Articles related to CAF 2006 WC qualifiers:
Preview May 22, 2004
Update Aug 8, 2004
Update Mar 17, 2005
Update Apr 23, 2005
Update Jun 24, 2005
Update Sep 19, 2005
Wrap-up Oct 8, 2005
Preview: African qualifiers
by Peter Goldstein
Football in Africa is like nothing else on earth. Fans everywhere absolutely mad about the game;
legendary front office incompetence and corruption; bewildering high-speed coaching carousels; a
fundamental incoherence that at times beggars belief--and through it all (did you see Sierra Leone at the
World U-17's last year?) a seemingly inexhaustible supply of breathtaking talent. And it's all ours for the
next year and a half, as Africa stages its World Cup qualifiers, beginning on June 4.
Like the other outlying confederations, Africa is ruled by a small number of teams, and WCQ upsets are
rare. In the last three World Cups, the African berths have been divided as follows:
South Africa 2
Senegal was a huge surprise last time out, but that just underlines how dominant the top teams have
been. It's better than even odds the five teams in Germany will come from this list. Morocco and Tunisia
will face off in group 5, so only one of them can make it, but South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, and
Cameroon are natural favorites in their respective groups.
At the same time, there's so much talent in Africa, and so much potential instability even in the top
teams, that it may take only the right coach at the right time to overturn the form book. Mali, Ghana,
Egypt, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and maybe Zimbabwe are all legitimate candidates this year. It's hard to
pick against the established sides, but the more you follow African football, the more you're convinced
that anything is possible.
The qualifying format this year is new: 5 groups of 6 teams each, with first-place teams going to the
World Cup, and the top three teams in each group to the 2006 Nations Cup in Egypt. If Egypt finishes in
the top three in their group (a virtual certainty), an extra berth will go to the best fourth-place team.
Although no more than two or three teams in each group have a legitimate chance at the World Cup, just
about everyone is in with a shout for the top three, or the best fourth place, and that'll insure some
excellent competition down to the wire. At the same time, the largish groups put outsiders at a
disadvantage: over 10 games (instead of 6, traditional for the Nations Cup), it'll be tougher to manage the
With 30 teams still theoretically in the running, we won't try to get too detailed just yet; just an
overview, for the moment. As the games proceed, and teams drop out (maybe even literally--this is
Africa, after all), and the contours of the competition become clearer, we'll go into more depth.
Consider this an intro to Africa's special brand of summer madness: we'll be back in July, after 3 rounds
(Senegal, Mali, Zambia, Togo, Liberia, Congo)
Four years ago Senegal was just another dot on the football map. Now they're an established African
power, and the clear favorite to qualify for their second straight World Cup. And that's a problem.
Because now Senegal expects, and it'll be nearly impossible to live up to the great performance in
That's because Bruno Metsu is gone. Whoever coaches Senegal this time will have better hair and better
dress sense, but he likely won't get the same results. The 2002 Senegal side was always greater than the
sum of its parts. They had genuine stars in keeper Tony Sylva and striker El Hadji Diouf; but the rest of
the side, although talented professionals, were no better than their opponents. Metsu got them to believe,
to play as a team, and to glory in their outsider status.
Now they're insiders, and Guy Stephan hasn't inspired the same cohesion and dedication. This was most
clearly on display at the recent Nations Cup in Tunisia: the players became notorious for their
after-hours indiscipline, and on the field they were erratic and volatile. Diouf (Liverpool) was the worst
offender, eventually receiving a four-match ban for insubordination. The team managed only one win,
3:0 over outsiders Kenya, and were eliminated by the hosts in a wild, ill-tempered game that did nothing
for their image. They missed midfielder Khalilou Fadiga, whose heart condition may have him
permanently sidelined, but everyone agreed it wasn't the same team.
And it literally won't be the same team at the beginning of the qualifiers. Fadiga is out; Diouf will be
missing because of suspension; fullback Omar Daf (Sochaux) is injured; midfielders Salif Diao
(Liverpool) and Aliou Cissé (Birmingham City) and fullback Ferdinand Coly (Perugia) have been left off
because they've been on the bench at their clubs. Of the available 2002 regulars, Pape Bouba Diop
(Lens) remains a fine two-way midfielder, winger Henri Camara (Wolves) still has plenty of speed and
trickery, and Malik Diop (Lorient) is the same agile centerback. Sylva has been mostly on the bench at
Monaco, but is one of the best keepers in Africa. There are a number of rising stars, too: centerback
Habib Beye (Marseille) and fullback Ibrahima Faye (Ghent) both showed to good advantage at the
Nations Cup, and two exciting young Metz players, midfielder Dino Djiba and striker Mamdou Guèye,
have a good chance to make the squad. And don't forget midfielder Sylvain N'Diaye, whose flagging
career was revived at Marseille this year. But this team needs the right coach. Stephan was all but fired
until the Ministry of Sport stepped in and supported him, but a few bad results and he'll be out. Even
with a makeshift squad, the opener at home vs. Congo should be easy, but a tricky tie at Togo and back
home against Zambia will be sterner tests.
Still, a favorable draw makes them the choice from this group. The only other team that seems to have a
shot is Mali, an above-average team that has made noises in the last two Nations Cups. They finished
fourth in 2002, but that was with the home advantage--they scored a memorable 2:0 win over South
Africa, but Cameroon beat them easily in the semis. In Tunisia, bolstered by striker Frederick Kanouté
(Tottenham), they finished ahead of Senegal in the group stage, and beat Guinea with a last-minute goal
in the quarterfinals. But again they seemed out of their depth, going down to Morocco 0:4, finishing
fourth for the second straight time.
Kanouté certainly adds some punch to the team, and young Dramane Traoré (Ismaili), who got the goal
that knocked Cameroon out of the Olympics, looks like a good strike partner. Attacking midfielder
Mohamed Lamine Sissoko (Valencia), like Kanouté a former France junior, is a welcome addition.
Midfielder Mahmadou Diarra (Lyon) provides toughness and scoring ability; midfielder Soumali
Coulibaly (Freiburg) can be a danger in attack; defender Fousseiny Diawara (Laval) showed strength and
tenacity at the Nations Cup. The Eagles performed well in a recent friendly in Tunisia, displaying good
technique and an effective passing game. But Senegal may still have more talent. It's not a good sign that
Henri Stambouli, who coached Mali at Tunisia, decided not to renew his contract. The FA tabbed
relative unknown Alain Moizan, former coach of Senegal champions Jeanne d'Arc; the choice didn't go
down well with the folks at home, who had expected a bigger name.
Zambia, the longshot, has been on a downswing in recent years. Since the 1994 cycle, when they were
pipped by Morocco, the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) haven't been close to the World Cup. They were
also upset by Benin in the last Nations Cup qualifiers, missing their first finals in ages. But there are
some good signs. They've got strong leadership from former great Kalusha Bwalya, now the technical
director; he's pushed for a demanding training camp for the openers. They have a solid nucleus of
home-based players from local sides Green Buffaloes and Power Dynamos, and the U-23's just lost out
to Ghana for an Olympic berth in a game marked by questionable refereeing. Striker Collins Mbesuma,
now with Kaiser Chiefs in South Africa, is a comer.
At the moment, though, a Nations Cup berth seems like their limit. The overseas contingent is a mixed
lot (a surprising number of players in Scandinavia--don't they get cold there?). Only defender Moses
Sichone and midfielder Andrew Sinkala (both Köln) play in a top league in Europe. Besides Mbesuma,
they have some players in the South African league, the most important being central defender Sashi
Chalwe (Mamelodi Sundowns). But even if the legionnaires are ready to play over their heads, the
federation doesn't have the funds to bring them all in for every game. So Bwalya has said he'll have to
pick and choose; not the best recipe for stability or success.
Togo is another team with a good shot at a Nations Cup berth, but the Hawks too are on a downswing.
They were edged out by Kenya in a weak group in the qualifiers for Tunisia. Last WCQ they finished
just behind Zambia, so you know they have some quality. Unlike Zambia, though, there's not much
coming up in the youth system. (Striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who has excelled for Monaco, is a
notable exception.) In fact, Togo has out-Qatared Qatar in the matter of naturalized citizens. With a
Brazilian coach, Antonio Dumas, they waved the wand and transformed no fewer than five Brazilians
into Togolese. The new FIFA rule will limit that approach, and to top it off Dumas is gone, replaced by
Nigerian Stephen Keshi. How he meshes with the Brazilians won't be known for a while. More bad
news: one of their most reliable players, starting keeper Kossi Agassa (Metz), will need surgery on his
right knee and is out indefinitely.
Liberia is a bit of a wild card. They came oh-so-close to qualifying in 2002, in the swansong for George
Weah. But they barely made the group stage this time around, rallying to edge Gambia in the
preliminaries--and somehow finished dead last in their Nations Cup qualifying group, behind even Niger
and Ethiopia. Edwin Snow, the head of the FA, recently resigned, and Weah himself has been actively
campaigning for the job. This has caused some controversy; he's a beloved figure, but many doubt if he
has the administrative abilities. (By the way, the interim head is Izetta Wesley, Africa's one and only
female FA leader.) On the field, coach Kadalah Kromah plans to promote several members of the
U-23's, which means the team will be inexperienced. But in the mix is teenage striker Collins John, who
has been a small-scale sensation for Fulham in the EPL. The Nations Cup might be out of reach, but the
Lone Stars could provide a few surprises.
That leaves Congo (Congo-Brazzaville, that is, not DR Congo, which is about 20 times larger). The Red
Devils have had occasional recent successes: finishing just behind South Africa in the 1998 WCQ,
qualifying for the 2000 Nations Cup. But financial problems led them to withdraw from the 2002 WCQ,
and they only rejoined the competition when threatened with severe penalties. They finished dead last in
their group, and more recently were a well-beaten second to Burkina Faso in the qualifiers for Tunisia.
The new coach is Christian Letard, who took the job with a wonderful disclaimer: "Je ne suis pas
Zorro." The FA's avowed goal is to build a youth team that can contend at the African U-20's in 2007--a
good idea, but an indication of how far behind they may be.
(South Africa, Ghana, DR Congo, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Cape Verde)
South Africa pulled a shocker when they hired Stuart Baxter to fill their coaching vacancy. Maybe 10
people in all of Johannesburg had heard of him, and they weren't talking: reactions ranged from outrage
to head-shaking to obvious temporizing (Gordon Igesund, one of the unsuccessful candidates: "I'm sure
he's qualified, otherwise he wouldn't have got the job.") Baxter was coach of the England youth team,
and has experience at club level in Scandinavia and Japan, but no ties with Africa. So he has a lot to
But Bafana had to do something to shake things up. After a creditable showing at Korea/Japan, disaster:
top stars boycotting the team, a nightmarish performance in Tunisia (0:4 to Nigeria, elimination at the
group stage), accusations and recriminations all around. South Africa may have won the big prize for
2010, but that doesn't help anyone right now. On the surface they seem vulnerable.
But this is still a team with tremendous potential. Baxter's first job is to get some of the regulars back
into the fold: Benni McCarthy, Mark Fish, Shaun Bartlett, and Quinton Fortune all skipped the Nations
Cup. At the moment, signs are good: Fish and Bartlett attended a recent get-acquainted training camp,
and McCarthy, although he hasn't come around yet, is making the right noises. (Fortune is injured and
out of action at least until August.) Baxter also got some good news when young midfield star Steven
Pienaar (Ajax) came out strongly in his support. Then there are talented holdovers like striker Siabonga
Nomvete (Udinese), midfield anchor MacBeth Sibaya (Kazan), speedy attacker Sibusiso Zuma (FC
Copenhagen), and mobile central defender Aaron Mokoena (Genk). Plenty of good stuff in the new
generation as well: besides Pienaar, there's creative midfielder Jabu Pule (Kaizer Chiefs), and defenders
Mbulelo Mabiuzela (Tottenham) and Nasief Morris (Pathaninaikos).
So with all the problems, they're still the favorite in a middle-strength group. Even so, the squad may
lack striking power until McCarthy checks in. They'll have had only one friendly between the Nations
Cup and the qualifiers, so it may take a while for them to come together. The opener home to Cape
Verde should be no problem--but two weeks later they travel to Ghana, and we'll get a first look at what
Baxter and his side are made of.
Ghana, of course, are the great African underachievers. Their youth teams are frequent contenders for
world honors (U-20 runners-up 1993 and 2001, fourth place 1997; U-17 champions 1991 and 1995,
runners-up 1997, third place 1999; Olympic bronze 1992). No country has won more Nations Cup
tournaments. Yet the senior side has never qualified for the World Cup--in fact, they've never been
close. At the moment they look farther away than ever: they didn't even make it to Tunisia, amazingly
finishing behind both Rwanda and Uganda in their qualifying group.
Still, it would be rash to count them out. European first and second-division sides are bursting with
young Ghanian players: among the most promising are defender John Mensah (Modena), midfielders
Michael Essien (Lyon), Sulley Muntari (Udinese), and Anthony Obodai (Ajax), and striker Isaac Boakye
(Arminia Bielefeld). Familiar names like Stephen Appiah (who just got his first goal for Juventus) and
Sammy Kuffour (Bayern) will be contributing as well.
The job of overcoming the weight of history has fallen to Mariano Barreto of Portugal. Appointed in
January to a storm of controversy--the local/foreigner debate is huge in Ghana, and Barreto's CV was
more as a fitness coach than a head man--he steered the U-23's to a much-celebrated Olympic berth,
and as a result has been granted some breathing space by the local media. But now the FA is upset with
him for planning an elaborate, expensive training program. The opening games are testers: at Burkina
Faso, home to South Africa. As a rule, Ghana's coaches don't last long, but some early results may
convince the FA to give Barreto some time. If so, the Black Stars could conceivably contend.
Given their horrifying political troubles, one would like to predict that DR Congo, last seen in the WC in
1974 as Zaire, have a legitimate shot. With a huge population base, the Simbas certainly have lots of
talent running around. But the team is in complete disarray, and even a Nations Cup berth might be too
much to ask. For a while it looked as if they wouldn't even have a coach in time for the qualifiers--Mick
Wadsworth, himself a last-minute appointee, was gone after the dreadful performance in Tunisia (three
losses, GF/GA 1-6). But they've settled on warhorse Claude LeRoy, last seen, incredibly, at Cambridge
LeRoy will have a lot more quality here than in the English Third Division; the problem will be getting
them to play. Lomana Lua Lua (Newcastle/Portsmouth) has quit the side after his red card in Tunisia,
and the biggest name of all, striker Shabani Nonda (Monaco), making a comeback after knee surgery,
has not yet committed to the team. For medical reasons, he'll take a rest this summer, and has said
openly that the federation needs to shape up if they want him to contribute. He's not alone: young
players in France are repeatedly quoted as wondering whether it's worth turning out for a side so
perpetually disorganized. In essence, LeRoy is starting from scratch. Barring something
dramatic--although with DR Congo you never know--it looks like a difficult campaign.
Next are the Stallions of Burkina Faso, the epitome of competitive stability: five straight Nations Cup
appearances, last place in the group stage four out of five (the exception was 1998, when they hosted the
tournament and got to the semis). They've never seriously challenged for a World Cup spot, and are a
real longshot here. With three unpredictable teams ahead of them, a steady series of results could keep
them in the hunt for a while. But they're a very young team--their average age in Tunisia was only
23--and they're likely to get even younger, as they incorporate members of the U-20 side that qualified
for UAE 2003. It's hard to know how they'll respond to brand-new coach Ivica Todorov. A problem is
that many of their legionnaires don't get regular first-division first-team football; important exceptions are
striker Moumouni Dagano, scorer of seven goals for Guingamp this year, and defensive midfielder
Rahim Ouedraogo, a regular at FC Twente.
Uganda's goal is a Nations Cup berth, which they last procured a mere 26 years ago. Right now, though,
they're mostly good for comedy. Linking through Nairobi on their way to train in Germany, the Cranes
were spotted renting a wheelbarrow to carry their belongings. Meanwhile the team doctor apparently
refused to take the trip because he couldn't get sufficient medicines for the team. The FA has troubles of
their own, having been sued for failing to pay $15000 in airfares to a regional tournament. New head
coach Mike Mutebi seems like the sort of guy they need--he refused to take the job unless he had a clear
written statement of terms and conditions. Unfortunately, he'll have little to work with: the local sides
have had indifferent results in African club competition, and the legionnaires--from Argentina, USA, and
Serbia & Montenegro--are unexceptional. Their best European player, striker Charles Mbabazi
Livingstone of St. Patrick's in Ireland, had to retire from football due to heart trouble.
Cape Verde is easily the most obscure country left in the competition. But all you need to know is 1)
they're an island group of about 400,000 people located off the coast of Mauritania; 2) their official
language is Portuguese; and 3) about 6000 crazed fans saw Cafù score twice in their big preliminary
round upset over Swaziland. (No, not that Cafù--this one's name is Arlindo Semedo, and he plays for
Boavista.) It's definitely a team on the rise; in fact, they nearly qualified for the recent Nations Cup,
missing out with a loss at Kenya on the final day. They're ambitious, too: coach Alexandre Alinho
recruited several Portuguese league players for the Swaziland matches, has confirmed no less than nine
more new names for training camp, and is even pursuing standout Marseille wingback Manuel dos
Santos, born in Praia, the Cape Verde capital. Too bad he wasn't around a decade ago to talk to Henrik
Larsson, whose father was born in the islands as well.
(Cameroon, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Benin, Libya, Sudan)
It's been a brutal 12 months for Cameroon. The death of Marc-Vivien Foe; elimination at the
quarterfinals in Tunisia; the failure of the U-23's to qualify for Athens (remember, Cameroon won the
gold medal last time out); the devastating 6-point penalty from FIFA for defying them on the one-piece
kit. But guess what? On May 21, FIFA, figuring the so-called Indomitable Lions had been effectively
humiliated, lifted the sanction. And so, at nearly the very last moment, Cameroon gets a reprieve from
the governor--and it's back to football.
But that means they're back to the old questions. Have they gone as far as possible with Winfried
Schäfer? He took them to the 2002 Nations Cup championship, but by any standard their last two
international tournaments have been failures. Cameroon doesn't like to settle for second best. Word is
the coach still has the support of his players, but they didn't produce for him in Tunisia. The Lions have
just about the easiest possible start--home to Benin, away to Libya, home to Ivory Coast--and they may
have to win all three for Schäfer to keep his job.
On the field there are several doubts. Grand old man Patrick Mboma had an outstanding Nations Cup,
but he's at the end of his career, and they'll need a new strike partner for Samuel Eto'o (Mallorca). Pius
Ndiefi (Al Itihad, Qatar) and Joseph-Désiré Job (Middlesbrough) are leading candidates, but neither has
yet shown himself up to the task. Eric Djemba-Djemba (Manchester United) needs to step up his game
considerably if he wants to replace the fallen Foe. Midfielder Geremi Njitap (Chelsea) looked old and
slow in Tunisia, and keeper Idriss Kameni (Le Havre) has been inconsistent of late.
This is still Cameroon, though, and that means quality. On the back line, veterans Rigobert Song (Lens)
and Bill Tchato (Kaiserslautern), plus rising fullback stars Thimothée Atouba (Basle) and Jean-Joël
Perrier Doumbe (Auxerre); in midfield, Salomon Olembe (Leeds) and prospect Jean Makoun (Lille).
Lauent Etamé Mayer, who plays right back for Arsenal but midfield for the Lions, says he'll return to
international competition for the qualifiers.
Will it be enough? Cameroon has had an incredible run in the last 15 years, with four straight World Cup
appearances. But they're in the toughest group of all this time, and their luck may just be due to run out.
But at least they'll start even, instead of 6 points down, and with all that pedigree, it'd take a brave man
to bet against them.
On paper, Egypt is the team most likely to outpoint Cameroon. But the Pharaohs had an unexpectedly
poor Nations Cup, going out in the group stage to Algeria, and since then much of the news has been
bad. In April, top clubs Zamalek and Al Ahly, who together furnished half the side in Tunisia, were
shockingly eliminated from the Champions League by rank outsiders from Rwanda and Sudan. Striker
Ahmed Belal (Al Ahly) is out indefinitely with a cruciate ligament injury. Young star striker Ahmed
"Mido" Hossam (Marseille) is recovering from a knee injury of his own, and will miss the opener against
Sudan. In fact, he initially refused to play even if fit, and although now it appears he'll join the team
eventually, he's been even more temperamental than usual lately.
The coaching situation doesn't breed confidence either. The selection of Marco Tardelli was roundly
panned by the Egyptian media, and they were further upset when he chose as assistant a fellow Italian,
instead of a local man. Tardelli was a great player, but his coaching record is undistinguished: he bombed
at Inter Milan, and failed to get Bari into the top flight. On the plus side, he took the Italian U-21's to the
European championship, but that was a long time ago.
Still, if both the coach and the players can produce, Egypt has what it takes. Mido is potentially a
top-class striker. Attacking midfielder Ahmed Hassan (Besiktas), playmaker Hazem Emam (Zamalek),
and defender Abdelhazer El-Saqqa (Genclerbirligi) are classy veterans. Abelhalim Ali (Zamalek) is an
up-and-coming scorer. Defensive midfielder Ahmed Fathy (Ismaili), only 19, looks like one of the stars
of the future. At 38, legendary striker Hossam Hassan (Zamalek) will provide leadership and maybe a
few key goals. And despite the Champions League debacle, the strength of the Egyptian league assures a
certain level of talent. The start is only moderately difficult--at Sudan, home to Ivory Coast, at Benin--so
there should be some leeway to get the side on track. Some question marks, yes, but certainly they're a
Ivory Coast is the other possibility. They've been touted as the coming team for ages now, but have yet
to make their mark. In the 1994 and 2002 WCQ's they fell short to Nigeria and Tunisia, respectively; in
1998 they were upset by Congo in the preliminary round. After winning the Nations Cup in 1992, they
haven't reached the Final since, and didn't even make it to Tunisia this year (mostly because they got
stuck in a qualifying group with South Africa).
But this might very well be their strongest squad ever. Striker Didier Drogba (Marseille), Player of the
Year in France, is the most prominent of the lot, but the list of stars is long: defender Kolo Touré
(Arsenal), midfielders Bonaventure Kalou (Auxerre) and Tchiressoua Guel (Lorient), strikers Dagui
Bakare (Lens) and Aruna Dindane (Anderlecht), the latter named Player of the Year in Belgium. Among
the newer names are striker Bakary Koné (Lorient) and midfielder Yaya Touré (Kolo's brother,
Metalurh Donetsk). The famous Asec Abidjan academy, which produced so many fine players in the
1990s, has been reopened, and is ready to start churning out the talent once again.
The coach is old hand Henri Michel, and for the moment he has the team in excellent form: in recent
friendlies, they defeated Tunisia 2:0 at home and Guinea 4:2 on the road. Michel's overall motivational
skills have been questioned, but he certainly knows African football. With Cameroon uncertain, and
Egypt maybe vulnerable, there's no reason this can't finally be the year of the Elephant.
In such a strong group, the rest of the teams are longshots even for the Nations Cup. Benin made a
splash last year, grabbing their very first Nations Cup berth with a 3:0 win over highly-favored Zambia.
You'd think they'd be buoyant coming into the qualifiers--but no, this is Africa. When they not
unexpectedly lost all three games in Tunisia (to South Africa, Morocco, and Nigeria!), the FA nearly
fired Ghanian coach Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, eventually deciding to give him through August to save
his job. Then a row over bonuses led their top European players, including striker Omar Tchomogo
(Guingamp) and midfielders Moussa Latundji (Cottbus) and Anicet Adjamonsi (Bordeaux), to say they
wouldn't show up this summer unless the FA got its act together. At the moment it looks as if the dispute
will be settled--and as the team scrambled to find replacements, local boy Stéphane Sessègnon emerged
as a prospect in central midfield. If the Squirrels (!) can get the full team together, they may play a
spoiler role; if not, they'll drop back into obscurity very quickly.
Libya is the traditional North African minnow. While each of their local rivals (Algeria, Morocco,
Tunisia, Egypt) have been to the World Cup at least twice, and won the Nations Cup at least once,
Libya has never even qualified for the Nations Cup. (Their one appearance, in 1982, was as the host,
although admittedly they made it to the Final.) They have the smallest population in the region, and their
domestic league has always been well behind those of their neighbors. But things are looking up: last
year they finished just behind DR Congo in the qualifiers for Tunisia, and in recent months they've won
friendlies against Kenya, Qatar, and Jordan (although they lost to the Senegal U-23's). If they stay in
form, they'll cause the top teams some problems. The sideshow: Al Saadi Ghaddafi, son of the
famous/infamous Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi, joined Perugia last summer, whereupon he failed a drug
test, was banned for three months, sat on the bench the rest of the time, and finally made his debut a
couple of weeks ago (15 minutes, no goals).
Sudan is hard to read. They had a surprisingly strong qualifying run for the 2002 WC, eventually fading
to third in their group behind Nigeria and Liberia. They then disappointed in the Nations Cup qualifiers,
finishing behind Benin and Zambia. Yet last month club champion Al Hilal, whose players make up half
the national side, scored a famous victory, eliminating no less than Al Ahly from the Champions League.
They certainly won't be short on determination: Sudan was a long-time British possession, and football
holds a very important place there. In fact, they were one of the founding members of the confederation,
hosting the very first Nations Cup in 1957. They have a 75,000-seat national stadium, and the fans will
be ready to fill it up if the team gets anywhere near contention. Like Benin and Libya, they may have a
say in who wins the group. Best of all, they have two nicknames: the Falcons and the Crocodiles.
(Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Angola, Rwanda, Gabon)
Nigeria is football's premier eight-ring circus. You name it, they've got it: players snubbing the national
side; the national side snubbing players; tactics, lineups, and coaches changing with every game; battles
in the front office, sometimes to the point of actual fisticuffs; fans and media demanding the heads of
everyone in sight. You can't go to the bathroom without causing controversy.
Through it all, the Super Eagles continue to put up results, even if they're never enough for the
supporters. At the Nations Cup in Tunisia they opened with a loss to Morocco, but then took out South
Africa, Benin, and Cameroon, and were unlucky to go down to the hosts on penalties in the semifinals.
And despite their reputation as pampered egotistical pros, they can show plenty of heart: in the 2002
WCQ they were down and seemingly out with only three games to go, but scored decisive victories over
Liberia, Sudan, and Ghana to qualify. They're in a weakish group this time around, so even with plenty
of weirdness along the way, they're heavy favorites to make it to Germany.
With so much talent available, it's hard to know exactly how the squad will develop. The heart of the
lineup is still the magnificent Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton), who dazzled in Tunisia as only he can. The rest
of the midfield is pretty much open, with familiar names like Nwankwo Kanu (Arsenal), Garba Lawal
(Elfsborg), and Pius Ikedia (Roosendaal) in the mix. The defense, normally the weak point of the team,
played well in Tunisia, with Joseph Yobo (Everton) particularly outstanding. Celestine Babayaro
(Chelsea), kicked out of camp in Tunisia, appears to be back on the side for the moment. Keeper, a
perennial problem spot, has a new star in 21-year-old Vincent Enyeama (Enyimba, the African
Champions League winners). Up front, big John Utaka (Lens) has developed into a consistent finisher,
and although Yakubu Aiyegbeni (Portsmouth) is currently refusing to play, Obafemi Martins (Inter
Milan) says he's ready, and there's also new star Osaze Odemwingie (La Louviere). But to be honest,
we'll just have to see who's in and who's out as the qualifiers develop.
The coaching situation bears some watching. Against all the odds, Christian Chukwu still has the job,
despite persistent charges that he's not international class. Nigeria are expected to power through this
group, so he won't have much margin for error. His current contract lasts only through the summer;
even if he does somehow survive through the qualifiers, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a European
appointed for the World Cup. Or two. Or three.
Of the rest of the group, maybe Zimbabwe has the best chance for the upset. After a thousand years of
just missing out, the Warriors finally made it to their first Nations Cup, and though they finished last in a
tough group, showed plenty of spirit and firepower. They led in all three group games, scoring six goals,
with striker Peter Ndlovu (Sheffield United) grabbing three. The team defense was a disappointment,
but the splendidly named Energy Murambadoro sparkled in the nets. Midfielder Esrom Nyandoro's blast
against Cameroon was voted the goal of the tournament. After two close losses, they picked up a
deserved win against Algeria, and they head into the qualifiers on an emotional high.
By any measure, though, they seem well behind Nigeria. They're short on European experience: besides
Ndlovu, left back Harlington Shereni (Guingamp) and attacking midfielder Joel Lupahla (AEP Paphos)
are the best of the legionnaires. Midfielder George Mbwando (Aachen) is skipping the opener against
Gabon to play in a summer club tournament, and rumors say he may decline to participate altogether.
They do have a sizable contingent of pros in South Africa, of whom strikers Adam Ndlovu and Alois
Bunjira are the most influential. The youth teams are a traditional weakness, though, and the squad as a
whole figures to lack depth. And like Benin, there's a bonus dispute that might lead to some key
absences. A second straight Nations Cup appearance is the most reasonable goal, and you can be sure
Zimbabwean fans will be well satisfied with that result.
Next in line is Algeria, who finished ahead of Zimbabwe in Tunisia but lost their individual encounter.
Algeria's glory days were 20 years ago, and they haven't seriously contended for a World Cup berth
since 1990. Four years ago they were a distant fourth in Senegal's group. The record shows that they
advanced to the second round in Tunisia, and came very close to making the semifinals, but it was
pretty much a fluke: their win over Egypt and near win over Morocco were significantly against the run
The new coach is Belgian veteran Robert Waseige, who led his homeboys into the second round at
Korea/Japan. He's not a natural fit: the relatively dour Belgian style doesn't match the North African
short passing game. But three regulars--defender Samir Beloufa (Mouscron), midfielders Nasredine
Karouche (Ghent) and Mamar Mamouni (La Louvière)--play in the Belgian leagues, so maybe that'll
help. There are also several players from the first division in France; defender Anther Yahia (Bastia), a
former French youth international, was probably the best of all the Desert Foxes in Tunisia. If he can get
over his personal problems--recently he disappeared for a month after a family dispute--Abdelmalek
Cherrad (Nice, now on loan to Esperance) will be a useful striker. But a Nations Cup spot is probably
the limit. Algerian fans, famously devoted to their national team, undoubtedly yearning for first place
after the results in Tunisia, are likely to be disappointed.
Angola have been hovering around the margins of respectability for some time: for example, in both the
1998 and 2002 WCQ, they finished second in their group to Cameroon. They've missed the last few
Nations Cups, but managed two draws against Nigeria in the qualifying stage for Tunisia. The backbone
of their squad plays in the second division in Portugal, although their best player is creative midfielder
Gilberto of Al Ahly in Egypt. The coach is Luis Alberto Gonçalves, who has had considerable success
with Angola's youth teams; he took the U-20s to the second round of the Youth World Cup in 2001,
and figures to draw on that talent to bolster the senior side. He's also looking hard at new Portuguese
players: striker Marco Paulo (Estoril) recently got his first cap, and looks like a potential regular. The
Palancas Negras will contend for a Nations Cup spot, and are certainly capable of an upset or two.
Delirium broke out in Rwanda last July when the Wasps upset Ghana to qualify for their first Nations
Cup. The adventure continued in Tunisia: after a stunning win over DR Congo, only a late equalizer
from Guinea against the hosts kept Rwanda out of the second round. It was a truly magnificent
achievement for a country still recovering from a horrible genocide, and only playing international
football regularly for the last 10 years. As if that weren't enough, last month club champion APR, seven
of whose members were on the roster in Tunisia, knocked Egyptian giants Zamalek out of the
Champions League. Like Togo, they've gone the naturalization route, with players from DR Congo
(keeper Ramadhani Nkunzingoma) and Angola (midfielder Joao Elias) joining the side, but that option is
now closed. They do have some European experience: Elias is one of six Rwandans who play in
Belgium, including captain and striker Désiré Mbonabucya (St. Truiden). But with four solid teams
ahead of them in the group, they'll be hard-pressed to repeat their Nations Cup qualification.
Gabon are a decent side, with several Nations Cup appearances to their credit, the most recent in 2000.
The Panthers have a handful of professionals who see regular action in Europe. Most are attackers,
though, which makes them topheavy up front: it'll be hard to get Daniel Cousin (Le Mans), Eric
Moulounghi (Strasbourg), Stephane Nguema (Rennes), Shiva Nzigou (Nantes), and Henri Antchouet
(Beleneses) all in the lineup. But if their coach knows anything at all, it's how to attack: he's none other
than Jairzinho, top scorer for Brazil's immortal 1970 World Cup team. After some difficulties organizing
a run-up, the team has established camp in Barcelona, and friendlies against Ghana and Egypt are on the
schedule. With a little bit of the jogo bonito, they could make a run (or more likely, a dance) at the top
(Tunisia, Morocco, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Botswana)
The afterglow of the Nations Cup victory is fading in Tunisia; despite their historic success, they know
they've been handed a tough group in the qualifiers. And this time there's no home advantage.
But it can't be denied that Roger Lemerre has done a great job so far with the Carthage Eagles. He's
guiding them through a difficult transition period, and the stars of the next generation seem to have
emerged. Up front there's Ziad Jaziri (Gaziantepspor), fast and elusive, and naturalized Brazilian
Francileudo dos Santos (Sochaux), skilled and a superb finisher. In the creative role in midfield is Slim
Benachour (PSG), and on the back line are powerful Radhi Jaidi (Esperance) and versatile Karim Hagui
(Etoile Sahel). Multi-talented right back Hatem Trabelsi (Ajax) is the biggest star of all, and if healthy, is
in his prime.
There's still some life left in the older generation, too. A pair of 31-year-olds, central defender Khaled
Badra (Esperance) and defensive midfielder Riadh Bouazizi (Gaziantepspor), were in superb form in the
Nations Cup. Keeper Ali Boumnijel (Rouen), now 38, had a good tournament as well. Whether they can
keep it up in the qualifiers is another question; the odds are Lemerre will have to find even more new
talent to keep his head above water. But given his success so far, Tunisia remains a solid choice to make
it out of this group.
They'll be severely tested by Morocco, the old enemy. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the
Atlas Lions, but coach Badou Zaki took his young charges all the way to the Final in Tunisia. The hosts
beat them fair and square for the title, but that's likely to make them even hungrier for the WC berth.
(And don't think losing out for the zillionth time on hosting the World Cup won't motivate them as well.)
Young talent is bursting out all over the Moroccan squad. Youssef Mokhtari (Wacker Burghausen, but
sure to move to a more prestigious club next year) was one of the revelations of the Nations Cup, an
attacker who can play either up front or in midfield. Youssef Hadji (Bastia), younger brother of the
famous Mustapha Hadji, is a deft and poised midfielder. Jaouad Zairi (Sochaux) is a striker with
remarkable dribbling skills. Abdelsalam Ouaddou (Rennes), although at times a discipline problem, is a
strong central defender.
There's plenty of experience to go around as well. Despite a crucial mistake in the Final, keeper Khalid
Fouhami (Vladikavkaz) showed the complete package of skills in Tunisia. At right back there's Walid
Regragui (Ajaccio), a dynamic two-way player. Noureddine Naybet (Deportivo La Coruña), at 34, may
be too old to go the route in the qualifiers, but he had a marvelous Nations Cup, and might still be able
to contribute in the early stages.
So is it Tunisia or Morocco? They won't meet until September, and by then we'll have a better idea of
who's in form, who's injured, who's psychologically more ready. Right now, you can't pick either ahead
of the other.
But it might be neither one. The best-kept secret on the continent is Guinea, known as the Syli Nationale
(Syli meaning "elephant"). They were making a serious run at South Africa in the 2002 WCQs when
they were disqualified for government interference with the FA. They made it to the second round in
Tunisia, and were unlucky to lose to Mali in the quarterfinals, a goalkeeping blunder allowing a
last-minute winner. Most of the squad plays in Europe, and they have a good mixture of youth and
experience. The big star is 22-year-old Pascal Feinduono (Bordeaux), an attacking right-sided midfielder
with outstanding dribbling skills. But there's plenty of other talent on the side: instinctive scorer
Souleymane Youla (Genclerbirligi), speedy defender Dian Bobo Balde (Celtic), inventive attacker Fodé
Mansare (Montpellier), to name only three.
Guinea's main problem will be regrouping after some important personnel losses. Inspirational veterans
Titi Camara and Morlaye Soumah have announced their retirement from international competition.
Michel Dussuyer, the coach who took them through the Nations Cup, decided not to renew his contract.
They've just announced his replacement: Patrice Neveu, a Frenchman who has had success with club
sides in Tunisia and China. A recent 2:4 home loss to Ivory Coast shows there's some work to do;
nevertheless, this is a squad with great promise. If Tunisia and Morocco concentrate only on each other,
they may find themselves both out of the picture.
Kenya's 3:0 win over Burkina Faso in Tunisia was the country's first victory ever at the Nations Cup.
The man of the match was the talk of the tournament, 19-year-old striker Dennis Oliech, a very rough
diamond with outrageous individual skills. He'll join Marseille next season. Unfortunately, the rest of the
Harambee Stars are more modestly talented, and in a strong group like this another Nations Cup spot
would be a surprise. But that's the least of their worries: a fight between the government and the FA,
with the usual corruption allegations, has threatened to derail Kenyan football altogether. Local clubs
have refused to take part in the regular league season unless the FA changes leadership. FIFA, as
expected, has officially backed the ousted FA members, and it's simply a question of how far each side
is willing to go. A preliminary national side has been named, and training camp is underway, but if the
matter isn't resolved soon, Kenya could be banned from the tournament.
Malawi is in even worse trouble. Three members of their FA were recently kicked out because they had
failed to meet the prescribed educational requirements. As a result, FIFA ordered a full slate of new
elections--but Malawi is holding firm that only the three open spots should be re-contested. It seems like
a silly dispute, but when you clash with FIFA, you pay the price. Meanwhile, local sponsorship is
evaporating; the head coaching spot remains vacant; the team has been in camp for a couple of weeks
without funding from the FA. Even with everything running smoothly, the Flames would be an outsider:
they've never come close to qualifying for the World Cup, and their one and only Nations Cup
appearance was 20 years ago. Their star is young striker Essau Kanyenda (Rostov), who got the key
goals against Ethiopia in the preliminary round. They also have several veterans in South Africa, but not
all get regular playing time. At best they might pull off an unexpected result or two--but right now they're
no better than even odds to make it through the competition.
Last but not least are the Zebras of Botswana. They're in a great mood these days, having upset
traditional rivals Lesotho in the preliminary round, and added insult to injury with an 11-10 PK shootout
over the same team in the Cosafa Cup. Serbian coach Jelusic Veselin is on his way to becoming a local
hero, and striker Diphetogo "Dipsy" Selolwane, who scored two goals against Lesotho in the
preliminaries, has been a surprise package for Chicago Fire of MLS. How popular are the Zebras right
now? A local cellular phone company, hearing that the team was strapped for cash, jumped at the
chance to cover airfare for the opener in Tunis. No one expects Botswana even to qualify for the
Nations Cup, but they've been a doormat for so long (all-time record: 19 wins, 52 losses, 28 draws), that
they're just glad to be at the party. An uncharacteristically peaceful note on which to end our African
preview--see you in July!
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