Few prizes loom larger than a place at a World Cup, particularly for African nations for whom competition is as fierce as ever. While UEFA receive roughly one qualification place for every five nations and CONMEBOL offer one spot for every other team, giving sides a 50% chance of qualification, CAF offers only five spots for 52 nations—giving teams a meagre 1/10 chance of advancement.The prestige of the occasion and the testing qualifying process mean that progression to a World Cup carries an almost unparalleled kudos for African sides.
The Africa Cup of Nations may bear enormous emotional weight across the continent, but claims to be Africa’s finest side are hard to sustain if you have missed out on qualification to the international centrepiece occasion. Look at Egypt; a decade of Afcon glory but comprehensive failure to make a World Cup has meant their legacy has never quite invaded the global psyche.
This article examines the state of affairs in CAF’s qualifying system, and looks ahead to a weekend of crunch matches across the continent.
Group A is currently one of the tightest qualification groups; Ethiopia lead on three points, and will be taken more seriously following their Afcon showing. They face the group’s bottom team, Botswana, who managed a sterling draw with neighbours South Africa back in June; Bafana Bafana may well be a different prospect under new boss Gordon Igesund however.The experienced coach was credited with turning around the homeside’s fortunes after a dismal Afcon opener, now settling into the job, qualification will be a major test.
For Igesund, it begins on Saturday, as Bafana welcome the Central African Republic to Cape Town. The erstwhile minnows made the continent sit up and take note back in the summer, as they dumped Egpyt out of the Afcon qualifiers, and even though they failed to make the tournament themselves, this is certainly a national side on the up.
C.A.R. missed out on the Cup of Nations following a late goal from Alain Traore, whose Burkina Faso side progressed all the way to an unlikely runners-up spot. The Stallions will need to muster every ounce of their Afcon inspiration to advance to the World Cup; they currently sit bottom of Group E and face a must-win home game against Niger, a prime occasion to pick up their first points of the campaign.
Congo currently top the group, with two wins out of two, and would take a giant step towards progress if they can beat Gabon in Pointe-Noir.
Neighbours Democratic Republic of Congo, my ill-fated ‘dark horses’ during the Cup of Nations, have been drawn into the nightmarish Group I, and will need to pick up points at home to incumbent leaders Libya on Sunday.
Expect fireworks in the group’s other weekend clash, a contest between previous qualifiers Cameroon and Togo in Yaounde. Both will harbour genuine hopes of a place in Brazil. After a disappointing Afcon, Angola will be keen to get their qualification back on track. Successful in advancing to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the Palacas Negras face an uphill battle as they attempt to take points from Senegal.
The 2002 qualifiers are exiled from their homeland, with the game being played in Guinea, but still expect them to take the points and consolidate their place at the top of the table. Liberia entertain unbeaten Uganda at the Samuel Doe Sports Complex in Group J’s other battle.
Benin are another unbeaten side; currently topping Group H, I suspect their run might come to an end against Algeria in North Africa. In the group’s other fixture, minnows Rwanda, with their predominantly domestic-based squad, welcome Mali to Kigali—the defeated Afcon semifinalists looking to compensate for a shock opening defeat to Benin.
If shocks are your thing, then Group C is probably not the place to be. Few will be backing the tiny Gambia to take anything from Cote d’Ivoire in Abidjan, while Morocco will be hoping to secure their first win of the campaign away to second-placed Tanzania over in Dar Es Salam. The North Africans’ dire start to the series has handed the initiative to the CIV, and a win is imperative if they are to make up for lost ground.
Their fierce rivals Tunisia are in pole position in Group B, where two wins out of two has shoved them firmly into the driving seat. A home game against Sierra Leone on Saturday is not a foregone conclusion, but the Eagles of Carthage will be confident of getting clear daylight between them and their opponents. Elsewhere, Afcon darlings Cape Verde face an uphill struggle to qualify, having lost their two opening fixtures. Fail to beat Equatorial Guinea in Malabo on Sunday, and elimination would be all but academic for the islanders.
Group G offers redemption for an Egypt side enduring a torrid spell. The Olympics proved a rare silver lining for a nation that has suffered untrammeled trauma and upheaval, political and sporting, over the last 2 years. The ‘all-conquering’ Pharaohs have all but moved on, so how ironic it would be if this new-look, dishevelled Egypt side were to finally make it to the world’s top table. They will be clear favourites to beat Zimbabwe in Alexandria, while Mozambique and Guinea will likely play out a tighter clash in Maputo.
Over in Group D, two of the continent’s heavyweights will look to put a bitterly disappointing Cup of Nations behind them. Zambia and Ghana were both left distraught by plucky opposition in South Africa, and will be hoping they can make their superior quality show this weekend. Zambia should really have little trouble against whipping boys Lesotho—however, the tiny nation responded to a 7-0 battering by Ghana to secure an impressive 0-0 draw at home with Sudan back in June. The Falcons of Jediane travel to Kumasi, but their dismal performance against Lesotho may take some comforting—the Black Stars are unlikely to offer it.
Finally, to Group F, where the aforementioned African champions look forward to the next challenge, a home game against Kenya. The atmosphere is sure to be euphoric in Calabar, but don’t expect the East Africans to show Keshi’s collective too much respect. Elsewhere, Namibia and Malawi battle to keep the heat on the Super Eagles.