Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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African Nations Cup 2008 Qualifiers

    No rest for the weary--it’s continental championship time again. You’ve just recovered from the excesses of the XVIIIth World Cup (doesn’t it seem bigger in Roman numerals?), and now you’ve got to keep track of the Asian Cup, the European Championship, the African Nations Cup, the various and sundry minor tournaments that make up Gold Cup qualifying, and even the Oceania Nations Cup, which I can confidently say will not be won by Australia this time.

    The best thing about these tournaments is that it gives the little guys their chance on the stage. Italy and France and Germany and Argentina and Brazil are all very well in their place, but after a while you yearn for Barbados, or Mauritania, or Jordan. And no one does little guys better than Africa--53 members, many of whom may never get closer to a World Cup than a 12-inch television in the back of a general store.

    For the ANC in Egypt 2006, a World Cup year, the confederation merged the Nations Cup and World Cup qualifiers, winding up with a final round of five 6-team groups, winners to the World Cup, top three to the Nations Cup. But unlike the Asian and European tournaments, the Nations Cup is held every two years, and with 2008 a non-World-Cup year, they went back to the old small-group system. This cycle we have 46 entrants plus host Ghana. The 46 have been divided into twelve groups, with ten having 4 teams and two having 3. The twelve winners plus the three best second-place finishers join Ghana in the final 16.

    The small-group system has strengths and weaknesses. Smaller groups mean fewer games, which is mainly a good thing: Africa has lots of poor nations that simply can’t afford a large-scale group stage like Europe’s. Also, without a preliminary head-to-head round, even the superminnows get in most cases at least six games. On the other hand, when you have 12 small groups you can wind up with a heavily unbalanced tournament. The difference between team number 1 and team number 13 in Africa is pretty big, and when you’re dealing with pots of 12, that top team can wind up matched against a team as low as 24.

    As a result, no less than 5 of the 12 groups in this year’s qualifiers are simply non-competitive. Côte D’Ivoire, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Cameroon have what amounts to free passes to the finals. It’s true these teams would almost certainly qualify under any system, but you’d like to see them at least have to show up.

    But luck has smiled on us otherwise. The extreme imbalance in those groups has resulted in reasonable balance in the others, and in at least one group we may have a legitimate three-team battle. The three berths for best second-placers should be wide open, since a lot will depend on whether the minnows decide to bite. So we should have plenty of races going to the wire. Here’s a brief profile of all 46 teams: powers, contenders, minnows, and superminnows alike.

Group 1
(Côte D’Ivoire, Gabon, Madagascar)

    It should be no surprise that twenty-five people applied for the Côte D’Ivoire job after Henri Michel left town. After years of false promise, the Elephants have become one of Africa’s powerhouses. They even have a new star, Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou, who appears to have finally given up his quest for Dutch citizenship. Another striker, Boubacar Sanogo, has looked good in his first games for Hamburg. They lost a recent friendly to Senegal, but no one’s panicking. At the moment Michel’s assistant, Gérard Gili, is taking the team on a caretaker basis, with the new appointment expected soon. But they could probably play the qualifiers under Paul Gascoigne and still finish top.

    Gabon performed decently in the 2006 WC qualifiers, and have a sprinkling of solid players in Europe. The never-ending soap opera is whether they can convince striker Daniel Cousin (Lens) to stick with the team. If not, Henri Antchouet (Alaves) is the top scoring threat. The coach is none other than Alain Giresse, the former World Cup star. (Actually, that’s dropping a notch--for the 2006 qualifiers the coach was Jairzinho.) The team looked good in a 2:0 friendly win over Algeria, but caught a bad break when Djibouti withdrew from the tournament (see below). With a superminnow in the mix, they had a shot at one of the second-place berths; now they have to beat Côte D’Ivoire straight up, and even in an ultra-short group, it’s not going to happen.

    Although they’ve never qualified for the Nations Cup finals, in the past Madagascar have been one of the more respectable minnows. In fact, in the 2002 WC qualifiers they beat out Gabon in a two-legged tie. Unfortunately, the Scorpions have been on a downswing lately, with consecutive losses to Mozambique, Mauritius, Swaziland, and Botswana in the regional COSAFA Cup. They’ve been called “The Brazil of the Indian Ocean,” but after the World Cup they might think about changing the moniker.

    This was originally a 4-team group, before Djibouti, tied with São Tomé and Principe for lowest-ranked team in Africa, dropped out. It’s a shame, because they’re one of my favorite superminnows. They’re the answer to the trivia question: what country has won only one international in its history, and that against a country that no longer exists? It was 26 February 1988 when Djibouti slaughtered South Yemen 4:1. Anyone who finds out the goalscorers wins the Football Statisticians Life Achievement Award.

Group 2
(Egypt, Botswana, Burundi, Mauritania)

    Egypt are the reigning champions, having taken the title at home in 2006. Although it’s unlikely they’d have won the tournament anywhere else, they’re still one of Africa’s better teams, and in this group the only choice to advance. Most of their players come from the domestic league, but it’s easily the strongest in Africa, with famous clubs like Al Ahly and Zamalek. Head coach Hassan Shehata was reviled by fans and press going into the 2006 tournament, came up trumps, and is now a hero, at least until the next bad result. Wild man Mido (Roma) has finished his six-month suspension for, among other things, calling his coach a donkey, and will join the side for the opening match. The team play a pleasing attacking game, and should run up plenty of goals against a set of minnows.

    Botswana, a long-time doormat, took a step up in class during the 2006 WC/ANC qualifiers, making the group stage for the first time, picking up wins over Malawi and Kenya, and scaring big names like Tunisia and Morocco at home. The big question is whether the Zebras can keep it going now that coach Veselin Jelusic has moved to the youth teams. Englishman Colwyn Rowe, himself an experienced youth coach, has taken over the senior side, and last week the team put up a good showing in a 0:1 road COSAFA Cup loss to Zambia. Although Egypt is out of their reach, the other two sides are very weak, and if everything goes right, they could sneak a historic qualification as one of the second-placers.

    Burundi occasionally have a decent run of form in the regional CECAFA Cup--in 2004 they beat Rwanda, Tanzania, and Sudan--but in last year’s edition they bombed, and there’s no indication things will be any better now. The best chance is the youngsters: the U-20’s did well in 2005, finishing second to Ethiopia in the regional tournament. With Botswana on the move, the Sparrows will have a hard time staying competitive.

    When Mauritania surprised Zimbabwe 2:1 in the second leg of their WC qualifier on November 14, 2003, it was their first win in eight years. They haven’t played since. Frenchman Noël Tosi, the architect of the famous victory, now coaches Congo-Brazzaville. The top club sides had to withdraw from the 2006 continental championships due to lack of funds. Don’t expect much.

Group 3
(Nigeria, Uganda, Lesotho, Niger)

    Another walk in the park for the big boys. But that’s not enough: after failing to qualify for Germany and losing to Côte D’Ivoire in the semis in Egypt, the Super Eagles are interested only in the title itself. But follow them during the qualifiers anyway, because there’s nothing like Nigeria for good clean fun. The FA holds its elections on August 29, and we can count on plenty of fraud and absurdity. Also watch to see which players quit the team, which stay on the team but don’t show up for practice, and which stay on the team and show up for practice but make nasty remarks about the coach. Keep track of funding matters too: you never know when they’re going to be locked out of their hotel for non-payment. And say a prayer for former Nigerian international Austin Eguavoen, who has to hold all this together and keep a straight face.

    Uganda are one of those teams that always seem on the verge of respectability, but never get there. The Cranes have won their group stage opener the last four cycles, against good sides too: Algeria, Guinea, Ghana, DR Congo. But they always fade, and in fact haven’t qualified since 1978 (when they made the Final, by the way). The new coach is Hungarian Laszlo Csaba, and the team put up a good show in a 2:3 friendly loss at Libya, losing to a goal in the ninth minute of extra time (hmm…). But second place seems the limit, and with decent opposition below them, qualification is a longshot.

    As minnows go, Lesotho aren’t too bad; although they rarely play outside their region, they sometimes give their betters a game (e.g., a 0:0 friendly home to South Africa last May). The U-20’s qualified for the continental championship tournament in 2005, where they scored a historic victory over Angola. The senior side have been in the doldrums a bit, but shouldn’t embarrass themselves here. Plus, they’re named the Crocodiles, which should count for something.

    It’ll be kind of fun having Niger in the same group with Nigeria--watch to see how many times news reports make the distinction between the words “Nigerian” (pertaining to Nigeria) and “Nigerien” (pertaining to Niger). On the field, it should be somewhat less entertaining. Like Mauritania, Niger haven’t played in three years, and although they occasionally pull off a result at home, at best they’ll battle Lesotho for third place. On the upside, their head coach, the Togolese Bana Tchanille, got his native country to the Nations Cup in 2002, and has had some success in Niger’s domestic league.

Group 4
(Tunisia, Sudan, Seychelles, Mauritius)

    They’re not terribly happy in Tunisia right now. The Carthage Eagles disappointed badly at the World Cup, and players and press are sniping at Roger Lemerre over his team selections. A loss to Mali in an August friendly didn’t help. They won the Nations Cup in 2004, but that was at home; in 2006 they went out in the quarters to Nigeria. They’re still one of the best teams on the continent, but I think they’ve gone as far as they can with Lemerre. Unfortunately, this group won’t test them much, so there’s no motivation to change.

    Sudan’s glory days were more than three decades ago, but at least they have a Nations Cup title to their credit (1970). Since then it’s been continual mediocrity, and even a choice of nicknames (Falcons and Crocodiles) hasn’t helped matters. Recent results have been poor, with losses to Ethiopia and Uganda in last year’s CECAFA Cup. It’s hard to believe they can challenge Tunisia, although in this group their overall quality will probably get them to second.

    Seychelles have been putting a lot of effort into upgrading their program--training facilities, youth development, etc.--but it has yet to bear fruit in results. They remain on a level with their regional fellows, such as Madagascar, Mauritius, and Tanzania: by no means a superminnow, but not yet ready to challenge the better teams. A 2:0 loss to Zambia in the COSAFA cup in July is indicative of where they stand.

    And speaking of Mauritius, they had a great run of form in 2003-4, when they lost a two-legged WCQ tie with Uganda by only one goal, then scored a famous victory over South Africa. But results raise expectations, and when they dropped back to their usual level, people lost their jobs. The brand new head coach is Sarjoo Gowreesungkur, and yes, I mentioned it just for the sound of the name. Surprise stat: Mauritius actually qualified for the Nations Cup in 1974, back when only eight teams made it.

Group 5
(Cameroon, Rwanda, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea)

    Looks like Arie Haan is the man for Cameroon now, at least for a while. (Cue remarks about practicing long-distance shots.) Starting in 1990, their successive WC coaches have been Russian (Valery Nepomniatschi), French (Henri Michel), French (Claude LeRoy), German (Winnie Schäfer) and in the failed 2006 campaign, Portuguese (Artur Jorge). So it’s time to go Dutch. Like Nigeria, the Indomitable Lions are licking their wounds and pointing toward the title. More than anything they want to beat Côte D’Ivoire, who not only took their place at the World Cup but beat them in an epic quarterfinal shootout at Egypt 2006. This group will offer little opposition.

    Rwanda sprang into prominence with a surprise qualification for Tunisia 2004, where they beat DR Congo and just missed making it out of the group stage. Their coach? Ratomir Dujkovic, the same man who took Ghana to the World Cup this year. Once he left Rwanda, though, it was back to ordinary. The Wasps can certainly give you a game now and then (they drew at home with Nigeria in the WCQ), but are unlikely to beat out Cameroon, or pick up enough points to qualify in second place. Tine for another good name, though: the head of the FA is Brigadier General John Bosco Kazura.

    Remember George Weah? Liberia sure do, and wish they had him back. The Lone Star have dropped out of sight in recent years, finishing dead last in their 2006 qualifying group, and showing no sign of emergence. Funding problems and interior squabbles are the order of the day, and for a while it looked like they might withdraw from the tournament altogether. But bravo for them anyway: they’re the only country in the world with female heads of both the FA and Ministry of Sport.

    Equatorial Guinea don’t figure to qualify for Ghana 2008, but that’s OK, because they’re after bigger game. How does Gabon-Equatorial Guinea 2010 sound? Their chances are probably somewhere south of zero (Libya, Angola, and Nigeria are also in the race), but you never know until you try--heck, the USA even hosted a World Cup. The decision is due next month. On the pitch the team is on a roll, with an all-time record six-game unbeaten streak, including wins over Congo-Brazzaville and Benin. They could definitely take some points at home, and if Liberia stays in the tank, third place is not out of the question.

Group 6
(Angola, Kenya, Swaziland, Eritrea)

    Finally the groups begin to get interesting. The top seed here are the Palancas Negras, who returned home to an ecstatic welcome after their most creditable performance in Germany. But they’re still in Africa’s second tier, and may very well suffer a letdown now that it’s back to business. Despite the good showing, none of the players impressed enough to move up in class in Europe. The good news is that Luis Oliveira Gonçalves is staying on as coach, and they’re still the favorite in this group. But you wonder if they’re finally due for some bad luck.

    If so, the team poised to take advantage would be Kenya. The Harambee Stars qualified in 2004 ahead of Togo, and although they were a bit outclassed at the finals, managed a win against Burkina Faso. Whereupon the FA suffered an epic meltdown (epic even for Africa) which killed their chances in 2006. But if they get some breathing space, they can give Angola a fight. By far their best player is 21-year-old striker and bad boy Dennis Oliech, now staking a claim for a spot at Nantes. The new coach is former France goalkeeper Bernard Lama, in his very first job as head man. A French leader for an English-speaking country? Might as well try something new. Local legend Jacob “Ghost” Mulee, who took them to the tournament in 2004, has agreed to assist. Even if they can’t catch Angola, they’ve got a legitimate shot at one of the second-place spots.

    Swaziland are a lot like Lesotho: dwarfed by South Africa, decent at regional level. But recent results haven’t been too encouraging, and lately they’ve been known for rapid-fire coaching changes. The latest installment: in May they appointed Jan van Winckel, in June they crashed in a tournament in Mozambique, in August they canned van Winkel and went with Ayman El Hamani. Write them down for third place.

    At least they’ll finish ahead of Eritrea, part of the Horn Superminnow Trio, the others being Djibouti and Somalia. They’re the best of that lot, though: they usually lose, but the scores are respectable, and they’ve nicked points from teams like Sudan, Burundi, and Tanzania. (Plus, they actually turn out for the tournaments.) Their one win in the last 14 games came against Seychelles.

Group 7
(Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Tanzania)

    Senegal have dropped out of the limelight, at least by world standards, but in Africa they’re still one of the powers. At Egypt 2006 they made it to the semifinals against the hosts, where they were denied a clear penalty at the death which might have tied the game. The generation of 2004 is still very much a factor, and some very good new faces, such as Rahmane Barry (Lorient) and Diomansy Kamara (West Bromwich Albion) have appeared to carry the torch. But the coach could be a drag: he’s Henryk Kasperczak, one of those European retreads who’s been bopping about Africa a good part of his career. He’s not exactly known for adventurous football, either, and the Lions are a squad that need to cut loose.

    If Senegal are off form, Burkina Faso might give them trouble. Historically, the Stallions are slow but steady: at one point they played in five straight Nations Cup tournaments, finishing last in their groups all but once (when they hosted). When they just missed qualifying in 2006, the recriminations flew, and it took some time for the dust to settle. In an attempt to go back to the future, they’ve appointed experienced local man Idrissa “Saboteur” Traoré. Great nickname, but perhaps “Masochist” would be better; he coached the squad to the 1996 cup and was rewarded by being fired during the tournament. The team has a long injury list right now, and got mixed reviews in a recent 0:1 friendly loss to Morocco. Still, they should finish no worse than second.

    You wonder why Mozambique haven’t done better over the years. Their profile is similar to Angola’s: former Portuguese colony, between 10 and 20 million population. Their most famous son, Eusebio, remains one of the all-time World Cup stars. But although the Mambas do okay against fellow minnows, they’ve never been able to get over the hump against quality. In recent years they’ve been eliminated by Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and even Lesotho. The one time they qualified, in 1998, they went out swiftly, losing all three games with a GF/GA of 1:8. Here the competition looks too strong.

    Tanzania are known as the Kilimanjaro Stars, but this mountain seems too big to climb. (They’re also known as the Taifa Stars, but you try getting a pun out of that.) Their one and only qualification came in 1980, and their last win in a Nations Cup qualifier came fully nine years ago. They’ve hired a Brazilian coach this time, Marcio Maximo, who started his reign with the immortal quote: “Football is not mathematics.” OK, what is it then? History? Geography? Home Economics?

Group 8
(Guinea, Cape Verde, Algeria, Gambia)

    The most competitive of the groups. Start with Guinea, who have reached the quarterfinals the last two tournaments and could easily have done better both times. The Syli aren’t terribly well-known outside Africa, but they have some very exciting players, like attacking midfielder Pascal Feindouno (St. Etienne) and young winger Ismael Bangoura (LeMans). The coach is Patrice Neveu, who may look like an ostrich but knows how to put together a winning side. He’s been through hell with the press, and has put his name in for the Côte D’Ivoire job (where he’d also go through hell, only with better players), but at the moment looks likely to stay. They recently drew a friendly with Cameroon, and on past form, they’re favorites here.

    But they won’t have an easy time of it. Cape Verde are even lesser known than Guinea; they’re a tiny island group who’ve never even qualified for the Nations Cup. But in the past few years they’ve built their team around Portuguese players with blood ties to the islands (had they realized it in time, they might also have landed Henrik Larsson), and have put together a competitive side that challenged for a berth last two times out. The question is whether local man Ze Rui has the same tactical touch and recruiting ability as Portugal’s Alexandre Alinho, the man who coached the team out of obscurity.

    Now to a team you know about: Algeria, who made the World Cup in 1982 and 1986, and had been a regular at the Nations Cup until recently. But they’ve fallen on hard times, and finished an embarrassing fifth in their combined qualifying group in 2006. The Desert Foxes have among the most fanatical fans on the continent, but right now have little spark on the pitch. Probably their best-known players are defender Antar Yahia (Nice) and midfielder Karim Ziani (Sochaux). Frenchman Jean-Michel Cavalli, up until now only a club coach, has the job to lead them out of the wilderness. But that 0:2 loss to Gabon in a recent friendly doesn’t bode well.

    In other groups both Algeria and Cape Verde might have a good chance to make the top 16, but here they can easily cancel each other out. And the fourth team, Gambia, won’t roll over either. (A digression: Gambia used to be known as “The Gambia,” like “The Sudan,” and “The Ukraine.” Why does that sort of thing happen? And does anyone else who took Spanish in high school remember the phrase “Bo-Chi-Co-Ve”?) Gambia’s U-17’s won the 2005 African championship, and although they won it at home, they proved it was no fluke when they beat Brazil at the FIFA Championships in Peru. The youngsters should give a jolt to the senior side, which have been reliably minnow-like over the years.

Group 9
(Togo, Mali, Benin, Sierra Leone)

    You’ve probably heard enough about Togo to last a lifetime. Rags to riches to degradation, etc. What you need to know now is 1) Otto Pfister, he of the weirdest wardrobe since Boy George, has decided to stay on as coach; 2) several players are apparently boycotting the team until the head of the FA resigns (but since he’s the President’s brother, rotsa ruck), and 3) in a few days they open at home to Benin. In the recent 0:2 friendly against Ghana, Pfister’s side was described as “experimental,” but any Togolese side is experimental these days. On the other hand, this group, weak at the bottom, would have been manageable even before the rise to power. If Togo can somehow, someway, get themselves organized again, they’re no worse than even to qualify.

    Much will depend on which Mali shows up. Will it be the one with guys who can play for Sevilla (Frederic Kanouté), Liverpool (Mohamed Lamine Sissoko), and Real Madrid (Mahamadou Diarra), that made the Nations Cup semifinals two times running (2002, 2004)? Or the hopeless crew that dissolved in the 2006 qualifiers, finishing a pathetic fifth, ahead only of Liberia? The new coach is Jean-Francois Jodar, winner of the 2001 FIFA U-17 Championship with France. He fielded an attacking lineup in the recent friendly against Tunisia, and was rewarded with a 1:0 win. If the Eagles play to their pedigree, they’ll finish ahead of Togo, and at worst are a good bet for a second-place qualifying spot.

    Benin came out of nowhere to qualify for their first-ever finals in 2004, but were a disappointment in 2006, finishing sixth and last in an admittedly tough group that included Cameroon, Egypt, and Cote D’Ivoire. By the end they were fielding mostly youth players. At their best the Squirrels (my favorite team nickname) have been able to play with the mid-range teams, the Sudans and Burkina Fasos, but earlier this year they dropped a pair of friendlies with Equatorial Guinea, which means they’re not yet ready to compete. Their only player in a major European league is midfielder Stéphane Sessègnon, who’s appeared as a sub a couple of times this year for Le Mans.

    Sierra Leone made a splash with a brilliant youth side in the 2003 FIFA U-17’s, and the senior side finished a strong second to Morocco in the 2004 qualifiers, but since then the Leone Stars have been stagnant. They didn’t even make it to the group stage in 2006, falling to Congo-Brazzaville in the preliminaries. The intriguing news here is that former England midfielder Andy Gray has been named technical director. (Did they think they were getting SKY Sports pundit Andy Gray? Or maybe Burnley striker Andy Gray?) His best chance is to convince Nigel Reo-Coker (West Ham United), Liam Rosenior (Fulham), and Steve Kabbah (Sheffield United) to sign up for the squad. Of course, last month he publicly stated that Sierra Leone wouldn’t qualify for 2008, and were preparing for 2010. Andy Gray is a smart man.

Group 10
(DR Congo, Libya, Ethiopia, Namibia)

    The Leopards (formerly Simbas, formerly Leopards) came up with a smashing side at Egypt 2006, dancing their way into the quarterfinals and playing the most exciting football of the tournament. Unfortunately, famous veteran coach Claude LeRoy decided to move on, and we don’t know if Henri Depireux can keep the pace. Their best-known players are strikers Shabani Nonda (Roma) and Lomana LuaLua (Portsmouth), and in young Mbuta Mbala (Grasshoppers) they have the most dazzling winger on the continent. They’re definitely the favorite here, although as always with DR Congo, federation craziness will play a part. But at least Depireux knows the territory: he qualified Cameroon for the 1998 World Cup, whereupon he was replaced by…LeRoy.

    Libya could provide a significant challenge. The long-time North African minnow qualified for the Nations Cup for the first time in 2006 (although they hosted in 1982), and with skipper Tarek al Taieb running the midfield, have a touch of class--although he left Gaziantepspor and is apparently clubless right now. The Greens lack firepower up front, though, and so remain the second choice. (By the way, what’s the deal with Libya’s flag?)

    Ethiopia are known for long-distance runners, not footballers. Although way back when (1962) they hosted and won the tournament, they haven’t been competitive at top level in years. But they’ve had a bit of a resurgence lately, with two straight CECAFA Cup championships, and if they keep the run going can finish third here. The rainy season has left the country flooded (the FA unsuccessfully tried to get the fixture changed), so the opener home to Libya should be somewhat adventurous. They’re known as the Walyas, which are a kind of ibex, those wild goats with the nifty curved horns.

    Namibia had their day in the sun in 1998, when they qualified for the tournament in Burkina Faso. It was quite a show: down 0:3 to Côte D’Ivoire at halftime, they came all the way back to tie, then lost 3:4; they went up on Angola 2:0, eventually drawing 3:3; they gave up four goals to South Africa in 21 minutes and lost 1:4. No surprise that they’ve concentrated on rugby and cricket ever since. But they’re still decent at regional level, and new coach Ben Bamfuchile played an important role in Zambia’s strong qualifying run in 2006. With luck, the Brave Warriors can bring down a Walya or two.

Group 11
(South Africa, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad)

    South Africa will be under the magnifying glass the next four years, and the examination starts here. After a long strong run near the top of African football, Bafana Bafana collapsed, failing to qualify for the World Cup and embarrassing themselves at Egypt 2006. Carlos Alberto Parreira had what you might call a disappointment in Germany, but at least here he won’t have to worry about keeping billionaire superstars happy. Some of the older generation, like Benni McCarthy (Portsmouth) and Quinton Fortune (Bolton), may play a role as the team progresses, but for the most part he’s rebuilding. They get a relatively easy opener home to Congo-Brazzaville, but Zambia awaits, and they’re by no means a lock to top the group. At least the bottom half is weak, and they could get away with a second-place qualification.

    As for Zambia, they can look back on their outstanding WC qualifying run, where they stayed in contention almost all the way. They were less impressive at Egypt 2006, but remain one of Africa’s most reliable second-tier teams. They recently beat Botswana to reach the COSAFA finals, where they’ll face the winner of Zimbabwe-Angola. But they still need a coach: Kalusha Bwalya resigned not long after the Nations Cup, and they’ve been on the lookout for a European candidate. Hopefully they’ll have him by October, when they host South Africa in the first big game of the group. If they get a good top man, look for the Chipolopolo Boys to take first or a qualifying second.

    For a month or two in the summer of 2004, the Red Devils of Congo-Brazzaville were heroes. They had beaten Liberia and Mali back to back, and actually led their WC/ANC qualifying group. Alas, reality asserted itself, and they dropped back to fourth place, out of the tournament. The “other” Congo are a typical mid-level team, with their moments of grandeur (a strong second place in their 1998 WCQ group) and embarrassment (a current 11-game winless streak). They should finish third here, but no one will be paying much attention: the real story is the African U-20 championships, which they’ll host in 2007.

    Chad are one of the most obscure of African teams; half the time they don’t even enter the Nations Cup, and they’ve been known to withdraw during the tournament. But when they actually get out on the pitch, the results aren’t all that bad. In the past five years they’ve scored victories over Libya, Ethiopia, Namibia, Gabon, and even Angola, whom they beat in the first leg of their preliminary round WC/ANC qualifier for 2006. So if they can get the guys on the bus, third place isn’t out of the question. Their nickname is the Sao, and I haven’t been able to find out what that means.

Group 12
(Morocco, Zimbabwe, Malawi)

    With the possible exception of South Africa, Morocco were the biggest disappointment at Egypt 2006. Two years earlier a young squad had made it all the way to the Final, and the next year just missed out on qualifying for Germany. But a coaching nightmare (Phillipe Troussier quit only two months into the job) upset the squad, local man Mohamed Fakhir seemed out of his depth, and they went out without scoring a goal. The Atlas Lions still have plenty of talent, with a number of players in European leagues, and a classy striker in Marouane Chamakh (Bordeaux). Recently they had talks with none other than Guy Roux, the legendary Auxerre manager, but right now it looks as if Fakhir is still the man. They dominated Burkina Faso in an August friendly, and are the natural pick here.

    Zimbabwe nearly pulled off a miracle in Egypt; stuck in a group with Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana, they came within a 90th minute offside call (correct, by the way) of making it into the second round. After years of frustration, the Warriors have established themselves as a capable side, the sort that can finish a strong second to one of the powers. Unfortunately, they’ve caught a three-team group, and second place will leave them nowhere. They don’t have Morocco’s pedigree--striker Benjani “The Undertaker” Mwaruwari (Portsmouth) is the only player at top level in Europe--and so will have to be in top form to have a chance at the upset. Local man Charles Mhlauri learned quickly in Egypt, improving his tactics each time out, and if the unforgiving Zimbabwean press gives him some space, he might bring them home.

    It’s good to finish with Malawi, because they’re one of my favorite teams. They have a nifty nickname (the Flames). They have an online newspaper that covers the team in detail (the Malawi Nation). And in a continent where weirdness is the norm, they often cross the line into arch-weirdness. Coach Burkhard Ziese nearly lost his job when (horrors!) he took the U-20’s to a local bar that sponsored the team. He insisted they drank only soft drinks, but can we be absolutely sure? A few months later he made amends by lending the FA about 15000 Euros to help the U-17’s travel to a game in Lesotho. Don’t expect him to get it back, though: the FA has already spent a few hundred thousand before even getting their budget approved. Right now the senior side is on a preparatory tour in, of all places, Denmark. (At least they figured out to go in summer and not winter.) Oh, how good are they? Not very. In the recent COSAFA Cup they got dumped by both Zambia and Namibia, and the FA says Ziese has two games to save his job. Hey, if he lends me 15000 Euros I can come up with something here in the States…



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