050716 Azira with Uganda flag

Midfielder Micheal Azira will be back in action sooner than his Rapids teammates after today being named in the Uganda squad for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, which will take place in Gabon from January 14 to February 5.

Azira only made his senior international debut on November 12, as a second-half substitute in Uganda's 1-0 home win over Congo in a World Cup qualifier, though he had previously received call-ups to the squad.

Uganda, known as the Cranes, are back at the Cup of Nations after a 39 year absence, but face a difficult return. They are grouped with seven-times winners Egypt, as well as West African nations Ghana and Mali, and will be based in Port Gentil for the early stages. No other nation has won the tournament more than Egypt, who dominated during the early part of the century, winning in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Their squad includes goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, who turns 43 later this month, and could become the oldest player in the history of the tournament. 

Ghana, led by former Chelsea manager Avram Grant, have named former Portland Timbers goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, new Columbus Crew SC signing Jonathan Mensah and Crew SC teammate Harrison Afful, as well as brothers Andre (West Ham) and Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa), and Leicester City's Daniel Amartey in their squad.

Mali, meanwhile, can call upon players plying their trade in the top leagues in Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Portugal and England.

The Uganda team will travel from far and wide. Azira is the only one of the 23-man squad playing in MLS. Others feature for sides in Finland, Vietnam, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, Lebanon and Iceland.

There could be more than 30 players from the English Premier League alone traveling to Gabon in January.

The Africa Cup of Nations was first played in 1957, with the inaugural event staged in Khartoum, Sudan. It is a tournament held every two years, and the defending champions are Ivory Coast.

Located on the west coast of Central Africa, French-speaking Gabon will host the tournament for the second time. They were co-hosts of the 2012 edition, alongside Equatorial Guinea. The 2017 Cup of Nations was originally awarded to Libya, but that decision was reversed three years ago due to ongoing fighting in the North African country.

Azira named to the Uganda squad for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon -

Uganda's last appearance at the Cup of Nations finals was 1978, when they finished runners-up to hosts Ghana. This also marked their best performance at the showpiece event, which has grown in popularity outside of the African continent in the past 20 years thanks to a surge in star names shining for Europe's leading lights.

The Cranes have been busy in preparing for the 31st Africa Cup of Nations. They lost 2-0 to Tunisia in Tunis earlier today, a game in which Azira started, but have further friendly internationals against Slovakia (8) and Ivory Coast (11) in the United Arab Emirates.

Uganda open their Cup of Nations campaign against Ghana on January 17. The teams met in World Cup qualifying in October, with Uganda securing an impressive 0-0 draw on the road. They then face Egypt on January 21 and Mali on January 25.

Four players with Rapids connections have previously played in the Africa Cup of Nations. One was a winner, one a beaten finalist and another fell at the semifinal stage. Indeed, two former Rapids met on opposite sides in the 2008 semifinal in Accra, Ghana, at a game where this writer was present.

Shaun Bartlett was part of the South Africa side handed the Cup of Nations trophy by Nelson Mandela in 1996. Shortly after he was a part of the inaugural MLS season with the Rapids. He went on to play 36 times, netting nine goals, before departing for the MetroStars in July, 1997.

Forward Junior Agogo scored 11 goals in 32 appearances for the Rapids during the 2000 and 2001 seasons. He featured for Ghana at the 2008 Cup of Nations, and was among the scorers in the Third Place Playoff win over Ivory Coast.

Bouna Coundoul spent four seasons with the Rapids, from 2005-08. He represented Senegal at the 2008 and 2012 Cup of Nations.

Alain N'Kong scored the winning goal for Cameroon in the 2008 semifinal, versus hosts Ghana. Cameroon lost the final to Egypt. N'Kong wore Rapids' colors from 2005-06, during which time he played 33 times and scored five goals.