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 at the Midway Point

    by Peter Goldstein

        Like any intelligent confederation, Africa's taken a long vacation from World Cup qualifying. They finished off the first half back in October, and start up again next weekend with a full slate of games. Remember, each group has 6 teams, with only the top team qualifying for Germany, and the top three teams making the 2006 Nations Cup in Egypt. Almost everyone's still in the race for the Nations Cup, and to go through all the possibilities would take forever--so here we're going to concentrate on the positions in the WCQ. Not a heavy-duty analysis this time, just an overview. But stay tuned for more detailed reports as the games go on.

    Group One

        This is a three-team battle between Senegal (no surprise), Zambia (pleasant surprise), and Togo (where the heck did they come from?). All three have 10 points from 5 games. At the moment the schedule most favors Zambia. Togo has only two home games left, whereas Senegal and Zambia have three, and Zambia gets Senegal at home in September. Even so, Senegal has to remain the favorite.

        In fact, Senegal might be a bit clear of the field by now if they hadn't had so much trouble getting their squad together. Injuries and suspensions meant they began the opener last June with only 3 of the 11 that started the famous victory over France. Coach Guy Stephan's tactics didn't seem to fit the bill, and after an early win home to minnows Congo they were crushed at Togo 1:3 and were lucky to beat Zambia at home 1:0. By October, though, most of the squad was back in shape, and a thumping 3:0 win on the road against Liberia put them back on top. Right now all systems are go: even Khalilou Fadiga is back on the field after a long absence due to heart problems. El Hadji Diouf, when he's not smacking people around, is still one of the best strikers in Africa. Stalwarts such as defender Omar Daf, midfielder Pape Bouba Diop, and striker Henri Camara are ready to go, and young Babacar Gueye of Metz has emerged as a contributor to the attack. If there's a question mark, it's in goal, where Tony Sylva, formerly the best keeper on the continent, has been struggling lately. But they should dispatch Liberia at home next week and Congo in June before the big back-to-back games with Togo and Zambia.

        Zambia is one of the nicer stories of the qualifiers. They're directed by Kalusha Bwalya--we would have used the phrase "former great Kalusha Bwalya," except he's not so former anymore. With the team in need against Liberia in September, the 41-year-old leapt off the bench to score the winner on an 89th minute free kick, sending all of Lusaka into a frenzy. Although Bwalya hasn't suited up since, he hasn't ruled out future participation. But the real story is the emergence of Collins Mbesuma, a young South Africa-based striker whose hat trick at Congo put the team firmly in contention. Bwalya's roster is remarkably large; he rotates a number of his overseas pros, who play in places like South Africa, Sweden, Russia, and lower divisions in France and Germany. Among the most reliable regulars have been locally-based defensive midfielder Mishek Lungu, and South African pro Isaac Chansa, a left-sided attacking midfielder. Goal scoring remains a problem, though; after Mbseuma, the forwards have been inconsistent. But there's no reason Zambia can't stay in contention: next week's home game with Congo is a big opportunity for a win, and, as noted, they'll eventually get Senegal at home.

        Except for striker Emmanuel Adebayor of Monaco, Togo is pretty much a mystery team. The squad is spread out over places like France, Switzerland, and even the USA, where midfielder Sherif Toure is on trial with Metrostars. Defense is their forte; with Dare Nibombe and Yaovi Avalo in the middle, and Kossi Agassa in the nets, they've allowed only 2 goals in the five games. Former Nigerian international Stephen Keshi is the coach, and he's done a remarkable job bringing the team out of the doldrums. They failed to qualify for the 2004 Nations Cup, and had even been reduced to relying on naturalized Brazilians. Even now, sharing the top spot in the group, their play has been spotty, and with the exception of the historic win over Senegal they've rarely looked convincing. A relatively easy first-half schedule, punctuated by key goals from Adebayor, has kept them in contention. They start the second half with a difficult tie at Mali, then in June comes the must-win game at home to Zambia. If they're still in the race, two weeks later it's at Senegal for all the marbles.

    Group Two

        This is the most balanced group, with only 3 points separating first from fifth place. But it's really a three-team race, with South Africa (9 points), Ghana (8 points), and Congo DR (8 points) the only teams with a realistic chance. The schedule puts Bafana Bafana in a very strong position, having played only two home games, and getting both Ghana and Congo DR at home in the second half. Congo DR is second-best: they've also played only two at home, and managed a 0:0 draw at Ghana in October. As for Ghana, with three road games left, including matches at both main rivals, the Black Stars have an uphill battle.

        South Africa began the group as the natural favorite, and although their play has been inconsistent (a dreadful 0:3 loss at Ghana, an unlucky 0:1 loss at DR Congo, a sweeping 2:0 victory home to Burkina Faso), they look ready for the stretch run. Former holdouts Benni McCarthy, Quinton Fortune, and Shaun Bartlett are firmly back in the fold, and Aaron Mokoena, normally a defensive midfielder, has filled a crucial hole at centerback. The real question for the squad is depth: in a recent friendly against Australia, the starting 11 looked superb in the first half, but once the subs came in the quality dropped off drastically. To make matters worse, Benedict Vilakazi, a potential starter in midfield, is currently facing trial for rape. Still, this looks like the most talented squad in the group, and they remain a strong pick to qualify. As noted, the schedule will be kind: home to Uganda next week, then on the road to Cape Verde before the home tie with Ghana.

        Claude LeRoy deserves some kind of medal for having Congo DR in contention. With a legendarily disorganized FA, and European pros regularly refusing to turn out, it's often an achievement for the Simbas just to get 11 men on the pitch. But LeRoy has persuaded a number of holdouts to suit up, and has ridden his luck in the crucial contests so far. A late (some would say doubtful) penalty gave them a home win against Burkina Faso, and an 85th minute goal from striker Musasa Kabamba gave the team a vital three points against South Africa. Although the defense has been inconsistent, the attack has shown promise, with exciting new boy Mbuta Mbala wreaking havoc on the left. The biggest holdout of all, Shabani Nonda of Monaco, finally returns to the squad next week, just in time for the big game home to Ghana. With somewhere around 100,000 in attendance, expect a typical Kinshasa cauldron, and if the Simbas come out with three points, they have a good chance to stay close until the final day, when they travel to Johannesburg for what may be the decider.

        Don't count out Ghana yet, though. As usual, the Black Stars have plenty of talent, and if somehow they can get organized, they might be able to dig themselves out of the hole. It helps that they have a full-time coach now; Mariano Barreto led the team through the first four games, then up and quit without notice, preferring a club post in his native Portugal. Actually, the FA reacted quicker than you'd expect, taking only three months to sign Serbian Ratomir Dujkovic for the spot. He'll have to be ready right now, since the team goes to Congo DR to start the second half. Unfortunately, crucial pieces Sammy Kuffour (injury) and Michel Essien (suspension) will be missing. But there's still lots of quality available, with Italy-based John Mensah, Stephen Appiah, and Sulley Muntari the most familiar names. The team's biggest question mark is the front line, where the play has been inconsistent at best. Best guess to step up is Kwadwo Poku, a slippery attacker who looked good with the Olympic team. But there's no margin for error: a point in Kinshasa is absolutely vital.

    Group Three

        The Group of Death, and the death appears to have struck Cameroon. After a truly remarkable run at the top of African football, including a continental record 4 straight World Cups, the Indomitable Lions are almost out of the race. They're in third place with 8 points, well behind Ivory Coast's 12, and while both teams have three home games remaining, the Elephants have already played at Cameroon, and get to host the Lions in September. Egypt, the other nominal contender, have only 7 points, and still have to travel to Yaounde and Abidjan, so they'll need a miracle. The big surprise has been Libya, now in second place with 10 points, but they're still a longshot, with only two home games left and matches at Egypt and Cameroon.

        In fact, what was expected to be the tightest group of all is pretty much over already. Ivory Coast are poised to qualify for their very first World Cup, and it's a well-deserved reward. They lost 0:2 at Cameroon, but otherwise have taken care of business superbly, with road wins at Egypt and Benin, and home wins against Libya and Sudan (a crushing 5:0). Didier Drogba and Aruna Dindane have been unstoppable up front, and they've been supported with fine midfield play from Bonaventure Kalou and Didier "Maestro" Zokora. The exciting new star is Arthur Boka at left back, and although the defense has wobbled at times, the team has been consistently resourceful. In round 2 they won 2:1 at Egypt against the run of play; in round 5 they were missing both Drogba and Boka, and facing an inspired Benin on the road, but got an early second-half goal from Dindane and held off the hosts the rest of the way. Old fox Henri Michel may have done his best coaching job yet--yes, the Elephants have the talent, but they've been the only team in a very tough group to get results on demand. A June game at Libya may cause some problems, but they may very well be fully clear of Cameroon before the September showdown.

        As for the other would-be contenders, Cameroon and Egypt, they've picked up a result here and there, but haven't done the job consistently. Cameroon beat Ivory Coast at home, but then lost at Egypt and barely got a draw at Sudan. Egypt beat Cameroon, but lost at Libya and Ivory Coast, and had to rally for a draw at Benin. The Lions' problem has been the lack of punch in midfield; Samuel Eto'O is at his peak, but can only do so much. Winnie Schafer got the sack, and maybe deserved it--but even if his motivational skills had been operating at full throttle, he couldn't go out on the field himself. Despite a series of injuries to their forwards, Egypt has scored 11 goals, more than anyone else in the group--but they've been prone to major defensive breakdowns, and their 9 goals allowed is more than Cameroon and Ivory Coast combined. There's talk that temperamental striker Mido may finally be back in the team, but he's not going to help out in the back line.

        That leaves Libya, the surprise of surprises. This is a team that's never qualified for the Nations Cup, much less the World Cup, and although they've been helped by an easy first-half schedule, they've shown themselves an extremely capable side. In fact, they haven't lost since the opener, when they were outclassed at Ivory Coast. They've picked up wins at home against Benin and Egypt (that one must have been sweet), a last minute riot-producing win at Sudan, and a scoreless draw home to Cameroon, and none of it has been a fluke. The squad itself is totally unknown outside Africa, with the exception of sharp left-footed playmaker Tarek el Taib, who plays with Gaziantepspor in Turkey. Nader Karra and Ahmed Osman have produced the key goals, and in Tripoli they're dreaming of a German summer vacation in 2006. A Nations' Cup spot is much more likely, but it's been a great run so far, and if they somehow produce a shock win at Egypt next week, the pyramids may fall.

    Group Four

        Strictly a two-team race between Nigeria and Angola. The Palancas Negras sit on top with 11 points to 10, but the Super Eagles have the schedule advantage, with three home games to two, and the head-to-head matchup in Lagos in June. Angola beat them 1:0 in Luanda all the way back in round 2--upon which the Nigerian press, with characteristic moderation, referred to their team as "the shame of the world."

        It's really a classic pairing. Nigeria, perhaps the most visible football nation in Africa; Angola, largely unknown outside the continent. The Super Eagles have familiar names all over the planet: Udeze, Babayaro, Yobo, Okocha, Oruma, Lawal, Utaka, Kanu, Aiyegbeni, Martins, Aghahowa. The Angolans are a modest lot, who draw half their players from the local league, and others from Egypt, Qatar, and unfancied teams in Portugal. Can you name even one player on the Angolan roster?

        But the Palancas Negras are no minnow; in both 1998 and 2002 they finished a solid second to Cameroon in qualifying, and with luckier draws might have seriously challenged for a WC spot. This time around they have a stylish playmaker in Gilberto, who plays for Al Ahly. Their defense is strictly home-based, but has performed excellently, allowing only 2 goals in the 5 matches so far. Scoring has been a bit of a problem, but grand old man Fabrice Maieco "Akwa" has chipped in with two goals, including the winner in the famous victory over Nigeria. Next week's game is a tough one, at Zimbabwe, and in early June they're home to Algeria. If they can get four points from those two games, they'll be in great position for the decider in Lagos, and who knows?

        Still, Nigeria remains the clear favorite; probably the only thing that can derail them is the usual problem, organization. The first half of the qualifiers was a nightmare, with players either declining to play or somehow failing to make it to practices or games. At the moment, though, things seem to be under control. The roster for next week's game home to Gabon includes every important figure in the player pool. When they're all available, it's a team without a weakness. Okocha is getting on a bit, but can still run the show beautifully; with Yobo a rock in the middle, the defense is more solid than ever; the list of strikers is simply outstanding. Of course, dissent could still rear its ugly head, and it's hard to imagine Nigeria stable for long. But with the schedule advantage and the talent advantage, they're likely to make it four straight WC appearances.

    Group Five

        This figured to be a three-team race between Morocco, Tunisia, and Guinea, and so it's proved. Early on the Kenya suspension wreaked havoc with the schedule, so we're still not all caught up, but the current standings look like this:

    Games Played Points Morocco 5 9 Guinea 5 8 Tunisia 4 5
        Tunisia doesn't play the make-up with Kenya until August, so the standings won't be aligned until then. But right now it looks like old enemies Morocco and Tunisia with the advantage. Both have only two road games remaining, both get to host Guinea, and although Morocco has the current point lead, Tunisia gets them at home in October in the likely decider.

        Morocco is feeling great right now. After an uncertain start, including a home draw with Tunisia, they've gathered steam impressively. In October they grabbed a draw at Guinea, and last month routed Kenya 5:0 in the makeup game, with a hat trick from their main man, 22-year old Jaouad Zairi of Sochaux. Zairi missed some of the early games with injuries, and if he's healthy, Morocco have the best striker in the group. They already have a strong defense, with European pros like Noureddine Naybet, Talal el-Karkouri, and Abdelsalam Ouaddou. If there's a problem, it's in midfield, where coach Badou Ezaki has yet to find a consistent combination. But Youssef Hadji of Bastia, when in form, can drive the attack effectively. Next week they get Guinea at home, and a win there might effectively eliminate the Syli. The goal is to clinch first place before the final-round game at Tunisia; if the hot streak continues, it's by no means impossible.

        Tunisia was top seed and Nations Cup champion, but so far things haven't come easy. In the first half they lost at Guinea and needed two late goals to scrape a draw at Malawi. They have plenty of striking talent in Ziad Jaziri and Francileudo dos Santos, but they're still fighting the old problem, a lack of creativity in midfield. Slim Ben Achour is all they have there, and he's been off and on. The defense has struggled as well--despite some fine efforts from Rahdi Jaidi, they've allowed more goals in four games than Morocco or Guinea in five. Long-time captain and backline leader Khaled Badra has been dropped from the squad for the moment. The schedule is helpful: they start with an easy home tie to Malawi, and, as noted, they get both Guinea and Morocco at home. But with Morocco suddenly in great form, they'll probably have to be at their best every time out to stay in range.

        Guinea started the qualifiers fast, with an inspirational home win over Tunisia, a draw at Malawi, and a crushing 4:0 home to Botswana. But it all went suddenly pearshaped, held at home by Morocco and losing at Kenya, and as a result they're in the toughest position of the three contenders. The attack has been strong, with Fode Mansare, Pascal Feinduono, and Kaba Diawara in fine form, and the team hasn't been held scoreless yet. But the midfield lacks an anchor--veteran Salam Sow, at 35 and fading, has retired from international football. In the game against Kenya the defense broke down, and struggled in a recent friendly with Mali as well. Dian Bobo Balde of Celtic is the key man there, but he needs help. Overall, with lack of funds a recurring problem, the team has struggled to organize a largely European-based squad. They're still in the race, but will have to up their game considerably: a draw at Morocco next week is essential.


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