after becoming Africa champions in the last edition, 2021, for the first time.
However, Senegal is expected to be challenged by a host of other nations including hosts Ivory Coast – twice winners, double winners Algeria, three-time champions Nigeria, and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt – all-time winners with seven triumphs.
In addition, there is also five-time African champions Cameroon who will be looking to dethrone Senegal with whom they have been drawn in Group C.
This group also includes Gambia, under the guidance of former Malta coach Tom Saintfiet, and Guinea who have one Malta-based player in their ranks.
Ibrahim Kone, who has 15 international caps, is expected to feature between the sticks for Guinea with his nation set to launch their Group C commitments against Cameroon.
The goalkeeper, who embarked in Malta in 2020 when he joined Żejtun Corinthians, is filled with pride at the prospect of donning the Guinea colours on the continental stage.
For Kone, this tournament is even more special as it will be played in his native country of Ivory Coast with Guinea’s games based in Yamoussoukro, 240km from the capital Abidjan where Kone was born.
The Hibernians’ goalkeeper had represented Ivory Coast at youth level before switching allegiances once he stepped into the senior category.
In an exclusive interview with the Times of Malta, Kone expressed his responsibility in representing Guinea in the Africa Cup of Nations for the second time.
“It is always a great pride to represent your country in one of the best competitions in the world,” Kone said.
The towering goalkeeper had played three of Guinea’s four games in the 2019 edition including the 3-0 defeat in the last 16 to Algeria with former Manchester City player Riyad Mahrez scoring one of the goals.
In the last edition, held in 2021, Kone was picked up by his nation but did not feature in any of the matches
with Guinea dumped out in the last 16 by Saintfiet’s Gambia.
In this year’s competition, the top two teams will advance from the group stages while the best four third-place sides will also make it into the next round.
“Our expectations in this competition is to go far as much as possible because we believe we have the talent to progress,” Kone explained.
“Obviously, we know that it is a difficult group but I also think it will be difficult for all participants because African football is improving all over the continent.”
Guinea’s squad, coached by Kaba Diawara, includes established players like Valencia’s defender Mouctar Diakhaby and former Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita, now on the books of Werder Bremen.
Anderlecht’s Amadou Diawara, formerly of Roma, and Ilaix Moriba – RB Leipzig’s 20-year-old midfielder – are also part of the Guinea squad.
Kone also pointed out at the results in the opening games from the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifications which produced several instances where lower-ranked nations secured positive results against the big guns.
Guinea, on their part, launched their qualifiers with a victory over Uganda before losing away to Botswana with Kone featuring in both matches.
Kone’s main task will be to keep the likes of Sadio Mane, Ismaila Sarr, and Karl Toko Ekambi at bay.
He is at the back of some high-profile matches that pitted Guinea against the likes of Brazil and Ivory Coast, hence Kone will be in familiar territory when he will come up against Africa’s best.
“It is always exciting to play these matches because it is an additional source of motivation,” Kone said.
“We prepare ourselves daily to feature in such games and I have already faced some of the best African players in Didier Drogba, Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane.”
With Hibernians, Kone has played over 50 games and this season has been a regular fixture with 11 matches and keeping a clean sheet on two occasions including against Gudja United where he was handed the captain’s armband.
Asked about how his experience in Maltese football helps him at international level, Kone underlined that he tries to learn as much as possible from every game because that helps him to mature as a goalkeeper.
Kone and Guinea, ranked 80th, last reached the quarter-finals in 2015 and were runners-up in 1976.
But while making it to the final might seem a tall ask, negotiating themselves through a group that includes Senegal (20) and Cameroon (46) will be another proud moment for Guinea.
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