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: CAF WCQ - All To Play For
by Peter Goldstein
With one round of the African qualifiers to go, all 5 groups are undecided. Now that's impressive. Four years ago there were also 5 African groups, but 3 of them were decided before the final day. The 1998 cycle also featured 5 groups, and there too 3 were decided before the final day. This year's multiple finish is especially remarkable, because these are 6-team groups, as opposed to the 5-team groups in 2002 and 4-team groups in 1998. In a 6-team group you have more games, and thus more time for the top team to break free of the pack. And yet here were are with nothing determined. (Ghana, admittedly, is pretty close.)
All of which tells us what we knew already--Africa is deeper and more balanced than ever. Togo, Ghana, and Angola were all fourth seeds in their group (!). And while that won't bring much comfort to the Nigerias and South Africas of this world, it's great for football overall.
OK, you say, so what? Africa still hasn't done the job at the World Cup, and that's where the true test comes. Agreed, but only sort of. African teams certainly haven't excelled, but they haven't been embarrassed like, for example, some Asian teams I could name. If Angola, Togo, and Ghana qualify, and do no worse than South Africa and Nigeria and Cameroon have done, we'll know that Africa has more teams than ever able to compete at top level.
Now a look at the five groups, what's past and what's to come.
It's only now that the magnitude of Togo's achievement is sinking in. Again, they were the fourth seed in this group, behind Senegal, Mali, and Zambia, and had absolutely no history of contending at this level. They're a small country, too, about half the size of Senegal and Zambia. Nor is it a question of winning by default. Togo has played nine games, and lost only one--and that was their very first game, at Zambia. Since then it's been WDWWWWDW. They have the best goal difference in the group as well.
The recent 3:0 win over last-place Liberia was routine, at least after Emmanuel Sheyi Adebayor got into the lineup. The Monaco striker was held in reserve because of back pain, but with the game scoreless at halftime Stephen Keshi played his ace. He scored in the 57th minute; his rebounded shot set up Cherif Touré for the second goal in the 69th; and according to FIFA, he wrapped up the scoring himself in injury time (although some Togo sites credit the goal to Kader Coubadja). Liberia actually played quite well for a team that almost had to walk to Lomé. The team had initially intended to forfeit because they couldn't pay the transportation costs. In the end, they went half by plane, half by bus, and maybe half by donkey, and delivered a competent first half before being overwhelmed.
Meanwhile Senegal, having replaced Guy Stephan with Abdoulaye Sarr, faced the daunting task of getting 3 points at Zambia, the remaining contender. Their 1:0 win came on a fluky goal, stemming from a weak backpass from defender Laughter Chilembe (yes, I know). El Hadji Diouf pounced on the ball, and, given the choice between his usual approach (diving and complaining to the ref) and actually scoring the goal, he opted for the latter. But it was a brave win for the favorites. Zambia hadn't conceded a single point at home, and Senegal were missing Pape Bouba Diop, Khalilou Fadiga, Salif Diao, and Henri Camara. The Lions gave as good as they got, and rode their luck when Collins Mbesuma in the first half and Numba Mumamba in the second half both hit the crossbar. Zambian substitute striker Clifford Mulenga nearly turned the game with some superb work on the left flank, but in the end the hosts created very few good chances.
It was an unfortunate end to an excellent Zambian campaign. For those who remember the air disaster of 1993, they were sentimental favorites, particularly with Kalusha Bwalya as coach. It was also nice to see a team with so many home-based players make a real run against European pros. At least they're back in the Nations Cup, after missing out last year for the first time in ages.
With one game to go, Togo needs only a draw at Congo-Brazzaville. In principle that shouldn't be too hard. Congo's only win in their last six games came against Liberia, and although at home they held Senegal to a draw, they also fell behind 0:3 to Zambia, and only a late rally made it close. But there are always nerves, and it'll help to have everyone healthy and match fit. Senegal figures to beat Mali at home, so Togo will need the point. Radio Lomé usually carries the games live on the Net, so tune in and listen for cries of "But togolais!"
Ghana, at last. With one game to go, DR Congo will have to win at South Africa, hope the leaders lose at Cape Verde, and overturn a 5-goal difference. Not terribly likely. But the Black Stars have been denied so often that we'll hold the celebrations for a month longer. Besides, they're doing enough celebrating in Ghana. After the 2:0 win over Uganda, the fans of Kumasi poured into the streets in what one wire service called "spontaneous deafening jubilations." On Ghanaweb, the list of soccer stories for Tuesday, September 6, read like this:
"President lauds shining Stars"
"Trades Union lauds Black Stars"
"Atta-Mills congratulates Stars"
"Minority [party] congratulates Black Stars"
Well, Planet World Cup will congratulate them too--next time.
The biggest congratulations should go to Ratomir Dujkovic, head coach. When it's World Cup time, coaches usually talk about "process," which is another word for "listen, I know the team stinks right now, but we're not eliminated yet, so please don't fire me because I can't get a job anywhere else." But halfway through the qualifiers, after Mariano Barreto had up and quit, Dujkovic just stepped in and did the job. When he arrived, Ghana was only a point out of the lead, but had only two home games left and had to travel to both DR Congo and South Africa. They got a crucial point in Kinshasa, came from behind to beat Burkina Faso, grabbed the big win in Johannesburg, and took care of business against Uganda. It helps to have players like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, John Mensah, Stephen Appiah, and Sammy Kuffour when he's not complaining, but someone has to take charge, and Dujkovic did. And now a lot of people who followed the Black Stars in their first WCQ attempt, all the way back in 1962, will have lived long enough to get their reward.
The other side of the story is the collapse of South Africa. Back when Stuart Baxter first got the job, a lot of people were skeptical. And Bafana fans love to bash their team anyway. Still, I don't think anyone could quite have expected the cave-in. At the halfway point South Africa were in first place all alone, with three home games remaining, getting both Ghana and DR Congo at home. They beat Uganda in Johannesburg, a bit luckily, then Cape Verde on the road, deservingly--and promptly fell apart. In round 9, on a "night of shame," as one SA paper called it, they were simply humiliated by Burkina Faso, who didn't even have star man Moumouni Dagano. Three goals in the first 47 minutes, and the rest was running out the clock. If Bafana lose the final game to DR Congo, they could even miss out on the Nations Cup.
It's hard to say what happened. Performances had been erratic all along, but that's normal for the qualifiers. Injuries were a consistent worry in defense, but most of the regulars were available down the stretch. After the loss to Ghana in June, I think they just lost heart. Baxter wasn't allowed to assemble the first unit for the Gold Cup, when a little togetherness could have gone a long way. The dreadful 1:4 friendly loss to Iceland suggested the team simply wasn't ready. The media has tried to spin the failure as a blessing in disguise, since the FA will now revamp the program for the big event in 2010. But if you recall Korea/Japan, when the team fell a crazy Paraguay comeback short of making the second round, you have to feel they underachieved.
It was the game of the year in Africa, Ivory Coast-Cameroon. A full stadium in Abidjan, all the colors flying, the weather not too hot. An ideal atmosphere, marred only by the presence of Roman Abramovich, who had descended from the clouds in his private jet to watch his Chelsea toys battle for his pleasure. As everyone knew, Ivory Coast had led the group nearly from start to finish, and needed only a draw to put one foot in Germany. For Cameroon, at stake was not only survival, but pride, the pride of the most storied football nation on the continent, facing elimination for the first time in 20 years.
In truth, it was remarkable that Cameroon had managed to get within range at all. The Lions had struggled since the first half of the the first match, when they fell behind Benin at home. Over eight games they had yet to produce a really convincing victory, unless you count the rematch at Benin, in which the hosts didn't even bother to field the senior side. Meanwhile, the Elephants had gone from strength to strength, flattening everyone in their path, looking every bit the group winner, and more: this was clearly the African side to watch in Germany.
But, crucially, they had yet to achieve a result against the Indomitable Lions. Cameroon had ground out a 2:0 win the previous year in Yaoundé, and as a result had stayed close enough so that when the Elephants finally stumbled, drawing at Libya, they could actually take the group leadership with a win.
It was clear, though, that Cameroon needed reinforcements, particularly in the back line. Artur Jorge, who had replaced Winnie Schäfer earlier in the year, sought out estranged stars Raymond Kalla and Lauren Etame-Mayer, hoping to persuade them to rejoin the team for the big match. Kalla said yes, Lauren said no. Without a true right back, then, Jorge decided to realign. Geremi, normally a midfielder, was dropped back. Up front, though, this was no time for conservatism: Jorge went with his usual three-pronged attack of Rudolph Douala, Achille Webo, and Samuel Eto'O.
Henri Michel just sent the guys out to do what they'd done all along. Didier Drogba, Aruna Dindane, Bonaventure Kalou, Kolo Touré, etc. had only to keep their cool and play their best. A small worry: keeper Jean-Jacques Tizié wasn't match fit, and was replaced by Gerard Gnanhouan. Even so, the team, the fans, the whole country were quite understandably confident of victory.
Early on, however, Cameroon had the majority of the play. Jean Makoun, Salomon Olembe, and Alioum Saidou were getting the best of midfield; Tchiressoa Guel, the Ivorian veteran, was looking particularly vulnerable in the middle. But it wasn't one-way traffic: Drogba got the ball in dangerous positions more than once, and even had a header cleared off the line on a corner. Yet it was Cameroon who opened the scoring in the 30th minute: Webo beat Touré on a through ball from Olembe, Gnanouhan came out unadvisedly, and Webo flicked it over him into the net.
But that was the signal for Ivory Coast to take over. Only eight minutes later they were level, when Dindane stole the ball from Pierre Womé and served Drogba for the equalizer. The Elephants kept up the pressure for the remainder of the half--but found themselves down, when in stoppage time an unmarked Webo, served beautifully on a Jean Makoun header, himself headed home from close range.
Back and forth: only two minutes into the second half Drogba smashed a 25-yard free kick to level the scores again. Guel had been replaced by Emerse Faé, who brought some freshness and solidity to the midfield. The game started to get rough, with both Faé and Makoun drawing yellows. Play was even and chances were few, although in the 74th minute Ivorian midfielder Didier Zokora rattled the crossbar from 30 yards.
The end was getting near, and the Elephants were only a few minutes away. But all the signs were wrong. Cameroon again was putting on the pressure. Geremi was forgetting defensive duties, surging up and providing dangerous crosses. The home side was passive, as if waiting for something to happen. And, inevitably, it did: in the 85th minute, Geremi drove a free kick from 25 yards, it hit the post and came straight out, and the inescapable Webo struck home.
Why did Cameroon win? The next day, the Ivorian press blamed the inconsistent midfield, the failures of central defense, the mistake of Gnanouhan, and the uncertain hand of Henri Michel. And you could talk tactics all day, of course. But in impeccable French, Fraternité Matin said it best: it was, above all, "le fighting spirit."
It's not over yet, we know. Ivory Coast should win at Sudan, which means Cameroon will have to beat Egypt. Even at home, that's no easy task, and you know the Pharoahs won't lie down for a hated enemy. But whichever way it turns out, Cameroon deserves the glory for winning a classic of African football. And let's hope Roman Abramovich learned the day's most important lesson: you can buy club championships, but you can't buy World Cups. And that's why World Cups are better.
Four years ago Nigeria pulled off one of the great WCQ escape acts, winning their last three games to nip Liberia at the tape. Now they're at it again, with a gutsy 5:2 win at Algeria that keeps the pressure on leaders Angola. It was a big test in so many ways: on the road, without an injured Jay-Jay Okocha and Ifeanyi Udeze, under new coach Austin Eguavoen, replacement for the late-and-not-particularly-lamented Christian Chukwu. Yussuf Ayinla was earning only his second cap in defensive midfield, U-20 sensation Taiye Taiwo only his third at left back. An erratic Christian Obodo had to push the attack in the absence of Okocha. Plus, Angola had won earlier in the day; a draw would have left the Super Eagles two points behind, and a loss would have eliminated them altogether.
A loss seemed a real possibility round about the 58th minute. Algeria had come from two goals down at halftime to tie the game, and John Utaka had been red-carded three minutes earlier. But Nigeria caught a break in the 68th when Karim Ziani drew his second yellow for a bad tackle on Taiwo, and the game turned when Nwankwo Kanu came on a minute later. Kanu is a good symbol of the strangeness of Nigerian football: despite his enormous talent, he's been an in-and-out runner on and off the pitch for ages. Early this cycle he actually tried to get the FA to move a qualifier so it wouldn't conflict with his wedding. In game action, he's been great off the bench, terrible when starting. This time he teamed with Obafemi Martins to decide the match. In the 81st minute, he crossed, Martins shot, and Ayinla put in the rebound. In the 88th, he won the corner that produced Martins' clincher. The Inter man added the fifth for good measure.
But Angola's still out there, and still in first place. In fact, they had a lot less trouble than expected with Gabon, dominating play from the start and easing to a 3:0 win. It didn't matter that right back Jacinto was out with yellow cards and centerback Kali was suspended because of doping suspicions in Portugal. Coach Luis Oliveira Gonçalves just stuck in some replacements (named Loco and Lebo-Lebo--don't you love it) and went on the attack, and Gabon never threatened. Man of the match was midfielder Mendonça of Varzim: his superb move and cross in the 25th minute led to an own goal for 1:0, and he started the play which led to Zé Kalanga's last-minute goal for 3:0. In between was the clincher, a superb 44th minute finish from oft-injured striker Pedro Mantorras of Benfica.
Like Togo, Angola is one result away from the World Cup. And, like Togo, they have to get it on the road against a minnow. But Togo are two points clear, and need only a draw; Angola are even with Nigeria, and need a win. It's by no means in the bag. For all their success, the Palancas Negras have yet to win on the road--draws at Nigeria, Gabon, and Algeria, plus a loss at Zimbabwe. They've also scored only 11 goals in 9 games. Rwanda may be last in the group, but their home record is pretty good: one win (Gabon), one loss (Zimbabwe), two draws (Algeria and Nigeria). And Nigeria, in their patented stretch drive, don't figure to let up at home to Zimbabwe.
Of course, with Nigeria there's always the chance they'll self-destruct before the game starts. The current controversy: where the heck to play the game, less than 3 weeks away. The FA had settled on the National Stadium in Abuja, but word is that the players want to go to Port Harcourt, site of the big wins in the 2002 qualifiers. My advice: pick the site for which Jay-Jay Okocha will be least able to claim he got lost on the way to the match.
We knew it would come to this. Tunisia and Morocco, the greatest rivals in African football. They've been on opposite sides of the field no less than 31 times in tournament play. They first met in a big game just 3 years after independence, in 1959 (Olympic Games qualifier), when Charles DeGaulle was president of France and the space race had barely started. They last met in a big game in 2004 (World Cup qualifier) when Jacques Chirac was president of France and the Internet was old news. Check the FIFA calendar: I suspect they're already down for the qualifiers for 2014, when Michel Platini will be president of France and we still won't have an intelligible offside rule.
They come to this game in opposite moods. Tunisia is buoyant, having taken Kenya twice, 1:0 at home and 2:0 away. They were lucky that Kenya star Dennis Oliech walked out on the team before the first game, and that the Harambee Stars had to play at home behind closed doors. But they were also unlucky that their two best strikers, Fancileudo dos Santos and Ziad Jaziri, had to miss the second game with injuries. In their absence, new Strasbourg man Haykel Guemamdia did the key damage with a 2nd minute goal--exactly as he had in the first Kenya game three weeks previously. It was the culmination of a 5-game win streak that lifted Tunisia to where they hoped they'd be all along: needing only a draw at home in the showdown game.
Morocco, on the other hand, is glum, which is a colossal understatement. Yes, they just beat Botswana at home, but got absolutely no joy from it. Having squandered two points with a June draw at Kenya, they could only watch as Tunisia whizzed past them into first place. Take a look at the standings and you'll see something odd. Right--Morocco hasn't lost a game in the tournament. They're the only one of 30 teams that can say that. But they've also drawn four, and no team has drawn more. The problem? Goals, or the lack of them. The GF column says 15, which isn't all that bad (Ghana and Angola have fewer), but 9 of those came in home wins against Kenya and Malawi. And don't be too impressed with the 4 against Malawi; in the previous round, Tunisia got 7. In fact, in 7 of 9 games they've scored 1 goal or fewer; even for Italy that just isn't enough.
So what's wrong? They have two good strikers in Marouane Chammakh and Jaouad Zairi, but they've rarely been healthy together, and even when available haven't produced consistently. Zairi didn't even get into the game against Botswana (and was none too pleased). Youssef Hadji, who can play up front or behind the forwards, has been the only consistent attacker in the squad. Coach Badou Ezaki has been criticized from the start as too conservative. The win against Botswana was pretty much emblematic: although they controlled possession all game, Morocco got only one goal, scored by defender Talal El-Karkouri off a free kick--and he might have been offside.
So Tunisia holds the cards. They've been playing the better football for months. Dos Santos should be healthy for the game, and Jaziri may be as well. They're at home and need only a draw. I don't see how you can pick against them. But, of course, Ivory Coast needed only a draw home to Cameroon. And to Morocco belongs the distinction of having picked up the one and only road victory in a tournament game between the two teams. January 13, 2001, in the African Nations Cup qualifiers, with the only goal going to Abdeljalil Hadda, known as "Camacho," the all-time leading scorer for the Atlas Lions. Unfortunately he's not available, having retired last year at the age of 32.
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