World Cup 2006


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    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




    Update: Africa Group Stage, Rounds 1-3

    by Peter Goldstein

        This is a World Cup qualifying update, and it's kind of long. Kind of really long. As a matter of fact, the word-counter clocks it at an embarrassing 13,829. I guess I should apologize for that, and I do--but if out of pity you manage to read the whole thing, you'll know about:

    1) a player who head-butted his coach in training;
    2) two teams attacked by their home fans;
    3) a striker for Monaco outscored by a midfielder who couldn't make it in the Swiss third division;
    4) a famous veteran, recalled to start for the national team, who refused to leave the field when substituted;
    5) players with the nicknames "Police," "Lionheart," "Maestro," and "The Undertaker";
    6) a team that may actually ask FIFA to suggest who to hire as head coach;
    7) Norwegian swear words (censored, unfortunately);
    8) a coach fired for his own personal safety;
    9) Sepp Blatter acting nice to somebody (!);

    and most amazingly of all:

    10) fans that cheer their team even after a loss.

        That's right, it's Africa, folks, the greatest show on Earth. They've played only 3 of 10 games, so nothing's settled yet, but we're starting to get a feel for the races, and there's all sorts of good stuff out there--and when you put a fanatic next to a keyboard, you get 13,829. Anyway, rounds 4 and 5 take place in the fall, and we'll be back around November with another violently excessive update. For now, just set aside a week or so, and read on.

        (But first, a note on club affiliations. Since many African players are unfamiliar to the average fan, it seems useful to identify their clubs, even though it means a lot of parentheses in the text. In general, 1) if the player plays abroad, I've listed either his club or the foreign country in which he plays; 2) if the player plays in the domestic league, I've left the club name out. There are a few exceptions to both 1) and 2); in some cases it seems simpler to leave the club out or more appropriate to include it.)

    Group 1

    Congo       2   0   1    4  2    6
    Senegal     2   0   1    4  3    6
    Togo        1   1   1    3  2    4
    Zambia      1   1   1    2  2    4
    Liberia     1   1   1    1  3    4
    Mali        0   1   2    1  3    1
        Take a look at the group standings. As you can see, Senegal is tied for first on points. Now go check what the Sengalese press has to say...notice a kind of discrepancy? Like the fact they're demanding Guy Stephan's resignation, if not out-and-out ritual suicide? Are these guys maybe a bit too demanding?

        Probably not. Senegal may be on top, but they've been entirely unconvincing, and at the moment they're not even the shadow of the great World Cup team. You can blame some of it on key absences: El Hadji Diouf was suspended for the first 4 games, Khalilou Fadiga's heart problems will keep him out indefinitely, stalwarts like Omar Daf, Salif Diao, and Aliou Cisse are either injured or not match fit. But even so the side is playing well short of its potential.

        For the opener, home to Congo, the starting 11 included just 3 members of the team that upset France: centerbacks Lamine Diatta (Rennes) and Pape Malick Diop (Dinamo Bucharest), and keeper Tony Sylva (Lille). Guy Stephan went with a 4-3-3, with an attacking line of Henri Camara (Wolves) on the right, new face Babacar Guèye (Metz) on the left, and Mamadou Niang (Strasbourg) at the point. But only Guèye performed with any distinction, and the first goal didn't come until the 58th minute, on a header by Diatta off a corner. The 3-man midfield, Amdy Faye (Portsmouth), Sylvain N'Diaye (Marseille), and Pape Sarr (Lens), was highly praised for their compact play and overall domination, but Congo offered relatively little resistance. The crowd was small and unenthusiastic, the 2:0 win strictly routine. The second game, at Togo, figured to be much more of a test.

        And a test it was, like the Titanic was tested by the iceberg. Togo won 3:1, in what was universally regarded as the worst Senegal performance in many a year. The Lions got one look at the game, when they were awarded a 3rd minute penalty. But Camara's PK was saved by keeper Kossi Agassa, and the rest was nightmare. Particularly embarrassing was the left side of defense; Ibrahima Faye (Caen), who had replaced Daf so well at the Nations Cup, was repeatedly undressed by the Togolese attack. The vaunted midfield got shredded. The front line, with Diomansy Kamara (Modena) in place of Niang, came up with nothing. Pape Bouba Diop's consolation goal brought little joy. Stephan was roundly criticised for letting the erratic Camara take the PK--but then he was roundly criticised for everything else as well.

        What to do? Home against an improved Zambia, Stephan yanked Ibrahima Faye and moved right back Habib Beye (Marseille) to the left, with Diatta shunted out to the right. Diatta in fact made the cross for a 20th minute strike by Guèye, but that was almost the only high point. In attack, Moussa Ndiaye (Istres) was preferred over Camara, but played so poorly he had to be replaced--by Camara. And Faye too had to come back in, to replace a failing Diatta. The 3-man midfield was overwhelmed by the Zambian pressing, and only desperate defense kept the visitors off the board. Somehow Senegal hung on for a 1:0 win, but they were booed off the pitch.

        It's hard to know where to go next. Diouf will miss only one more game, but it may take time to work him into an effective scheme. The 4-3-3 just hasn't done the job, and the team badly needs the midfield leadership that someone like Cisse or Diao can bring. The one bright spot has been Guèye, who after an uneven start has shown considerable skill and creativity. Senegal's group looks weak right now: Mali, one of the supposed contenders, is drooping badly, and although Zambia has played well, they have yet to show class over time. The Lions are still the logical pick to qualify--just don't expect Guy Stephan to be around to see it.

        Despite the loss at Senegal, Zambia, coached by Ben Bamfuchile and directed by former great Kalusha Bwalya, now looks like a contender. Pretty remarkable, considering the comedy with their legionnaires. For the opener, home to Togo, midfielder Moses Sichone of Köln demanded a $5000 bonus. Later he claimed he had changed his mind--but he still didn't show up. Meanwhile, Russia-based midfielder Gift Kampamba refused to come until the FA paid $1600 owed for a plane ticket. In the good vs. evil derby, Sichone's teammate Andrew Sinkala came to camp and pointedly announced he was donating his bonuses to an orphanage. Perhaps inspired by such selflessness, or perhaps not, Zambia won 1:0 on an early goal by young striker Jacob Mulenga. They almost gave it away, though, when flamboyant young keeper Kalililo Kabonje's time-wasting gave Togo a last-minute free kick in the 6-yard box. But the Hawks let the chance slip, and Zambia escaped.

        For the second game, at Mali, the pro roulette continued. Sinkala went back to Germany, in search of more and better orphanages. Kampamba got his money, showed up in camp--and then left without notice. Sichone was dropped entirely, and veteran defender Elijah Tana from Petro Atletico declined the call. At least Sweden-based fullback Edwin Phiri chose to play, but sort of spoiled it by picking up a second yellow card in the 59th minute. To that point Zambia were playing well, and were up 1:0 on a goal by striker Harry Milanzi--but he's based in South Africa, so he didn't have to travel far. But the man shortage finally caught up, and Mali equalized in the 80th minute.

        At this point Bwalya finally got fed up. Disgusted with the Eurotrash, he left them all off for the big game at Senegal, except Boyd Mwila of Sweden, who would only play 7 minutes. It was thus an almost entirely African-based side that took the field against the mighty Lions in Dakar. And outplayed them. So for now, they look like the regulars. Kabonje, despite his antics, is proving to be a useful keeper. Tana finally came up from Angola, and he, Billy Mwanza (on trial with Bastia), and Lloyd Mumba can all play central defense in the 4-4-2. Dudly Fichite gave Senegal fits from his left midfield spot, and Numba Mumamba is influential on the right. Captain Mishek Lungu is a reliable defensive midfielder. Right now the worry is up front, where Milanzi and Mulenga have been inconsistent, and prospect Collins Mbesuma (Kaizer Chiefs) hasn't yet come into his own. But four points at this stage is fine, and the team was unfazed by the tough loss to Senegal. I bet Bwalya won't even watch the Eurovision song contest next year.

        If Mali could get results with just African-based players, I'm sure they'd do it. Because despite top-drawer pros like Frederick Kanouté (Tottenham) and Mohamed Lamine Sissoko (Valencia), the Eagles have picked up exactly one point in three games. Worse, they've lost to what were supposed to be the minnows of the group, Liberia and Congo. Their only point came from their second game, home to Zambia, but even then they needed a late goal from Kanouté with the opposition down to ten men.

        The failing is team-wide. The attack has been poor, with only one goal in three games. Kanouté has missed a number of chances, and neither Sissoko nor striker Dramine "Rivaldo" Traoré (Ismaili, Egypt) has been anything like consistent in support. The team also lacks a true playmaker; Soumaila Coulibaly (Freiburg), the liveliest of the midfielders, tends to be stronger on the wing. The back line has been leaky: Boubacar Diarra (Freiburg), Fousseiny Diawara (St. Etienne) and Adama "Police" Coulibaly (Lens) have had varying degrees of success in the middle, and young right back Adama Tamboura hasn't found his feet. The only plus has been Fousseiny Tangara (Mantois), who looks like a potential star in goal.

        There's still a lot of talent in Mali, and the pool will be growing shortly. Cedric Kanté, defender for Strasbourg, is coming off a long-term injury; striker Alioune Touré (PSG) and defender Djimi Traoré (Liverpool), former French youth internationals, have recently declared their citizenship. The FA is also hoping to convince disgruntled Ajaccio attacker Mamadou Bakayoko, snubbed for the Nations Cup, to rejoin the team.

        But none of this will help coach Alain Moizan, who got his walking papers after the loss at Congo. Whoever the new coach is, he'll have one chance to get Mali back in contention: after the summer break, they open with Senegal at home. The Lions are vulnerable, and a new head man might give the Eagles the necessary kick in the rear. But if they can't get three points in Bamako, even Otto Rehhagel won't be able to rescue them.

        Speaking of coaches, the Togo coach is Steven Keshi, to whom ignorance is apparently bliss. Before the opener at Zambia, the Togolese press asked him whether he was going to use the five naturalized Brazilians who had played under former coach Antonio Dumas. Keshi replied that he didn't know where they were, and didn't even know their names, so he couldn't call them. Later, when asked by the Zambian press about his overseas players, he said: "We can't say how many professionals we have in the team, but I think they are about seven or eight." A pretty good estimate, actually: by my calculations it's 7.43.

        But it's not what you know, it's how many goals you score. The crushing 3:1 win over Senegal announced the Hawks as a legitimate contender for group honors. As a bonus, the victory sent yellow-and-green clad Togolese fans pouring onto the field and descending en masse into the streets of Lomé. The other results, an 0:1 loss at Zambia and a sterile 0:0 draw at Liberia, have been less riot-inducing, but 4 points is 4 points, especially with two road games behind you, and no one is going to take Togo lightly anymore.

        Maybe it's Keshi's "don't ask, don't tell, don't know, where am I?" policy, but so far it's been hard to get a comprehensive portrait of the squad. The biggest name in Togolese football is striker Emmanuel Adebayor of Monaco, who dazzled Senegalese defenders all afternoon and got the opening goal. A lot lesser-known is winger Yao "Junior" Senaya, recently released by FC Grenchen of the Swiss third division, who got the other two goals coming off the bench. (According to the club website, by the way, he likes rice and orange juice.) Another effective attacker is right-sided midfielder Sherif Touré, who has played for both Livingston and Hannover 96. (According to the Hannover website, he also likes rice and orange juice, and I'm not making that up.) No diet reports on Yaovi Abalo (Amiens) and the towering (1m96) Daré Nibombé (Mons), but they're the men at the heart of the defense. Keeper Kossi Agassa, who stopped Henri Camara's penalty kick, is a regular at Metz.

        At the moment their most likely achievement is a Nations Cup berth, and Keshi, in one of his brief moments of consciousness, has said that's his goal. But in the fall they have back-to-back home games against Congo and Mali. If they stock up on rice and orange juice (and can figure out who to feed them to), six points are not out of the question, and they might actually lead the group at the halfway mark.

        But leading the group now, amazingly, are bottom seed Congo, about whom detailed information is even harder to come by. Their best-known and most technically accomplished player is captain and playmaker Rolf Nguie-Mien (Köln). Several regulars get more or less time in the French second division: central defenders Teddy Ongoly (Reims) and Christel Kimbembe (Creteil), midfielder Oscar Ewolo (Amiens), keeper Mouko Barel (Dijon). Willy Endzanga has been scoring in bunches for Algerian champions JS Kabylie.

        But it's been the lesser-known names that have made the headlines. Against Liberia, Congo exploded for three second-half goals: PK by Michel Bouanga (Jura Sud, French fourth division), header by Mamouna Armel (International Pitesti, Romanian second division), header by Gervais Batota (Mangasport, Gabonese first division). Two weeks later, against Mali, it was Armel again, with a volley for the only goal of the match. Neither he nor Batota played in the opening loss to Senegal; both look like fixtures now.

        What a difference two games can make--from minnows without a cause to national heroes. After the win over Mali, President Denis Sassou Nguesso met with the players, and the sports ministry plans a public fund to support the team. It's the Thrill in Brazzaville. But by far the hardest part of the schedule is still to come: two against Zambia, two against Togo, one against Senegal. A heartfelt salute to Christian Letard and his men, but it's too early to tip the Red Devils for a top three finish.

        That leaves Liberia, who have a respectable 4 points, but whose journey has been, well, sort of the opposite of Congo's. After the first game, 1:0 home to Mali, they were history-makers, magicians, the future of the nation. After the third game, 0:0 home to Togo, they literally had to be escorted from the stadium by an armored personnel carrier. (Uh, 0:0 is a draw, folks. You get a point for it.)

        Why the decline? Partly it's that Liberia are an ordinary side; the other part (stop me if you've heard this before) is problems with the pros. For the opener, a veritable United Nations answered the call: Alvin Kieh from Cyprus, Fallah Johnson from Indonesia, Frank Seator from Malaysia, Prince Daye from Spain, Sunday Sieh from India, George Gebro from Greece, Anthony Langford, Eisaiah Benson, and Ben Teekloh from Ghana, Jimmy Dixon and Dioh Williams from Sweden, and the biggest name, veteran striker James Debbah from Bahrain, formerly of PSG and Anderlecht, now at the end of his career, who hadn't been called up in two years. Zizi Roberts, in the USA, was the dissenter: he refused because the FA wouldn't prepay his ticket. In any case, it was a joyous day in Monrovia: Debbah provided the leadership, Benson and Dixon excelled in defense, Sieh made some fine saves, Williams was man of the match up front, Kieh got the winning goal off the bench, and the fans rejoiced.

        But FA head Izetta Wesley wasn't happy: she publicly blasted the professionals, claiming they were asking too much to play. Their demands were never actually reported, so it's hard to judge the case--but for the trip to Congo, suddenly the pros were nowhere to be found. Several cited club engagements; Debbah was said to be on a private visit to the USA; for others no reason was given. Only Sieh, Gebro, Teekloh, and Kieh were available. Coach Kadallah Kromah had to go with 7 different starters, including several local youngsters, and they were no match for the Congolese, going down 0:3.

        Now everyone was unhappy. Wesley was blamed for driving the pros away. Kromah was blamed for criticizing the team after the loss. For the home match against Togo a few of the pros trickled back, including Debbah, and some new ones were brought in, notably striker Francis "Grandpa" Doe from the USA's second division. Still, the back four excepted, this group hadn't played together, and despite some solid individual performances, there wasn't much team coherence. A dire 0:0 was the predictable result.

        Enough to make the fans stone the players? Probably not, not even in Africa. But maybe what provoked them was a little incident that happened in the second half. Debbah had been ineffective up front, and Kromah decided to substitute him. But Debbah wasn't terribly happy with the decision, and refused to come off. For fifteen minutes. His quotes afterward were priceless: "As a professional I should not have done that but again if you judge me from this game it's not fair." "They should look back at what I have done for Liberia and my voluntary return, they should be grateful and treat me with respect." "I have no regret, the fact is that the mistakes came from the the technical staff who did not formulate the system that we played." "The players were just inept. You don't expect a victory from such a team." He said he wouldn't be back: "I have paid my dues, so I have no regrets. I served my country already." Guess what, Jim--no one's exactly begging you.

        So whither Liberia? Although they're not going to qualify for Germany, the Nations Cup isn't entirely unthinkable, and several of the players have made strong contributions. Seah has been a reliable keeper, Benson has won the job at right back, Johnson has played well at both left back and centerback, Langford has the makings of a good central midfielder, and both Williams and Doe can do the job up front. If there's an FA and a coach who can get them all to play at the same time, they could yet remain respectable. But I'd buy stock in the Projectile Manufacturers Association of Monrovia just in case.

    Group 2

    South Africa   2   0   1    4  4    6
    Ghana          1   1   1    4  2    4
    DR Congo       1   1   1    4  4    4
    Cape Verde     1   1   1    3  3    4
    Uganda         1   1   1    2  2    4
    Burkina Faso   1   0   2    3  5    3
        South Africa's campaign began on an unusual note, with coach Stuart Baxter swearing over the phone in Norwegian. (He didn't reveal what he said, but Jan Alsos might be able to guess.) He was swearing over the phone in Norwegian because Lillestrøm wouldn't release substitute keeper Emile Baron for the opener home to Cape Verde. The club was undoubtedly impressed by Baxter's mastery of foreign invective, but they still wouldn't let Baron go until it was too late. So Baxter settled for local boy Moeneeb Josephs, and checked his dictionary for the next time out.

        The rest of the news was less swearworthy. The famous Charlton exiles, defender Mark Fish and striker Shaun Bartlett, were back in camp, and although Benni McCarthy (Porto) was off somewhere getting married, he'd be back soon. Playmaker Steven Pienaar (Ajax) was almost over his shin injury, and was expected to play in the key road game at Ghana. Tactically, the big question was in defense, where left back Bradley Carnell (Mönchengladbach) was for the moment unavailable. Baxter decided to shift young Nasief Morris, normally a right back, over to the left, and play centerback Neil Winstanley on the right. Fish and Aaron Mokoena (Genk) started in the middle, with Mbulelo Mabizela (Tottenham), normally a centerback, pushed up to defensive midfield to mark Cape Verde's playmaker Calò. It proved a more difficult task than expected, so Mabizela did the job in attack instead, scoring twice, the second on a tremendous long-range shot. Another plus was young Benedict "Tso" Vilakazi, dynamic and inventive at right midfield. But on the whole the team was flat, and the reorganized defense was a particular problem. Morris and Winstanley were out of position and showed it, Fish was erratic, and even keeper Hans Vonk (Ajax) showed some nerves. Having led 2:0, the team was lucky to get away with a 2:1 win when Calò missed a last-minute scoring opportunity.

        And for the game at Ghana, a much harder matchup, the news was suddenly a bit more upsetting. Pienaar was ready, but Bartlett was unavailable because his son was ill, and Carnell came down with a chest infection. We don't know what language Baxter cursed in, but Dutch is a good guess, because Vonk was out with a mysterious ankle injury that the doctor couldn't diagnose. On the back line, Baxter put Morris out on the right where he belonged, and called in Jacob Lekgetho from Russia to play on the left. Up front, with Bartlett absent, he put in target man George Koumantarakis, figuring that on Ghana's bumpy pitch the high ball would be useful.

        It all made sense, but Bafana were creamed. The final was 0:3, and the game wasn't that close. With horrible mixups in defense and no cohesion in attack, the team never really got started. Only Pienaar showed any kind of class. The press blamed Baxter's decision to arrive in Ghana only the day before, but in truth they were just played off the pitch by a superior Black Stars side.

        So now everyone was ready to swear, in Esperanto if necessary--then Mark Fish walked out of camp. Oaths? Imprecations? Unprintables? Naah: Fish quits every couple of years anyway, and it was a relief to get it out of the way early. And in fact it made Baxter's life a lot easier. Carnell played on the left, Morris on the right, Mokoena and Mabizuela in the middle, and WC veteran Macbeth Sibaya (Kazan) in the holding role. Plus, McCarthy was back from his honeymoon, Bartlett's son had recovered, and Vonk was healthy. And so, playing at home, Bafana blew Burkina Faso away. The strikers were uncontainable up front, Pienaar and Vilakazi controlled midfield, and it hardly mattered how the defense was set up, because they barely had to break a sweat. The boys could have had half-a-dozen before halftime, but settled for goals from Pienaar and Bartlett, and eased to a 2:0 victory.

        The first half was an impressive performance, the best for Bafana in quite some time, and they're firmly back in the favorite spot. Next time they play Ghana it'll be at home. But the European season starts soon, and as usual, much will depend on getting players in camp from a far-flung roster. Want to help out? Send Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Belgian, Greek, German, Danish, or Italian expletives to

        Over in Ghana, coach Mariano Barreto had plenty to swear about himself. He was mad at the European schedule that left his legionnaires tired, madder at the FA for not giving him the training plan he wanted, and maddest of all at the local clubs for not freeing up their players. After an opening loss at Burkina Faso, women and children covered their ears--but no, Barreto was all sweetness and light. He was proud of the lads: they'd followed his instructions to the letter, looked like the better team most of the way, and just run out of gas, losing 0:1 to an 80th minute goal. The highlight had been Sammy Kuffour of Bayern Munich doing his best Franz Beckenbauer impression, dislocating his shoulder late in the game but strapping it down and finishing out the 90 minutes. Despite the loss, the Barreto was confident the team would be ready for South Africa.

        And ready they were. The attack, which had been inconsistent against Burkina Faso, was in full cry, with striker Baffour Gyan (Dynamo Moscow) a handful up front, and the Italian gang, midfielders Sulley Muntari of Udinese (1 goal) and Stephen Appiah of Juventus (2 goals) rippling the net. Michael Essien (Lyon) was dominant as the anchor, and William Tierro from local club Asante Kotoko was excellent in support of the front men. Kuffour was back from injury, and he and John Mensah (Chievo) were a rock-solid pair in the middle of defense. Dan Quaye of Hearts of Oak looked a winner at right back. The team showed a cohesion that had been greatly lacking in the past, and everyone agreed that morale had never been higher.

        Perhaps the best sign of all came in the third game, where Ghana scraped a 1:1 draw despite a subpar performance at bogey side Uganda. Substitute Asamoah Gyan (Baffour's brother) snatched the point with an 88th minute header, sending the Black Stars into the break in a well-deserved second place. It's an attractive side, with an excellent mixture of youth (Muntari, Essien, Mensah, and A. Gyan are all on the Olympic side) and European experience (Kuffour, Appiah, striker Ibrahim Tanko of Freiburg). If they have a weakness right now, it's up front, where none of the starting forwards has yet found the net. Isaac Bokaye of Arminia Bielefeld, coming off a leg injury, may soon be ready to bolster the strike force.

        The Black Stars' program is notoriously disorganised, and there's quite a ways to go yet. But Barreto is unafraid to crack the whip: he made it clear that late arrivals in camp, which he felt caused a problem against Uganda, would not be tolerated in the future. If he can keep everyone on the same page, this will be a side to be reckoned with. Long-suffering Ghanian fans might understandably be a bit pessimistic, but for now the signs point to a genuine run at that glorious elusive World Cup berth.

        DR Congo historically has been even more chaotic than Ghana, and it's been a great show this time around. Only one of four scheduled friendlies was actually played. New coach Claude Leroy was given just three days (three days!) to work with the team before the opener at Uganda, and found that some of the players on his list hadn't even been contacted. Never fear: as an incentive to the pros, the federation had decided on a lavish bonus of $100 per man.

        Leroy coached the team to an 0:1 loss, strategically waited until the day before the next game, then threatened to quit. A frantic FA kept him on the job for the moment, and President Joseph Kabila himself offered a $30,000 bonus for a victory over foes Burkina Faso. Before over 100,000 thunderous fans in Kinshasa, DR Congo let in two soft goals (the press wondered whether keeper Guelor Nkela had been bewitched, literally!) but scored three themselves, albeit the last one on a doubtful injury-time PK. So with all the cards in his favor, Leroy threatened to quit again, this time because the FA hadn't finalized his contract terms. He got what he wanted: salary, a car, a villa, and regular airplane tickets to Paris for himself and his family. He also got a promise that the FA would build a large-scale development program, but we'll believe it when we see it, if that's OK with you. I'm sure the money, car, villa, and tickets will do for the moment. On less important matters, the team got a 1:1 draw at Cape Verde in the third game.

        In fact, Leroy is slowly building a team with promise. In defense he has experienced South African leaguers Dikilu Bageta and Cyrille Mubiala, plus Belgian-based fullback Papy Kimoto. Mbayo Kibemba of Gencerbirligi is a strong defensive midfielder, who also got the opening goal against Burkina Faso on a remarkable 35-yard lob. Mbuta Mbala, named player of the year in the local league, has been a key man in the attack on the left wing. They have yet to find a consistent finisher, although Lomana Lua Lua (Portsmouth) is back on the squad after suspension, and could prove to be the man. Even better, the star of stars, striker Shabani Nonda of Monaco, has committed to the team, and although he's injured for the moment, will play when healthy. (A relief to announcers and journalists, since the man who scored against Cape Verde was Alain Kaluyitukadioko.) The coach is putting his plane tickets to good use, running down further pros like fullback Ilunga Hérita (St. Etienne), central defender Hervé Nzelo Lembi (Kaiserslautern), midfielders Franck Matingou (Bastia) and Kiki Musampa (Atletico Madrid).

        One Congolese website described Leroy as a man "with the faith that can move mountains." All well and good, but government officials are much harder. It's way too early to predict DR Congo to contend. When Leroy returns from his European trip, there's going to be a grand public contract-signing ceremony. If the pens actually have ink in them, that'll be enough for now.

        Defender Joel Kitamirike, the former Chelsea property, really wants to play for Uganda. The fans really want to see him play for Uganda. But he hasn't played for Uganda because they can't get his citizenship sorted out. Uganda normally doesn't allow dual nationality, but Kitamirike holds an English passport and doesn't want to give it up. He was assured that local officials would find an answer, and flew all the way to Uganda to play against DR Congo--only to find they hadn't worked it out after all. A month later, the authorities had found the right loophole, so again Kitamirike flew in, ready to play against Ghana--only to find the FA hadn't informed FIFA of the switch, so he was still ineligible. If they can figure out how to use the fax machine down there, Kitamirike should finally play in September, where he'll partner Argentine-based Ibrahim Sekajja in what should be a formidable back line.

        Silliness aside, the Cranes have been a pleasant surprise so far. New coach Mike Mutebi has built a tough, competitive side, which lacks only the punch in attack to be a threat to the top teams. They opened with a 1:0 home win against DR Congo, slipped at Cape Verde 0:1 while missing several players through injury, and came within three minutes of beating Ghana at home. The midfield is led by tough holding man Noah Basule, and gets most of its inspiration from Assan Bajope and Serbia-based Phillip Ssozi. When everyone's available, the defense is an excellent unit: right back Suleiman Tenyma from the USA, left back Nestory Kizito from Serbia, Kitamirike and Sekajja in the middle. The front line has been the main weakness so far. Hassan Mubiru, who plays for local club Express FC, is the finest striker Uganda has produced in years: fast, confident on the ball, he can score and create. But he hasn't been up to standard, and Mutebi hasn't yet found the right man for the partnership.

        If the Cranes can find a goal scorer, a Nations Cup spot is not out of the question. But for some reason the FA wants to change coaches, the new choice being Hassan Mohammed of Egypt. This is truly weird: not only has Mutebi done a good job on his own, but North African coaches often don't mix well with southern sides. Ugandan sports minister Henry Okello Oryem personally stepped in to persuade the FA to delay the move at least until after the fall games. Mutebi's contract says that he'll assist any foreign coach who comes in, but I say stick with your man. It's a side with potential, and in a balanced group like this, chemistry will count for a lot.

        Burkina Faso sits in last place at the moment, courtesy of their third-round hammering at South Africa, but they too have genuine potential. Only a suspect PK cost them a road draw with DR Congo, and they beat Ghana at home in their opener. It's a team that relies on solid play and cohesion, as opposed to spectacle. Belgium-based players Lamine Traoré (Anderlecht) at centerback, Amadou Touré (Mons) at both left back and defensive midfield, and Mahamoudou Kéré (Charleroi) at central midfield have been the most reliable performers, although Kéré has missed time with illness. Local player Issouf Sanou has emerged as a useful attacking midfielder. Up front, big Mououni Dagano, the striker from Guingamp, has been a consistent danger. The two road games have seen BF using a 4-5-1 with Dagano as sole striker, but coach Ivica Todorov might be tempted to move Mamadou "Bebeto" Zongo (Vitesse Arnhem), who got the winning goal against Ghana, up from the midfield to be his partner. In fact, wherever he plays, Zongo may be the key to the success of the team. A deadly finisher with excellent touch, as a youth he was labeled the best striker ever to come out of Burkina Faso. But he's been out of the national team for three years with knee problems. He's still only 23, and if he can stay healthy and find his form, the Stallions will have a first-rate attack. The fall schedule, home to Uganda and at Cape Verde, is relatively favorable, and it's a good chance to get back into contention for what would be their sixth consecutive Nations Cup berth.

        Cape Verde is the squad that's largely composed of recruits from the Portuguese leagues. Last time out they almost made the Nations Cup, and once again they're in the running. They nearly snatched a draw at South Africa, and picked up four points at home with a 1:0 win over Uganda and a 1:1 draw with DR Congo. Their star is Carlos Morais "Calò," who plays in Qatar, and is the man behind the strikers in the 4-3-1-2. Jimmy Modeste (Brest) and Janicio Martins (Torreense) have also been effective in midfield, and Claudio Aguiar "Lito" (Moreirense) is a dangerous wide man. Up front the main threat is Arlindo Semedo "Cafù" (Boavista), who got the winner against Uganda. But the best story comes from the one home-based player in the starting eleven. His name is Pedro Brito, he's known as "Bubista," he's a central defender, he's captain of the team, and he's 40 years old. He's appeared in more than half the internationals in Cape Verde's history, and is still going strong, so far playing every minute of the qualifiers.

        Accounts suggest the team's best performance was in the opener, the loss at South Africa. If so, that might be because their home pitch, the Estadio da Varzèa, is in notoriously bad condition. As you might expect from a Portuguese-league side, they rely heavily on technique, and they haven't been able to get the passing-and-possession game going at home. They'd love to switch to other venues, but right now the Varzèa is the only stadium that meets FIFA specifications. Four points at home is fine so far, but if they want to make the Nations Cup, they may have to find themselves a Portuguese-league groundskeeper as well.

    Group 3

    Cameroon     2   1   0    4  1    7
    Ivory Coast  2   0   1    4  3    6
    Egypt        1   1   1    7  5    4
    Libya        1   1   1    1  2    4
    Benin        0   2   1    5  6    2
    Sudan        0   1   2    1  5    1
        It's the group of death, and look who's on top. That's right, the Indomitable Lions are indomitabling their way along, overlooking the rest of the field as usual. Best of all, they just beat their toughest rival, Ivory Coast. So it'll be 5 in a row, then?

        Not so fast. Cameroon may be in first place, but they've had the schedule advantage: two home games, only one difficult opponent. And they haven't played terribly well. In the opener, they fell behind to Benin before rallying to win 2:1; at Libya, they dominated play but had to settle for 0:0; and even in the big 2:0 win against Ivory Coast, they were largely uninspired, getting two late goals to avoid what would have been a second straight 0:0 draw.

        Things aren't going smoothly in the front office, either. Winfried Schäfer hasn't been paid in 6 months, and he was furious at the FA for failing to handle crucial administrative details. In one notorious case, striker Mohammed Idrissou (Hannover) was accused of misrepresenting his age, which would have rendered him ineligible. FIFA requested the confirming documents from the FA, but the FA simply didn't send them. So Schäfer had to leave Idrissou off against Libya, since he had no idea whether his man was allowed to play. Eventually the matter was settled, and Idrissou started the next game against Ivory Coast, but it's the sort of thing no contending nation should have to tolerate.

        At the same time, the on-field problems remain. Schäfer has yet to find a partner for Samuel Eto'O (Mallorca), having tried Idrissou, Pius Ndiefi, and Hervé Tum (Metz) with no success. Eric Djemba-Djemba (Manchester United) has been unconvincing in midfield, and the loss of Marc-Vivien Foe has been felt more keenly than ever. Long-time midfield starter Geremi Njitap (Chelsea) has been hot and cold. Even the keeper spot is uncertain now: Idriss Kameni (Le Havre) let in an easy goal against Benin, and Souleymanou Hamidou (Denizlispor), making his very first start, went into the nets against Ivory Coast. He played well, and made one excellent save from Aruna Dindane, but his inexperience may show up down the road.

        And yet, Cameroon is still the favorite. Eto'O is star man, scoring twice and disrupting defenses with his dribbling and pace. Guy Feutchine (PAOK) is an exciting new option on the right of midfield, and Timothée Atouba (Basel) has played well on the left. Jean-Joël Perrier Doumbé (Rennes) has been excellent in a 3-man back line with Rigobert Song (Galatasaray) and Bill Tchato (Kaiserslautern), or as a right back in a 4-man line. And while the toughest tasks are ahead--trips to Cairo and Abidjan--the Lions showed against Ivory Coast that they remain very hard to beat. For 80 minutes they were ineffective in attack, but shut down the Elephants completely, controlling the wings and blocking service to the strikers. With ten minutes left, and a 0:0 draw on the horizon, Feutchine sent a perfect ball over the defense and Eto'O finished beautifully. Two minutes later Feutchine himself volleyed home a cross from Atouba. The game was hardly a masterpiece, but that's how champions do it.

        The lead in the morning papers? "The Cameroon-Ivory Coast match, played Sunday July 4th at the Omnisport stadium in Yaounde, has once more confirmed Winfried Schäfer's incompetence as coach of the Indomitable Lions." You can't win. Still, this team has yet to convince, and competent or no, Schäfer remains under heavy pressure. The fall opener sends them to Egypt: a loss there, and he might be gone.

        Despite the loss in Cameroon, the Elephants of Ivory Coast are a definite threat to take the top spot. Up front, they may have the best one-two punch on the continent, with the finesse of Aruna Dindane (Anderlecht) and the power of Didier Drogba (Chelsea). They make a natural partnership, and each has scored two goals in the three games. Didier "Maestro" Zokora (St. Etienne) is the young star, a defensive midfielder, intelligent and tireless. Guel Tchiressoa (Lorient), the veteran of the team, still only 28, is a two-way player who complements Zokora in the middle. Bonaventure Kalou (Auxerre) on the right and Serge Dié (Nice) on the left complete a solid group. If there's a problem with the team right now, it's in defense. Jean-Jacques Tizié (Esperance), the keeper, is solid, but the 4-man back line has had some problems. There are two stars: Arsenal's centerback Kolo Touré and exciting young left back Arthur Boka (Strasbourg), fast and creative, powerful on free kicks. But there's a big hole at right back, where Michel has started three different players in three games. Against Cameroon he moved veteran centerback Cyril Domoraud (AC Milan) out to the right, but he was ineffective. No solution is in sight there.

        But this is the team that has the talent and temperament to win. This was shown most clearly in the second game, at Egypt. After an ordinary opening 2:0 home win against Libya, they went to Paris to train. As they boarded the plane to take them to Cairo, they were shocked by the sudden death of assistant coach Mama Ouattara, a father figure to many of the players. They dedicated the game to his memory. Although Egypt had the terrain advantage for most of the match, the Elephants stayed calm throughout. In the 22nd minute, against the run of play, a fine pass by Drogba found Dindane surging between two defenders, and he finished clinically. Egypt evened the score early in the second half, but on a 75th minute free kick, Boka's service was flicked on neatly by Dindane, and this time Drogba finished. The defense then held for a invaluable road victory.

        It was too much to ask them to do it again in Cameroon, and so for the moment they're in second place. But with their two toughest games already behind them, the Elephants will be very hard to stop. In fact, with the next four games against minnows (home to Sudan, at Benin, home to Benin, at Libya), they may very well top the group coming into the big home matches against Egypt and Cameroon. If they stay healthy, they should be in the race until the final day.

        The third of the big teams is Egypt, but the news there inspires less confidence. First off, the striker situation is a mess. Their best man, Ahmed Belal, who has just signed with Terek Grozny, has been out with ligament damage. Veteran Hossem Hassan was left out of the lineup in the opener at Sudan, and promptly quit the team. Bad boy Ahmed "Mido" Hossam of Marseille still hasn't played: he was dropped by Marco Tardelli for not joining the team in camp, was reinstated but left on the bench against Ivory Coast, then dropped again. Mohamed Zidan, a youngster who's all the rage in Denmark, declined a call-up, saying he wanted to concentrate on club duties. Abdelhalim Ali, steady but unspectacular, has been the point man, with Mohamed Abu Treika, normally an attacking midfielder, in support.

        A second major problem is conditioning. The players were tired enough from a long season, and the large majority of the side play for Zamalek, Al Ahly, and Ismaili, and thus had additional responsibilities in the Arab Champions League. (That's where Belal got his ligament injury, by the way.) The league has caused considerable controversy--it's an extra competition which makes money for the clubs, but wears down the players. Guess who wins out? It's not surprising, then, that results have been spotty. Despite the striker disaster, they've scored 7 goals in 3 games. But the team has yet to come together. The opening 3:0 win at Sudan looks good on paper, but Sudan missed several chances of their own, and Egypt was only intermittently in form. In the big game, the home 1:2 loss to Ivory Coast, the Pharoahs had the most of the play, but Ali was far too often caught offside, and both he and Abu Treika missed good chances. On the road against Benin, the defense fell apart, centerback Beshir El-Tabei missed a PK, and only a furious second half rally allowed them to draw 3:3.

        At the moment the uncertainty goes beyond the front line. Keeper Essam Al-Hadary had a poor game against Ivory Coast, and fans are calling for his replacement. The back line has struggled, particularly on the wings, where Tardelli has tried Tarek Al-Sayed, Islam Al-Shater, and Mohamed Abdel Wahab with varying degrees of success. Midfield has badly missed a leader; veteran Hazem Emam probably should get more time, but he too is carrying a Champions League injury. The best news has been the emergence of Hassan Mostafa on the left side of midfield. A lively, twisty attacker, he was the best player on the field against Ivory Coast, and scored on a beautiful lob for the tying goal against Benin.

        There's still time for Egypt to get it right, but not much. Cameroon comes to town on September 3, and three points are a must. Ali will miss the game due to suspension, and Belal may not be match fit, which means Mido may finally have to prove himself on the big stage. Tardelli, recognizing his players were tired, gave them a month off. If they come back rejuvenated, it may yet be a three-team race.

        In this group we drop precipitously from contenders to minnows. Benin is the most interesting of the lot: they put up a good fight against Cameroon (1:2 on the road), and an excellent one against Egypt (3:3 at home), and if Anicet Adjimonsi (Bordeaux) hadn't missed an 85th minute PK against Sudan, they'd be riding high. Oh, and they'd also have a coach. After the draw with Sudan, Cecil Jones Atturquayefio literally departed under cover of darkness, going back to his native Ghana. He claimed the FA had reneged on contract promises, but his head had been pretty much on the block since the Nations Cup in Tunisia.

        The interim coach is Jones' assistant Wabi Gomez, who was at the helm for the remarkable draw with Egypt. The Squirrels jumped on top early, when new midfield prospect Stephane Sessègnon was taken down in the area, and star striker Omar Tchomogo (Guingamp) converted the PK. They got a second when Sessègnon fed 18-year-old attacking midfielder Jocelyn Ahoueya (Sion). With a 2:0 lead at halftime, they seemed poised for the upset. After Egypt pulled one back, striker Muri Ogunbiyi from African champions Enyimba answered, and with a half-hour to go Benin led 3:1. Alas, they couldn't hold the lead, and Egypt's late rally left them with a point and some pride.

        Not that they see it that way. For some reason the fans and press think that Benin should have qualified for Germany already--most reactions cast the game as a humiliation, and Gomez was attacked for his "notorious incompetence" (Wabi, meet Winfried). Word is Benin is looking for a European coach, if they can afford it. The team has possibilities; in next-to-last with only two points, they're still second in goals scored in the group. A bonus dispute with their Euro players has been resolved, and when Moussa Latoundji (Cottbus) comes off a knee injury, they'll have a solid midfield to go with their strong front line. Not that they'll make the Nations Cup--the group is too tough--but at least the coach will be able to show his face in daylight.

        I'd love to give you a full rundown on Libya and Sudan--rosters, tactics, federation politics, favorite oases--but unfortunately the main sites on the teams are in Arabic. I can tell you that Libya has performed respectably: at Ivory Coast they made the Elephants work for a 2:0 victory, at home they held Cameroon 0:0, and at Sudan they got a surprise 1:0 win on an injury-time goal. While they've been hard to break down, they've done little to suggest they'll challenge the top three. But Tarek el-Taieb, their captain and playmaker, has received a lot of attention for his superb right foot and reading of the game. He's 27, and has played most of his career in Tunisia, but next season he'll make his European debut with Gaziantepspor. Other notables include keeper Abdalla El-Amami, who had fine games against both Ivory Coast and Cameroon, and striker Nader Karra, whose spectacular solo run and goal finished off Sudan.

        As for Sudan, the players' names are less important, because the smart ones are using aliases anyway. The team has only one point in three games, and they made the mistake of getting it on the road. After losing 0:3 home to Egypt in the opener, the players had to be protected from assault by the fans. They got their point at Benin, and came home to face Libya. With the score 0:0 in injury time, they were pressing hard for the win, when Nader Karra broke free on a counterattack and got the killer goal. Whereupon a riot broke out, with fans hurling whatever came to hand, going toe to toe with security forces. The FA assured their Polish coach, Wojtek Wazarek, that his job was still secure: "We need to remain calm and not fall apart after each defeat. It's not the time for rash decisions." The next day they fired him--for his own safety. "We had to take such a step. Wazarek was working under tremendous pressure and we realized it was impossible for him to stay in such a hostile environment." The current rumor is that Branco, the former Brazilian free-kick artist, is in line to get the job. His two main qualifications: 1) he's coached top Sudanese club team Al-Hilal; 2) he can strike from distance.

    Group 4

    Nigeria    2   0   1    3  1    6
    Zimbabwe   1   2   0    4  2    5
    Angola     1   2   0    3  2    5
    Rwanda     1   0   2    3  2    3
    Algeria    0   2   1    1  2    2
    Gabon      0   2   1    4  6    2
        Nwankwo Kanu was mad because the FA wouldn't change game dates so teammates could attend his wedding. Fifteen different reasons were given why Jay-Jay Okocha didn't play against Rwanda and Angola. And after a win over Algeria which put the team in first place, one headline read: "I'm not a failure, Chukwu screams". Just another qualifying season for Nigeria. In fact, although the Super Eagles are on their accustomed perch, all is not well. The group has turned out to be tougher than expected, with Angola and Zimbabwe both showing promise. And the team as a whole has yet to impress. Christian Chukwu may not be a "failure," but if he loses his job, as many expect, he won't have been treated unfairly.

        It'd be impossible to chronicle all Nigeria's ups, downs, and insanities so far, so we'll stick with the highlights. Apparently miffed that Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton) had skipped the Unity Cup friendlies in England, Chukwu left him off the team for the opener home to Rwanda. Christian Obodo of Perugia took Okocha's place, performed competently, and although the Rwandans fought hard, Nigeria picked up a 2:0 win. The star of the game was 19-year-old Obafemi Martins (AC Milan), who scored two marvelous goals and was immediately hailed as the ultimate Nigerian striker. Unfortunately, in the final minutes he twisted knee ligaments, making him unavailable for the game at Angola.

        As for Okocha, no one really knew what was going on. Chukwu's decision to drop him was hailed as a masterstroke of discipline--except afterwards Chukwu said it was only to give Jay-Jay some rest. But at least he'd play against Angola, right? Sure. Or maybe not. First we heard the FA was leaving message after message on his answering machine in England. Then his agent announced he'd definitely play. But when training camp came, no Okocha. On the flight to Luanda--no, because he was coming separately. Day of the game--no. Opening kickoff--nyet. Halftime--zip. Final whistle--never made it. So what happened? Missed his flight? Snubbed the team? Held hostage by the Lancashire branch of the Angolan People's Front? We never actually found out. After the game Okocha said he'd needed time off, but why believe him?

        Not that Nigeria were ready for Angola anyway. Strikers Yakuku Ayegbeni (Portsmouth) and Julius Agahowa (Shakhtar Donetsk), either of whom might have replaced the injured Martins, were boycotting the team. The Eagles had to cancel a training camp in South Africa because of visa difficulties--unless it was lack of funds. Then an anonymous FA insider confided: "The truth of the matter is that we don't have money for the trip to Angola and we have been busy looking for a good Samaritan or a bank that would bankroll the trip so that we can refund when the ministry releases funds." Only 12 players showed up to the initial camp, although as assistant coach Austin Eguavoen pointed out, "that's a reasonable number compared to what we have had in the past." In the end, the team somehow made it to Luanda, fielded 11 players and 3 substitutes (not including Jay-Jay Okocha, in case you'd forgotten), and lost 0:1.

        Shock and consternation, of course; Nigeria had been "humiliated in the eyes of the world," as one paper put it. Still, by the game home to Algeria, everything seemed to be sorted out. Kanu was getting married, but Okocha would be there. Martins was back from injury. Even Aiyegbeni and Agahowa decided to show up. And joy of joys, Nigeria won--barely. It was a lifeless performance, saved by Everton's Joseph Yobo with a header off a corner six minutes from time. Okocha admitted he was still tired. Martins played poorly, and stormed off the pitch when he was replaced by Agahowa.

        So what can we say? Certainly the side has lots of quality. John Utaka (Lens), only 22, has become a fixture behind the strikers, and can go out on the wing effectively too. Martins has tremendous potential. Seyi Olafinjana, voted best player in the Norwegian league last year (and recently signed by Wolves), has filled the trouble spot at defensive midfield. Yobo is developing into a top central defender. Vincent Enyeama is performing well in the nets. Presumably Kanu will contribute soon enough. Okocha? He says he's worn down, and will pick and choose his spots to play. When he's in form, he's still one of the best playmakers in the world.

        Whether this will be enough to save Chukwu's job is doubtful. The FA is known to be looking for a foreign coach (remember, they almost signed Bobby Robson), although they probably can't afford a top name. And the search is rapidly becoming a distinctively Nigerian circus. The first report was that five candidates had applied for the position, but none were good enough. Then an FA official claimed Jean Tigana was the favorite, but Tigana denied it, since he hadn't applied, and for that matter wasn't interested. To crown it all, federation chairman Alhaji Ibrahim Galadima actually, honestly, I-couldn't-make-this-up-if-I-tried, said: "We have to get in touch with FIFA to inform them of our desire to hire a coach, and maybe they will recommend to us a good coach." Oh my God. Well, I guess Sepp Blatter's brother-in-law will enjoy his stay in Abuja.

        At Zimbabwe the coaching situation has been front and center from day one. A week before the opener at Gabon, Sunday Marimo resigned, upset that the FA wanted to put a European coach above him in the hierarchy. A top man from Germany or Brazil would have been OK, he said, but Valeer von Billen from the Belgian third division was a gross insult. (Even I agree on that.) Marimo was replaced by assistant Rahman Gumbo, which was controversial in itself: allegations Gumbo had a drinking problem had surfaced at the Nations Cup. Marimo had defended him at the time, and he was more or less cleared--but then some felt that when Marimo quit, Gumbo should have followed in solidarity. One interviewer asked Gumbo: "Do you feel like Judas?" (Oh yeah, him, coach of FC Jerusalem, did the double in 29 A.D.)

        Gumbo's contract lasted only through the first three games, and after a lucky 1:1 at Gabon and a disappointing 1:1 home to Algeria, few would have bet on his survival. But then the Warriors crushed Swaziland 5:0 in a COSAFA Cup tie, and followed with their best performance of the tournament, a convincing 2:0 road win at Rwanda. One news report said the game "sent fans back home in ruptures of unbridled joy." (Yes, I know it's a typo, but can't you just see it?) Now Zimbabwe's in second place, everyone's rupturing themselves, and Mr. Iscariot has a new contract--until December, that is. Rumor has it that as soon as he fails, he'll be replaced by Bruce Grobbelaar, the celebrated former Liverpool keeper.

        But it appears as if Gumbo has done a fine job with the Warriors. A change from three to four at the back seems to have stabilized the defense. Young Zvenyika Makonese has emerged as the successor to veteran Kaitano Tembo in the center, where's he's joined by South Africa-based Dumisani Mpofu. 21-year old defensive midfielder Tinashe Nengomasha of Kaizer Chiefs has been compared to a young Edgar Davids. Yet another SA-league player, pacy playmaker Edzai Kasinauyo, was brilliant against both Swaziland and Rwanda. Harlington Shereni (Guingamp) has been strong at left back, and Cyprus-based Joel Luphala at right midfield has impressed with his pace and intelligence.

        The are still some question marks. Striker and captain Peter Ndlovu (Sheffield United) has been off and on, and needs a reliable partner. But Benjamin "The Undertaker" Mwaruwari of Auxerre is coming back after a long layoff, and young Newton Katanha of Arminia Bielefeld hasn't proven himself yet. Keeper Energy Murambadoro is a vital cog, but has been battling a succession of injuries. Right back George Mbwando of Aachen has been unavailable due to club commitments, and it's not clear whether he'll play.

        Are the Warriors real contenders? The big test comes immediately--home to Nigeria in September. If they can pull off a win, they'll be in the thick of the race. Last year, on their 12th try, they finally qualified for their first Nations Cup. Right now they're thinking about something even better.

        The surprise of the group--although admittedly not that big a surprise--is Angola. Second place to Cameroon the last two cycles, on present form they'll end up no worse than second here. Their big exploit was the 1:0 home win against Nigeria, but a scoreless draw at Algeria in the opener was an excellent result as well, and in the third game, despite a letdown from the Nigeria win, they came from behind to get a 2:2 draw at Gabon. They and Zimbabwe are the only two sides in the entire tournament to have played three games, two of them on the road, without a loss.

        The Palancas Negras have many strengths: they're good in the air, skilled on the ball, and have lots of pace. The star of the side is young midfielder Gilberto, who plays for Al Ahly in Egypt: he's a superb left-footed playmaker with a powerful shot, and can run all day to boot. There's lots of talent up front, too: grand old man Fabrice "Akwa" Maieco, who got the winning goal against Nigeria; speedy Olympic star Maurito (Union Leiria); centerforward Marco Paulo (Belenenses), a former Portuguese youth international who headed in the equalizer against Gabon. Midfielder Ze Kalanga of Petro Atletico got his first cap against Nigeria, and it was his inch-perfect cross that set up Akwa for the goal. The defense has had its detractors, but the back four (fullbacks Jacinto Parreira and Yamba Asha, centerbacks Kali and Jamba) have played every minute of every game. All but Kali play for AS Aviçao, and have a natural understanding that comes from their club experience.

        As with Zimbabwe, the jury is still out on Angola. The win over Nigeria, however well deserved, was achieved over a depleted side. Perhaps more impressive was the draw at Algeria, without both Akwa and Gilberto in the lineup. Word is that coach Oliveira Gonçalves is in Europe looking for more eligible players. When play resumes in the fall, they'll have a great chance to go top, with home games against Rwanda and Zimbabwe. If they can take maximum points, they'll definitely be a challenger to Nigeria.

        Algeria had the misfortune to start with matches against the three toughest opponents, and although they've improved from game to game, results have yet to arrive. A scoreless draw at home to Angola was a big disappointment, and although a 1:1 draw at Zimbabwe wasn't bad at all, the 0:1 loss at Nigeria puts them deep in the standings. Their best effort was definitely the Nigeria loss--they had winning chances, and only an 85th minute goal cost them the point--but that's small consolation for a team that will have to step up quickly if they want to contend.

        Part of the problem has been injuries; at one time or another almost all their key players have been out. Central defense has been particularly hard hit, with main man Antar Yahia (Bastia) missing most of the Angola game, potential starters Mehdi Maniri (Metz) and Samir Beloufa (Mouscron) yet to play a minute, and local players Brahim Zafour and Salim Aribi in and out of the lineup. Against Nigeria, with the back line decimated, UAE-based playmaker Djamel Belmadi and top striker Abdelmalek Cherrad (fomerly Nice) came up lame as well. Defensive midfielder Maamar Mamouni (Gent) has also yet to play. Under the circumstances, you could say the Desert Foxes haven't done badly at all.

        On the whole, though, their play has been mediocre. The team has scored only one goal in three games, with Cherrad, Salim Arrache (Strasbourg), and Mansour Boutabout (Guegnon), all players with European experience, unable to produce in front of goal. On defense, Yahia has been solid in the middle, but with all the injuries, his young partner, Mohamed Bouguerra, has struggled. The fullbacks, Mohamed Brahami (La Louvière) right and Nadir Belhadj (Sedan) left, have been nothing special. Midfield has lacked a playmaker; even when healthy, Belmadi has been unable to produce. The bright lights have been attacking midfielder Karim "Lionheart" Ziani (Troyes) and keeper Mohamed Benhamou (PSG), both of whom played particularly well against the Nigerians.

        As noted, Algeria has improved with each game, and in the fall they'll get easier opponents, home to Gabon and at Rwanda. But the pressure is on. Cherrad is unlikely to be ready in time, and they'll have to find some way to put it in the net. They'll need at least four points to stay in the hunt; if not, even a Nations Cup berth may be out of reach.

        Rwanda, The Little Country That Could in the Nations Cup, has found the going a bit tougher in the qualifiers. The Wasps had a creditable effort at Nigeria 0:2, then spanked Gabon 3:1--but with a great chance to make an impact, they fell 0:2 to Zimbabwe at home. As with Algeria, injuries have played a role. Captain and star striker Désiré Mbonabucya went down with a broken leg while playing for St. Truiden, and has missed all three games. Another loss has been Jimmy Gatete, the young striker who got the goal that qualified the team for Tunisia. Playmaker João Elias (Kortrijk) missed the first two games as well.

        Rwanda doesn't have much of a presence online, so it's hard to figure the ins and outs of the squad. (E-mail me if you find a good Rwandan sports site!) In the absence of Gatete and Mbonabucya, Abedi Said (Bruxelles), John Lomami (Power Dynamos, Zimbabwe), and Jimmy Mulisa of local champions APR have carried the attack. Fullback Elias Ntaganda (APR) and sweeper Katauti Ndikumana (Gent) have been reliable regulars, and Olivier Karekezi, yet another APR man, is a promising wide midfielder. The side has recently been bolstered by midfielder Manfred Kizito (you guessed it, APR), the latest in a line of native Ugandans who have changed their citizenship. But with Zimbabwe and Angola playing well, and Algeria improving, even an in-form Rwanda will find this group difficult to negotiate.

        There's more information on Gabon, which is good, because some of it is pretty juicy. It's a team which relies heavily on European pros, most of them in the attack, and coach Jairzinho was ready to call them in for the opener home to Zimbabwe. But strikers Eric Moulounghi (Strasbourg) and Henri Antchouet (Belenenses) had long-term injuries, and although Daniel Cousin (Le Mans) may very well have been healthy, no one could find him. But at least they had Stephane Nguéma (Rennes) and Shiva Star Nzigou (Nantes) in camp--even if they were accused of partying the night before the game. Against Zimbabwe, the Panthers (sober or not) had most of the play, and were headed for a 1:0 victory, but a moment of inattention let in a late equalizer.

        A disappointment, sure, but not a bad performance, and it was only the first game. So it was time to get the pros together to go to Rwanda--but suddenly Nguéma and Nzigou were injured. When had they picked up the injuries? No one knew. The doctors couldn't figure it out. Suspicions began: were they faking? How could you tell? Either way, they weren't playing, and Gabon got bounced in Kigali 1:3.

        Now it was home to Angola for a crucial contest. Nguéma and Nzigou went back to France to train, and now everyone was sure they had faked it. Defender Cedric Ambourouet (Sedan) disappeared as well. And news finally came from Daniel Cousin: yes, he was alive and well in Strasbourg, but to be honest, he didn't want to play for Gabon any more. So the Panthers went out and still came within nine minutes of a win, finally settling for 2:2.

        As you might guess from the results, Gabon is by no means a minnow. Had they been able to hold on just a few minutes longer against Zimbabwe and Angola, they'd be in great shape. With all the Euro attackers out, home-based veteran Theodore Zué Nguéma has come to the fore, leading the front line and scoring 3 goals. Another local boy, Thierry Issiémou, has been an effective playmaker. The main problems have been in defense (6 goals in 3 games), where they've moved from a 4-man line to a 5-man line to stem the tide. Key centerback Thierry Mouyouma (Wits University, SA) has been out with injuries (real ones!) since the first game, and no one has been able to take his place.

        But things are looking up. Antchouet is said to be on the mend. Mouyouma looks like he'll be back in the fall. Former France youth international Catilina Aubameyang (AC Milan), a small, quick midfielder, has recently received the OK to join the squad. Although a Nations Cup berth is a longshot, the Panthers can still put together an honorable campaign. The most satisfying news of all: Nzigou, one of the accused injury-fakers, was recently injured for real while training with Nantes. Thigh muscle. Out for four weeks. Quel dommage...

    Group 5

    Guinea      1   1   0    3  2    4
    Morocco     1   1   0    2  1    4
    Tunisia     1   0   1    5  3    3
    Botswana    1   0   2    3  5    3
    Malawi      0   2   1    2  4    2
        This group has been complicated by the Kenya suspension; you'll notice there are only five teams in the standings, instead of six. That should change soon, though, because FIFA, remarkably, has been bending over backwards to get Kenya back in the competition. New Kenyan sports minister Ochilo Ayacko fearlessly snubbed the first reconciliation meeting in Zürich, saying he needed more time to study the case. He then demanded FIFA change the membership of their appointed normalization committee. Did Sepp laugh, flick a speck of dust off his $5000 suit, and say "tough luck, loser"? No--he invited the minister to tea and crumpets, with a string quartet playing in the background, and worked out the differences like a semi-civilized human being. The betting now is that the suspension will be lifted on August 6.

        Why FIFA has suddenly turned pussycat is anyone's guess--maybe Sepp thinks the Nobel Peace Prize will look good on his mantelpiece, or has decided sainthood is good for the bottom line. In any case, it looks very much as if Kenya will play its regularly scheduled fall matches against Malawi and Botswana. The three missed games should be rescheduled for the long fall-winter hiatus, and by the time March 2005 rolls around we should be back in sync. Good for Kenya, good for Africa, good for the World Cup.

        But not so good for football analysts. As it happens, the tri-favorites--Tunisia, Morocco, and Guinea--were scheduled to play Kenya in the first three rounds. So the top teams have played only two games, while minnows Malawi and Botswana have played all three. (That the favorites still top the group shows you how far ahead of the others they are.) The race has yet to take shape; also, there's no way of knowing how the rescheduled games will affect the teams. But we'll forge boldly ahead--after all, that's what they pay us for here. (I said "pay us for," Jan. Jan? Anyone there?)

        Tunisia came into the group as nominal favorites, based on their home-assisted victory in the Nations Cup in February. They've been weakened a bit by the absence of their top two strikers, Ziad Jaziri (Gaziantepspor, injury) and Francileudo dos Santos (Sochaux, family issues). The opener, though, was simple enough, a 4:1 win home to Botswana. Three of the four goals came from defenders (right back Karim Hagui two, left back Jose Clayton one), two of the three on set pieces. Although the team as a whole struggled to break down the Botswana defense, they were never in danger of missing the points.

        But the second game was a much tougher assignment, on the road against Guinea, and they failed it. On a hot, humid day in Conakry, they came out to defend, ceding the initiative to the hosts. Down 0:2 early in the second half, they got one back from Khaled Badra, but were held in check the rest of the way, and demonstrably outplayed on the afternoon. It was a clear sign, as if one was needed, that qualification for a third straight World Cup would be very difficult indeed.

        Tunisia's defense is sound, with Badra and Rahdi Jaidi particularly strong in the middle. Jaidi has just signed for Bolton, making him the first Tunisian ever to join the Premiership. Hagui, only 20, can play in the middle or on the right, and has himself just signed with Strasbourg. The keeper spot may be a bit of a worry, though, with Ali Boumnijel (Rouen) now 38 years old, and no clear heir in sight.

        But the real problem is the attack, and although Tunisia performed well on that score in the Nations Cup, they'll have to work harder in the qualifiers to keep the pace. The difficulty is less up front, where Ali Zitouni, Mohamed Jedidi, and Najeh Braham are capable backups for Jaziri and Dos Santos, as in the midfield. Jacques Lemerre tends to play conservatively, with a 4-4-2 that translates into a 4-3-1-2. If playmaker Slim Ben Achour (PSG) isn't on song, there's not much inspiration. Adel Chedli (Sochaux) occasionally shows some creativity on the left flank, but Riadh Bouazizi (Gaziantepspor) and Jouhar Mnari are essentially holding men. That means a fair amount of the attack has to come from the wings, with fullbacks like Clayton and Hagui (and especially Hatem Trabelsi, on the rare occasions he's healthy). So unless the team is ready to commit forward, they can struggle to create chances. That's what happened at Guinea. Jaziri and Dos Santos are expected back in the fall, but the midfield problem is chronic, and at this level could be fatal.

        The Guineans, of course, were thrilled with their win; because the Kenya game had been postponed, it was their very first game in the tournament. Perhaps they were too thrilled, because in the second game they played poorly, scraping a late 1:1 draw at Malawi when the defense fell asleep on a long punt by keeper Kemoko Camara. They don't have the pedigree of Tunisia, and they don't have the money either (in friendlies against Ivory Coast and Senegal, they were training without sufficient equipment), which means they'll need to be at peak if they want to challenge for the top spot.

        There's no doubt that the talent is there, though. Striker Kaba Diawara (once at Arsenal, now in Qatar), former French youth international, fast and skilled, has scored all three goals. He's been joined in the attack by Fodé Mansare (Montpellier), who usually plays on the left side: he's been a consistently dangerous dribbler, and set up one of the goals against Tunisia. Although he missed the game against Malawi, Pascal Feinduono (Bordeaux) is a formidable attacker on the right side, and it was his cross that led to the other Syli goal against Tunisia. Big central defender Dian Bobo Baldé (Celtic) is the leader in the middle and Kanfory Sylla (Charleroi) has performed well at left back. Regular right back Schumann Bah (Metz) is expected to return from injury soon.

        Like Tunisia, though, they have their trouble spots. Keeper Camara has a bit of the René Higuita about him. Central midfield is the province of two veterans, Salam Sow and Ousmane N'Gom Camara, who go all the way back to the 1994 Nations Cup, and whether they can stay in form for the long competition is an open question. At the moment, as near as I can tell, Camara doesn't even have a club contract. Discipline may also be a problem: just two days before the Malawi game, coach Patrice Neveu was actually head-butted by one of his players during training. (They didn't say who it was, but my money's on the man who lives in Glasgow.) After the game, two more players got into a fight at the hotel, although apparently they used more conventional tactics. It's early days, but that sort of thing can get out of hand real quick.

        Because of the Kenya situation, Morocco has had an odd schedule: they're the only one of the 29 teams yet to play at home. They've just met the two minnows so far, and to be honest haven't played very well. Coach Badou Ezaki admitted they were lucky to get a 1:1 draw at Malawi and 1:0 win at Botswana. But no matter the opposition, 4 points on the road is pretty good. Of course they'll have to play considerably better against Tunisia and Guinea (and Kenya too), but in theory they're in the best position of the contenders.

        At this early stage, Ezaki has yet to settle on a starting eleven. Up front, their best man, Jawad Zairi (Sochaux), has been out injured. Against Malawi he tried Marouane Chammakh (Bordeaux) at the point, supported by Youssouf Hadji (Bastia); against Botswana it was Nabil Baha (Sporting Braga) and Hadji. But none of the strikers have scored yet, and Hadji now has two yellow cards, meaning he'll miss the game against Tunisia. Midfield has been unsettled too. Walid Regragui (Santander), one of the most consistent of the regulars, played right back against Malawi, but was shifted to right midfield against Botswana. Linkman Youssef Safri (Norwich City) scored on a cracking 30-yard shot against Malawi, but faded and had to be replaced, and then missed the Botswana game through injury. Youssef Mokhtari (Cottbus) has been the pick of the midfielders: he got the goal against Botswana and has been lively in approach play.

        The situation in the back is no clearer. The one certainty is Talal El-Karkouri, the outstanding central defender who's just been signed by Charlton. But veteran Noureddine Naybet (La Coruña) has been injured. Ezaki has tried both Tarek Chihab (Grasshoppers) and Abdelilah Fahmi (Strasbourg) in his place, and in both cases there have been significant communication problems. Even the keeper has been changed, although Nadir Lamyaghri seemes to have grabbed the spot with a strong game against Botswana.

        Ezaki usually plays a 3-5-2, but on the road it's more like a 5-3-2, and he's been criticized for going so conservative against the minnows. On September 4th, Tunisia comes to Casablanca, and will undoubtedly be playing for a point. The next month Morocco goes to Guinea, where Tunisia's defensive approach failed. Zairi may be back to lead the front line, but even so Morocco will have to be more aggressive than they've been so far.

        Malawi is a small country, but they do big journalism. The Malawi Nation, after outplaying Morocco in a 1:1 draw: "The Flames turned on the magic without hardly breaking sweat in front of a touched and swayed 45,000 gathering. It really felt so good to be a Malawian." The Malawi Nation, after a poor 0:2 road loss to Botswana: "$37,037 into the drain, shame!... After being bamboozled by the Zebras, the Flames were in no mood for pictures on arrival and instead sold dummies to desperate photojournalists who attempted to take their shots, these were dummies that should have been sold to the Zebras and not photographers--shame!" The Malawi Nation, after Guinea had scored a late equalizer to force a 1:1 draw: "Taxpayers really need an apology from these mediocre and unpatriotic men masquerading as the Malawi national team who, apparently, forget that whenever they play, they represent 11 million people." I know where I'm sending my CV.

        Despite the handwringing, Malawi is no patsy, at least not at home. They're a balanced side, with important contributors in all sectors. In the back line, the key man is Peter "Mjojo" Mponda, a sweeper-type who moves forward effectively in attack. Although so far he's chosen to stay at home with top side Bakili Bullets, it's only a matter of time before he moves to South Africa. His partner in the middle is Patrick "General" Mabedi, a veteran SA-leaguer. In midfield, Fischer Kondowe is an influential attacking wide man, with pace and a powerful shot. Up front, the star is Russia-based Essau Kayenda, although he hasn't scored in the group stage yet. Those honors belong to Heston Munthali and recently recalled Albert 'Kika' Mpinganjira, who scored against Guinea after a beautiful combination with Kondowe.

        The weakness in the squad is in central midfield, where they've been forced to rely on inexperienced players. Ajax Capetown veteran Ernest "Wire" Mtawali has recently acquired a South African passport, and since Malawi doesn't allow dual citizenship, may no longer be able to play for the Flames. John Maduka, another SA-based veteran, missed the opener due to club commitments, and upset that he was left off against Botswana, he refused the call against Guinea. New faces James Chilapondwa and Hellings Mwakasungula have been inconsistent, and unless the old hands can be brought into the side, midfield could be a long-term problem.

        The Flames have missed two big chances for home wins, so their odds of making the Nations Cup are probably zero. At the same time, there's no reason they can't give the big teams another scare or two. At the moment they're led by a three-man panel, but Clive Barker, former coach of South Africa, is a contender to take over. He'll be a good catch--assuming they remember to leave the Malawi Nation off the coffee table during the interview.

        My favorite African country is Botswana. While Malawians and Senegalese and Liberians and practically everyone else are whining and hectoring and committing assault and battery, the Botswanans just plain love their team. Before the home game with Morocco, the Zebras Supporters' Club led a motorcade through the streets of Gaborone. The team played hard, could have won, should have drawn, but lost 0:1--yet instead of missiles, they got a standing ovation and post-match celebrations. A couple of weeks later, after they lost on penalties at Angola in a COSAFA Cup tie, they were given a heroes' welcome at the airport. The good feeling even extends to their opponents: after the Morocco game, the fans blew kisses to the victors as they rode back to the hotel. Think Sven-Goran Eriksson or Marcelo Bielsa might want a change of scenery?

        The joy comes from a side that, while still a comparative minnow, is more competitive than at any time in the past. The 2:0 win over Malawi was their first victory over the Flames in 8 games covering 18 years. They were outclassed 1:4 at Tunisia, but the effort against a quality team like Morocco was outstanding. Serbian coach Veselin Jelusic is drawing raves everywhere, and clearly deserves them.

        The Zebras' top player is Diphetogo "Dipsy" Selolwane, the smooth MLS striker who has 2 of their 3 goals. The other belongs to Nelson Gabolwelwe, a pacy left-winger noted for his crossing ability. Regular playmaker Masego Ntshingane, who plays small-college soccer in America, is off form at the moment. But veteran Phazda Butale returned for an excellent performance against Angola, and looks set to stabilize the center. Defensive midfielder Michael Mogalade is a steady force. At the back, the top men are SA-based centerback Pius Kolagano (his club team is named Dangerous Darkies, and I have absolutely no comment) and two-way fullback/sweeper Tshepo Motlhabankwe, who is also good on free kicks. Keeper has been a problem spot, with neither Modiri Marumo nor Kagiso Tshelametse claiming the job yet.

        No one is going to mistake Botswana for a great power, and with Kenya back in the group, anything above 5th place will be a fine achievement. And given the way the team has been feted so far, I don't think the country could survive a Nations Cup berth. But if you're looking for an obscure team to follow in the qualifiers, consider Botswana. They have a good online English newspaper (, some wonderfully mellifluous names, and the best spirit on the continent. In the fall they play at Guinea and then home to Kenya--so dress in blue, white, and black, and run with the Zebras.


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