Posted by Isaac Umunna | 16 November 2013 | 4,169 times
After scores of qualifying matches played over the past two years, the stage is set for the emergence of the five senior national football teams to represent Africa at the Brazil 2014 World Cup.
The journey began in November 2011 with all but one of the 53 national associations affiliated to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) on the starting blocks –Mauritania having opted out.
In the final games coming up from this evening (Saturday, November 16) and ending next week Tuesday, November 19, African champions Nigeria will host Ethiopia while Burkina Faso will be away to Algeria. Similarly, Senegal will host Ivory Coast and Egypt entertain Ghana while Tunisia will be hosted by Cameroon. The first round matches of this final qualifying round took place from October 12 to 15 and the results gave an indication as to which teams might eventually make it to Brazil.
Of the ten teams still left in the race, only Ethiopia and Burkina Faso are yet to feature at the World Cup. For Ethiopia, there couldn’t possibly have been a more difficult pairing as both history and current form favour Nigeria, which won six of their last seven meetings, including a 2-0 drubbing during the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in South Africa.
The only time Ethiopia is on record to have beaten Nigeria in a significant game was in a 1994 AFCON qualifier. The gulf between both sides has since widened. While Nigeria parades an array of battle-hardened professionals most of whom ply their trade with top sides in Europe, Ethiopia counts largely on local players of a lesser pedigree. It was therefore not surprising that after all their tough talk, the Ethiopians surrendered 1-2 during the first leg encounter in Addis Ababa on October 13. For them, the journey to Brazil is as good as over even as they continue to boast of a possible upset in the return leg.
Just like Ethiopia, Burkina Faso’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup this time around are shaky. While the Burkinabes, the 2013 AFCON runners-up, are among the continent’s most improved sides, the odds favour the Algerians, who have a bigger football pedigree. “It’s a balanced draw,” said Burkina Faso’s coach Paul Put, whose work has been made more difficult by the slim 2-1 victory in Ouagadougou on October 12. “Burkinabe players have been active in preparations and we hope to take it from there and build on the self-belief we have got from reaching this stage and also reaching AFCON 2013 finals. This will motivate us to try harder to reach our first World Cup final.”
Responding, Mohamed Raouaraoua, President, Algeria Football Federation, said: “We are well-prepared. There are many new faces in our team who are talented and playing very well at club level. We are hoping to scale through and book our place at the World Cup in Brazil next year. Burkina Faso is playing well currently and will be tough opponents for sure but l believe our experience at this level should serve us well but what l know for sure is it will be an interesting and tight contest.”
Also likely to pick a ticket to the Brazil 2014 World Cup is Ivory Coast, which has a more experienced squad as well as much psychological advantage over Senegal. When both sides met in a 2013 AFCON qualifier, the Ivorians won 4-2 in Abidjan and were two goals ahead in Dakar when crowd violence forced the game to be abandoned in the 74th minute. Senegal was subsequently disqualified from the qualifiers and clamped with a one-year home ban by CAF. The ban runs through the 2014 World Cup playoffs, meaning that Senegal will have to host the return leg in a neutral country, thus robbing the team of massive home fan support. There wasn’t much surprise during the first leg in Abidjan on October 12, which ended 3-1 in favour of the Ivorians.
Ghana is another sure bet after roasting Egypt 6-1 in the first leg. The scoreline was the highest in all the first round matches and the margin of victory far beyond expectations. For one, Egypt was the only side that sailed through the African qualifiers with a 100% record. Besides, Egypt prevailed when the two sides last met in a competitive match, winning 1-0 in the 2010 AFCON final in Angola. But it was the direct opposite on October 15 in Kumasi, with the visitors literally collapsing like a pack of cards.
The Egyptians will go into the return leg with a major boost as they will be playing in front of cheering home fans for the first time in almost two years. The game has been scheduled to be played on November 19 at the 30,000-capacity Air Defence Stadium in Cairo and will be attended by fans following series of meetings with the country’s authorities, who have guaranteed security during the encounter.
This is the first time Egypt will be playing in the presence of home fans since the beginning of 2012. Following security concerns, matches have had to be held behind closed doors and away from the biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, to the Red Sea resort of El Gouna, after the infamous Port Said stadium disaster that left over 70 persons dead during a league match involving Al Ahly and Al Masry.
Even so, it will require a miracle to upturn such a heavy deficit against a resilient side like Ghana. From all indications, Ghana, which reached the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals, is obviously poised to join Cameroon as the only other African team to feature in three consecutive World Cups.
Just as is the case with Egypt, the task ahead of Tunisia is equally herculean after being held to a barren draw by Cameroon on October 13 in the first leg in Rades. Tunisia had been eliminated from the qualifying competition by minnows Cape Verde and would have been out of the race if not for the disqualification of Cape Verde for fielding an ineligible player.
Newly appointed coach Ruud Krol, whose first assignment was leading Tunisia to the first leg, readily admits that he has a tough job on his hands. “The mission is very difficult. I do not have time to change many things, but I am confident that the players can do better,” said the Dutchman who replaced Nabil Maaloul, who quit his post after an embarrassing 0-2 loss to Cape Verde in the last group qualifying match in September.
Krol is having sleepless nights on account of the quality in the Cameroonian team and has cited striker Samuel Eto’o as a big threat. His words: “Cameroon is big football nation. Eto’o is still a good player and must be watched carefully. It is not for nothing that (Chelsea of England coach) Jose Mourinho went in for him.” Krol is realistic about his team’s chances and, to be fair to him, no one should blame him if his mission turns out to be an impossible one.
Everything considered, the odds favour Nigeria, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon to emerge as Africa’s five representatives at the Mundial in Brazil. How accurate this prediction is will be known by the time the final whistle sounds on Tuesday.
•Photo shows action from the first leg involving Ivory Coast and Senegal.
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