Although its national football setup is experiencing its darkest days since the era of apartheid and FIFA bans, South Africa has nevertheless hit on a magic formula for qualifying for major tournaments: offer to host them.

It’s a scheme that got them into the 2010 World Cup, for which they would have failed to qualify (the World Cup campaign doubled as Africa Cup of Nations qualifying in 2010—they didn’t make the latter tournament, either), and most recently the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, which almost certainly would have been played without South Africa had the matches not been hosted in its stadiums.

As hard as it is to believe two decades on, the team that emerged from international suspension quite quickly rose up the FIFA charts and, after winning the 1996 Cup of Nations (which it hosted), found itself ranked 16th in the world. Going into the 2013 tournament, which kicks off January 19, Bafana Bafana are 84th on the list and on their seventh manager since 2006.

In the run-up to the 2010 World Cup it was thought a Brazilian manager, particularly one with an international title to his name, would be best suited to whip South Africa into shape for the finals it was about to stage, but after Carlos Alberto Parreira resigned in April 2008 Joel Santana assumed the position for an 18-month spell that was comical at best, disastrous at worst, and after Parreira was re-hired to save face the South African Football Association reverted to hiring domestic managers.

Gordon Igesund is the third of those to have been appointed, and in his brief time in charge South Africa have started to turn things around, if ever so slightly.

A narrow loss to Brazil in Sao Paulo marked the start of Igesund’s tenure, after which Bafana Bafana managed to win three of its next six matches. On Tuesday they lost 1-0 to Norway in Cape Town, but rather than wallowing in defeat the atmosphere among the squad remained optimistic. They felt they had performed well enough to win—that with one last friendly to play before raising the Cup of Nations curtain against Cape Verde there had been enough recent progress to suggest a place in the quarterfinals wouldn’t necessarily be a stretch.

Thankfully, the group stage draw was kind to South Africa. Although 1976 champions Morocco are likely to top the bracket, tiny Cape Verde are making their first appearance in a major tournament and will struggle to win a single match, leaving South Africa and Angola to scrap over Group A’s other quarterfinal berth. That contest will take place January 23 in Durban, after which the picture will be somewhat clearer for a group of players looking to contest a first, meaningful knock-out game since 2002.

Following is a look at Groups A and B of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Previews of Groups C and D will appear in this space a week today.

Group A: South Africa, Angola, Morocco, Cape Verde

South Africa in a sentence: The tournament hosts have been steadily declining since 1996 and will be looking to arrest their slide with, at the very least, a spot in the last eight at this Cup of Nations.

How they got here: Hosts.

Scouting report: Diminutive playmaker Thulani Serero was graduated from Ajax Cape Town to the parent club in the Netherlands in 2011. He made a quick start to the season, scoring three times in four outings for Ajax before suffering a groin injury in late September. He hasn’t played for his club side since but is expected to play a part for Bafana Bafana at this tournament, even, as manager Gordon Igesund says, he is operating “at 60 per cent.”

Hot seat: Katlego Mphela. The Mamelodi Sundowns striker will be charged with doing the business up front for South Africa, and given the team’s well-documented struggles in front of goal it’s hardly an insignificant responsibility.

Forecast: Second in Group A.

Angola in a sentence: Powered by Real Valladolid striker Manucho, the Sable Antelopes progressed to the quarterfinals in both 2008 and 2010 and have been one of the more watchable sides in recent installments of this competition.

How they got here: Eliminated Zimbabwe on away goals following a two-legged play-off thanks to a Manucho brace inside the first seven minutes of the return leg in Luanda.

Scouting report: Djalma Campos, 25, has a Portuguese League winners’ medal from his time with Porto (he’s currently on loan at Turkish side Kisimpasa) and will work the channels on the right-hand side of Angola’s attack.

Hot seat: Manucho. “One-man team” is a harsh term, but when you’ve scored five of your side’s last seven Cup of Nations goals is tends to stick. Angola’s strength is in the attacking third, and the big 29-year-old is its best player there.

Forecast: Third in Group A.

Morocco in a sentence: The sort of team that wins big or not at all (they’ve won just five of their last 10 matches, but by a combined score of 17-1), Morocco will be counting on its significant, accomplished contingent of foreign players to earn a first quarterfinal berth since 2004.

How they got here: Overturned a 2-0 aggregate deficit against Mozambique in the return leg in Marrakech to progress by a 4-2 scoreline.

Scouting report: Younes Belhanda was one of the top midfielders in France last season as Montpellier won Ligue 1. A playmaker as equally adept at putting a teammate through to score as he is at finding the back of the net himself, the 22-year-old’s presence immediately turns each of Morocco’s attacking players into a threat, and he stands to be one of the stars of this Cup of Nations.

Hot seat: Mehdia Benatia. The Udinese defender is the key man of the back four—a group that all too often concedes simple goals because of careless mistakes. It’s up to the 25-year-old to finally take ownership of Morocco’s defensive corps.

Forecast: First in Group A.

Cape Verde in a sentence: The archipelago nation off the coast of West Africa has only been independent from Portugal for 38 years, but its national football team—nicknamed the Blue Sharks—has risen up the FIFA rankings of late (they’re currently 63rd) and will be looking to make a splash in South Africa over the next few weeks.

How they got here: Hammered Madagascar 7-1 over two matches before ousting four-time champions Cameroon 3-2 on aggregate thanks largely to a 2-0 home win in September.

Scouting report: On the books at Benfica, 21-year-old striker Djaniny is one of Cape Verde’s least experienced internationals but managed to find the back of the net against both Madagascar and Cameroon in Cup of Nations qualifying. A towering forward at six feet, three inches he’ll operate alongside Lille’s Ryan Mendes in what should be a fascinating tandem.

Hot seat: Ryan Mendes. He was something of a late-bloomer when he joined Le Havre as a 19-year-old, but after impressing with the Upper Normandy side he joined Lille last summer and has since scored a pair of goals for Les Dogues. Now 23, he opened the scoring in both matches against Madagascar.

Forecast: Fourth in Group A.

Group B: Ghana, Mali, Niger, Congo DR

Ghana in a sentence: One of the bigger names in African football, Ghana are in something of a rebuilding cycle and without a handful of their more high-profile players at this Cup of Nations (Michael Essien; John Mensah; André Ayew) as they look to claim a title they haven’t won in 31 years.

How they got here: Eliminated Malawi 3-0 on aggregate.

Scouting report: Christian Atsu is widely regarded as one of the top young players in Portugal and will operate on the left-hand side of Ghana’s attack in South Africa. Twenty-one years old, he has yet to score for Porto this season but bagged six goals while on loan at Rio Ave last term.

Hot seat: Asamoah Gyan. He hasn’t exactly been all that noticeable since joining UAE side Al Ain from Sunderland a year ago, and his series of fall-outs with Ghana’s national team are well documented. But he remains the Black Stars’ most lethal option in attack and could win back some of his former admirers with a standout performance at this tournament.

Forecast: First in Group B.

Mali in a sentence: The third-place finishers a year ago, Mali will once again be one of the harder teams to break down at the Cup of Nations and will need to rely on that sturdiness in defense and midfield to offset the lack of offensive punch that cost them in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

How they got here: Beat Botswana 7-1 over two legs thanks to a pair of goals from both Cheick Diabaté and Modibo Maïga.

Scouting report: Cheick Diabaté scored five goals for his country in 2012 and is one of 13 Mali players attached to French clubs. He scored eight goals for Bordeaux last season but has been limited to just two so far this term.

Hot seat: Seydou Keita. He left Barcelona in the summer for Chinese side Dalian Aernin and returns to the Cup of Nations as Mali’s captain and most important player at the age of 32. Few players in this tournament are as accomplished at club level, and most of the teams in South Africa would give anything for a central midfielder of his ability.

Forecast: Second in Group B.

Niger in a sentence: They lost all three matches and scored just a single goal in their Cup of Nations debut in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea last January.

How they got here: After losing 1-0 in the first leg away to Guinea they scored twice in the final 16 minutes of the tie in the return match in Niamey.

Scouting report: Olivier Bonnes, 22, played for Nantes and Lille’s second team before moving to FC Brussels during the summer. He’ll look to plant his imposing frame directly in front of the back four. Niger may not have created much offensively at the 2012 Cup of Nations, but defensive organisation and attention to detail kept them in every match they played.

Hot seat: Moussa Maazou. Once a big-money signing by CSKA Moscow, the 24-year-old striker now plays his club football in Tunisia for Étoile du Sahel and will lead the line for Niger in South Africa. If his side manage to find the back of the net over the three Group Stage matches, chances are it’ll be his name on the scoresheet.

Forecast: Fourth in Group B.

Congo DR in a sentence: African champions as Zaire in 1968 and 1974, Congo DR make their return to the continent’s premiere tournament after an eight-year absence, boosted by a cast of talented foreign-based players, an improving domestic league and an experienced coach and keen to progress to the knockout stage for the first time since 2006.

How they got here: Shellacked Seychelles 7-0 over two matches before ousting last year’s co-hosts Equatorial Guinea 5-2 on aggregate.

Scouting report: Dieumerci Mbokani scored four times in qualifying and will play up top with Trésor Mputu at this Cup of Nations. Like Mputu, Mbokani played for TP Mazembe before embarking on a European career that took him from Belgium to France to Germany. Now back in Belgium, the 27-year-old is one of the go-to forwards at Anderlecht.

Hot seat: Claude Le Roy. The 64-year-old is something of an international managerial guru. Born in France, Le Roy has managed Senegal, Cameroon (twice), Malaysia, Oman and Syria. In 2011 he was appointed to his second spell in charge of Congo DR, having taken them to the quarterfinals in 2006 during his first stint with the team. He’s expected to deliver a similar result this time around.

Forecast: Third in Group B.