Prince Dornu-Leiku is a columnist from Ghana and will follow
the action in Africa leading up to the 2010 World Cup.
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Africa and surprises ... off we go
I can count them on my fingers at once. How can I leave out my own country of birth? Of course Ghana, then Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Egypt (or Morocco or Tunisia): The five African countries which will join hosts South Africa do battle on behalf of the continent when we host football's grandest and greatest party two years hence. That's my bet. Long before the stringent qualifiers do conclude and duly settle on the 'blessed 5 + the anointed 1' as the FIFA World Cup comes to Africa for the first time ever, I have decided. Yes very strongly too.
But you know what? I don't decide. Yes and I never have as no human being ever has, in the cocky world of this beautiful game we call football and Americans call soccer. That football is the most beautiful game is well beyond doubt in this world of so many sporting disciplines. Football stands tall in patronage and competition and excitement and high uncertainty. In fact, unless you are pitting Brazil against American Samoa (apologies to Peter Goldstein) or Vanuatu or Tonga, football matches are highly uncertain. As there are many lovers and followers of football, so are many of its self-appointed soothsayers and experts. But many of them are just fanatics who have turned the love of their teams, teams which are successful, teams like Brazil or Manchester United or Real Madrid or Al Ahly or Boca Juniors, into what they claim are their expertise on the game.
But in reality, many of them are pure fanatics who continue to insist on their team's successes even when they are out of form. In the run-up to the just concluded European football season, to be precise in Spain, fans of FC Barcelona kept on believing their team was going to win as every next match approached. But they kept losing and dropping points, and no matter the great players they had or their great records in the past, Barca were clearly on a slump. They even believed they were going to defeat a festive Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, but they were lucky to escape with the eventual 1-4 defeat. So it is hard to believe there are any experts or decision-makers on football. No. Before the 90 minutes of a football match has been cleared, no one can truly give out the end result of a match.
So one of these fanatics happened to be a fan here in Ghana whom during the 2008 African Cup of Nations, carried a guinea fowl to Ghana's games with assurances of Ghana victories which went well especially in the quarter final when he brought two of the birds and promised they meant two goals to be scored by the Black Stars. This buddy became a hero and received worships and gifts much more than many of the players who had done battle with a man less to yet defeat eternal rivals Nigeria 2-1. But I was never buying any of his so-called prophecies, I remained deaf to it until disaster struck your buddy in the semi finals. He apparently predicted a 1-0 win for the Black Stars but which turned out in the opposite. Sad and subsequently angry Ghanaian fans at the stadium nearly lynched him and according to reports, he had to be smuggled out by security men and has since remained indoors, even in his own neighbourhood. You see, he is a die-hard supporter but no expert or prophet for that matter.
Football is a simple game. The team that scores most, wins. But there are still true experts on the game. They may often get their predictions wrong, but they are always consistent with their insights and pronouncements on, before and after games. Those are the men we call football experts or in certain languages, bookmakers. And to confirm to you, they are the men who will always remind you how uncertain their predictions are. They have seen it and know that this is how this match must turn out, but often the 90 minutes on the pitch defy their logic and are often baffled. But they also understand. They know the game is uncertain and that is what makes it so beautiful and as exciting as nothing else, believe me. One of such men is Peter Goldstein, the man who until now wrote for you many of the facts you never knew about African football on this website. He will always tell you how uncertain his predictions are and will quickly give out credible examples, but men the man is a true expert on football, simple. I will say no further because I have a lot to write on the impending SA 2010 African qualifiers, but just pay glowing tribute to Goldstein for getting very right his predictions on the five African teams at the last World Cup Germany 2006. He got them in whatever eventual positions they turned out. That is surely some magic. But it wasn't. The man just knows his football, especially African football, even though I am not sure if he has been to Africa or more importantly watched a game here, (I have to ask him soon). So you see, my prediction of the 'Blessed 5' is an inspiration from Peter Goldstein.
But the football pitches across Africa, including the many who until recently were unsure if they could host matches, must decide. And first of all, it is noteworthy that I have in fact, not made an exact prediction of five, have I? Are there not seven countries indicated there? Yes I think the North African trio must decide the other berth amongst themselves as they seem evenly matched even though Egypt may claim a slight superiority. But I bet the Pharaohs will themselves not fancy fighting for a group with any of Tunisia or Morocco. Aside, these three North African sides, I think will be putting up identical performances in the World Cup, so it certainly is good for Africa to have just one of them in there to see what they can do. The other four whom I expect to go into different groups when the teams are trimmed down to 20 teams at the end of the second stage of qualifiers, will be good fighters for Africa, as I see it.
Outside of their bracket, perhaps only Mali, Angola, Guinea or the 2002 World Cup heroes Senegal can claim a bit of bragging rights. But can they match Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany, France et al when the big day comes in June 2010? So if I had my way, we shall be having the 'Blessed 5' hoisting Africa's flag come the next World Cup. But that will mean that none of these teams should clash with one another when the final winner-takes-all groups are drawn at the end of this year. But as FIFA are certain to base their grouping of the final twenty teams on their FIFA rankings at the end of the second African qualifying stage, meaning four tiers of five teams each, there are bound to be clashes of the heavyweights, especially Africa where surprises abound. Last time, for Germany 2006, four debutantes defied the form book and upstaged prestigious opponents to make the World Cup. There is no ruling out surprises but when clashes occur, trust my hopes to be a Egypt/Tunisia/Morocco same group scenario. That will be great for North African football, wouldn't it?
South Africa of course become the first hosts to take part in the qualifiers though their focus is on reaching Angola 2010, the 27th Cup of African Nations which's qualifiers are intertwined with the World Cup qualifiers, as was the case of four years ago. Unlike 4 years ago when the final winner-take-all groups of five contained six teams each after a simple preliminary home-and-away knock-out of 42 teams where the 21 winners joined the continent's nine best ranked sides, this time it is in three stages. The first stage involved the ten worst teams in Africa according to the FIFA rankings of July 2007 in a bid to produce five winners in addition to the best 43. After the withdrawal of Central African Republic and São Tomé e Príncipe, the next two best ranked - Swaziland and Seychelles joined the 43 leaving the remaining six bottom sitters to battle each other for the last three berths. In the process, Djibouti, Madagascar and Sierra Leone overcame Somalia, Comoros Island and Guinea Bissau respectively and they were in the second qualifying stage. Hussein Yassin's 84th minute goal against the war-torn Somalis ensured passage into the group stage for Djibouti which have been FIFA member since 1994. In the process Yassin secured for Djibouti their first ever win in a competitive match. Now they battle Egypt, DR Congo and Malawi in Group 12.
The good part of Africa's 2010 qualifying system is that 48 - since reduced to 47 by Eritrea's withdrawal - of the continent's 53 affiliate football members have a chance to take a crack at qualification attempt from a group of four right from the onset. Admittedly, only the group winners are assured of progress but with eight more places up for grabs for the 12 eventual second-placed teams, the minnows can dream until the last Match Day in October. Also, that four of the six second stage qualifying matches will be cleared in the four successive weekends of June is good indeed. Once they are cleared, then many of Africa's great players who are coming off very long fatiguing seasons in Europe can have a good rest ahead of the next European season. It is unique as it is timed as the European Championships which begins and ends in June, so as all European clubs can have their players at the same fitness level for the new season.
Africa's two remaining Match Days come in September and October when the European qualifiers will also get underway. And when it finally comes down to the third and final qualifying stage, which's draw will held in November, there will be fireworks as the favourites will no longer have the luxury of avoiding each other. They will square up in battles of fervent proportions. That is where I hope and pray my 'Blessed 5' get separated to maintain their various chances of progress to SA 2010. It will go all the way, with just four teams competing in each section for the winner-take-all final 5 groups. Even a poor start will be no deterrent as third place and qualification for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations Angola could still come in handy on the very last qualification Match Day. This makes this World Cup qualification perhaps the most competitive yet in African qualifying history.
In this piece, I will just take a cursory glance at all the action in each of the twelve groups and give an analysis on what we can expect in the end come October. Obviously all the groups are balanced giving the giants of African football a head start whilst the minnows will also be counting their luck to continue the surprises that rocked the continent's qualifiers last time around for Germany 2006. No matter what happens, I can bet my 'Blessed 5 (2)' will be through to the last 20 in November's draw. Only never forget that I have told you before and I will repeat it again, that Africa is full of surprises, therefore expect to be surprised.
Group 1: Cameroon, Tanzania, Mauritius, Cape Verde
The Indomitable Lions certainly start heads and shoulders above the other trio in this section. Chasing an African record 6th appearance at the World Cup, Cameroon were unimpressive at the recent Cup of African Nations Ghana 2008 yet managed to get to the final and should be too strong for Tanzania, Cape Verde Islands and Mauritius. Star striker Samuel Eto'O whose face is the epitome of the 2010 World Cup, hopes to put a miserable season with FC Barcelona behind him and help put his country on the right step. Otto Pfister's side have recently moved to second on the continent and 16th in the world according to the FIFA rankings and will look to inspiration from 34 year old captain Rigobert Song who has a target at a crack at a record 4th World Cup appearance.
Tanzania are favoured to earn the runners-up spot that will put them in stead to challenge for a best second-placed spot, but face stiff challenge from Mauritius and Cape Verde. Mauritius despite being the worst ranked in the section (46th in Africa and 171st in the world) actually boast a superior head-to-head record against the Taifa Stars and in fact achieved just their only World Cup qualifying win last time around when defeating Uganda 3-1 in the preliminaries for Germany 2006. Sad though that it wasn't enough to help them overcome the Ugandans, falling 3-4 on aggregate. But they will be keen to make amends and may even be a deciding factor if the eventual second-placed side can make the last 20.
Cape Verde on the other hand hope to build on their own relative slight success from the 2006 qualifiers and hope to push Cameroon, Tanzania and Mauritius to the wall. Having only participated in the World Cup qualifiers in 2002, the island archipelago secured their first victory in the prelims for 2006 and a first away win in Burkina Faso helped them push Ghana, South African and DR Congo all the way until they run out of gear. With a sizable number of players plying their trade in Europe and elsewhere, Cape Verde only earlier this week added Dutch-born Cecilio Lopes whose father comes from the Islands but who will only make it to his country after turning out for them in his debut in their friendly in Luxembourg and playing against Cameroon on Saturday in their opening qualifier. Many Cape Verdians hope he can put his injury-plagued season behind him and power them to a surprise finish.
Group 2: Guinea, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kenya
Guinea's recent rise in continental football makes them tough contenders when the final 20 re-group for the final stage of the African qualifiers. Talismanic playmaker and captain Pascal Feidounou is fast establishing himself as one of the kingpins of African football and his return to the side after suspension at the Ghana 2008 Nations' Cup certainly is a big boost. But first the Syli National must overcome what look on paper, an equally-matched field of challengers. Zimbabwe will be first to call in Conakry this Sunday with a determination to start brightly a journey they fancy will end with them playing next door in the 2010 World Cup. Zimbabwe's 60 year old Brazilian coach Jose Claudinei Georgini has assessed his team long enough to put up a fight in June.
The appointment of Manchester City striker Benjani as captain, rightly, also begins a new phase in the Warriors' armoury as the national team look to put some smiles on the faces of Zimbabweans in the heat of political instability and an acrimonious inflation rate. But what will be essential to the Warriors' fight will be an aim to nick victories in their home games then fight for some of the points away. That however is highly unlikely to be the case in the Guinean capital on Sunday. Kenya and Namibia are the sides Zimbabwe can hope to wrestle away points from. However Namibia's recent rise which saw them make the recent African Nations' Cup certainly puts them in a strong position and the Brave Warriors are expected to start brightly when they host unstable Kenya. The Kenyans have been dogged by many off-the-pitch incidents but have also put themselves in line to battle. We will see how ready they will be when next weekend they host the highly rated Guineans.
Group 3: Angola, Benin, Uganda, Niger
Hosts of the next Nations Cup, Angola will be aiming for a second successive World Cup qualification success after shocking Nigeria to make Germany 2006 last time around. Their performance in Ghana 2008 where they progressed beyond the group phase of the African Cup for the first time puts local favourite Luis Olivera Goncalves' men in a very good position. That, with the rise of striking sensation Manucho who proved his worth at the African Nations' Cup why Manchester United agreed a three year deal for his srvices, the Palacan Negras may turn out to be one of the teams who may earn early passages to the final qualifying stage. That they have their toughest opponents on paper - Benin - at home in the first game, is another good omen. The Beninois however hope new coach, Belgian Patrick Assuems whose appointment engulfed the West African Nation in disaggreements, will be ready to strengthen a side which were impressive, even in losing all three games to Mali, Ivory Coast and Nigeria at Ghana 2008. No matter what happens in Luanda this weekend, the Squirrels should be able to scrape victories against Uganda and Niger whom they play later in the month. Uganda and Niger on the hand will hope to finish the rivalry they started in the qualifiers to Ghana 2008 where they were both eventually edged out by Nigeria.
Group 4: Nigeria, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone
Brazilian Joel Santana has been in charge of Bafana Bafana barely a month and he's faced with what is arguably South Africa's biggest game in Africa. When South Africa returned to international football after many years of apartheid-enforced isolation, Nigeria were their stumbling block as they vied for a ticket to USA 1994 FIFA World Cup. 4-0 Bafana Bafana did receive in Lagos before managing a scoreless tie in Johannesburg over three months later. And so the story has remained. Nigeria have gone on to beat South Africa in their two other competitive meetings, beating them 2-0 and 4-0 in the 2000 and 2004 African Cup of Nations respectively. In fact, Bafana's only victory and goals against the Super Eagles came in a 2-1 victory in a friendly in Johannesburg in November 2004. So Santana's real credentials will be severely tested in Abuja on Sunday as he is already without star striker Benny McCarthy who has ruled himself out for unexplained personal reasons.
The Nigerians who drew 1-1 with EURO 2008 co-hosts Austria last Tuesday also have a new man in the host seat vacated by Germany's EURO'96 winning coach Berti Vogts. Shaibu Amodu, who qualified the Super Eagles to the 2002 World Cup but didn't last to oversee their failed campaign in the Far East, has returned to take charge of another World Cup qualifying run. Amodu is also missing striker Obafemi Martins, but unlike Santana, has many arsenals to call on to deliver including the Everton youngster Victor Anichebe. This must certainly be the Super Eagles' group for the taking but if, as they have become accustomed to in recent qualifiers, including a 1-0 reverse to group opponents Sierra Leone in the 2002 qualifiers, they slip and get off the pedal, trust the Brazilian Joel Santana to prove his worth and take Bafana to the top of the podium. Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea certainly will be also runs and hope some of their home performances will have a say on who tops the group.
Taking only a third crack at the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Equatorial Guinea will be counting on their oil wealth and last year's 1-0 win over Cameroon in the qualifiers to Ghana 2008 to inspire them. Whereas the Leone Stars of Sierra Leone who only scraped through the preliminary stage on a 1-0 aggregate win over Guinea Bissau, will be counting on this qualifiers to start a renaissance in their now totally slumped football.
Group 5: Ghana, Libya, Lesotho, Gabon
Libya will never forgive Ghana for one thing: the 1982 Africa Cup of Nations. Ghana had planned to pull out of the event until Libya Leader Colonel Muhamma Gaddafi decided to fund the Black Stars' trip to Tripoli for the continental showpiece. As it turned out Ghana met Libya in the final but couldn't reciprocate the good gesture overcoming the hosts on penalties to win the fourth and what has turned out to be Ghana's last Nations' Cup success. It didn't take long for Libya to earn their revenge though. The North African knocked Ghana out in the qualifiers for the 1986 FIFA World Cup. This Sunday in the Ghanaian second city of Kumasi, the two nations cross swords again since Libya's 2-0 success way back in 1985. The Black Stars as Africa's number one ranked football nation may be clear favourites, but having just lost Frenchman Claude Leroy who refused a contract extension, Ghana have had to settle on local man Sellas Tetteh who played assistant to both Ratomir Dujkovic in Germany 2006 and recently Leroy during Ghana 2008. He lost his first game in charge 0-1 to Australia some few days ago but has promised to deliver tomorrow and in the subsequent three matches in June.
The Libyans failed to make it to Ghana 2008 after managing their first ever qualification to the Nations' Cup via Egypt 2006 and also their only other participation since playing hosts 24 years earlier. But they have been preparing fervently and rounded off with a spectacular 4-2 win over Liberia in Monrovia and I am tempted to believe they can upset the Black Stars on Sunday. How true my premonitions turn out will be a big blow to my own wishes but football is just a game and if reports on the Black Stars preparations where star man Michael Essien had yet to report to camp as at Thursday night were true, then Ghana may yet be found wanting in a World Cup qualifier once again. Keen to impress however will be local hitman Eric Bekoe who is in top shape for league leaders Asante Kotoko and who tasted action in last March's international friendly loss to Mexico in London.
Lesotho and Gabon are the other opponents of the Black Stars in this group. Whereas Lesotho have lost two of their three games against the Black Stars in the past, Gabon have also fared no better against the Black Stars, only they eliminated Ghana from the qualifiers to the 1990 African Cup of Nations on penalties after both legs had ended in a deadlock. Gabon have problems of their won with their French coach Alan Giresse who also quit recently but unlike Leroy, rescinded his decision soon afterwards.
Group 6: Senegal, Algeria, Liberia, Gambia
Certainly another of the most evenly matched groups. Senegal, quarter finalists only in 2002, now find themselves heading back into the doldrums as their Ghana 2008 outing proved. The poor performance in Ghana led to internal squabbles that nearly cost Senegal a ban from FIFA until the game's world controlling body came to their aid to resolve issues on a temporary basis. Local coach Lamine Ndiaye who has taken over the reins has left out notable names as Habib Beye, Pape Bouba Diop as well as hitman Mahmadou Niang who asked to be left out till next year. Algeria, the team that travel to Dakar to face the Teranga Lions, made the headlines in the successive World Cups of 1982 and 1986 as well as winning the African Cup four years later. But the Desert warriors have also slid down. They were absent in Ghana 2008 and are keen to right the wrongs that have sent them down the ladder of African football but it remains to be seen what they can do in Senegal and afterwards.
Gambia may prove to be the dark horses if recent performances of their junior teams in their respective world championships are to be judged. The good news is that they have available palyers who have developed from winning the 2005 African U-17 Championships, playing in that year's FIFA U-17 World Cup then following it to the U-20 World Cup last year. A steady progress that should see the core of that side now promoted to the senior side. It doesn't help them though they have only just appointed Belgian Paul Put to take charge of the team as they travel to Monrovia to face the Lone Stars. Gambians should pray that Put, who was banned from Belgium football for life last year for taking money from a Chinese betting syndicate to influence match results, doesn't do same to them. Liberia who came closest to qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002, failed to make a planned training trip to Germany due to visa acquisition problems. And following their 2-4 loss to Libya in a preparatory friendly, may be in for a battering in this most open group.
Group 7: Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Botswana, Madagascar
Despite missing captain Didier Drogba, FC Barcelona midfield workman Yaya Toure and striker Arouna Dindane through injury, the Elephants of Ivory Coast should be too strong for their opponents in the four games in June. Vahid Halilhodzic who has coached both Lille and Paris Saint Germainn in the French Ligue 1 has just been handed the tough job of steering the Ivory Coast from their underachieving status into real world beaters and he should be ready come Sunday when they host the Mambas of Mozambique. Currently ranked 14th on the continent, Mozambique were rewarded last year as FIFA's Mover of the Year in the ranking and are riding on the back of such recent success to lay claim to at least one of the 8 best runners-up spots on offer. No matter what happens in Abidjan, much will depend on how they fare against Botswana and Madagascar who are ranked 18 and 26 places respectively below them on the continent.
Group 8: Morocco, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mauritania
Morocco has a history of relying on coaches who have already made it on the continent. That is why after parting company with another old hand on the continent, Henri Michel following a disastrous Ghana 2008 campaign, Morocco needn't look further than settle on Michel's countryman Roger Lemerre whose contract with Tunisia was just running out. Lemerre, who won the 2004 Nations Cup for Tunisia defeating Morocco in the final and followed that up to deny the Atlas Lions qualification to Germany 2006, now has the huge responsibility to rekindle the giants that Morocco once were in African foot ball. The first African nation to play at the World Cup in the modern era has failed to qualify since 1998 and have slumped on the continental front as well. Ethiopia, Rwanda and Mauritania certainly should be no match for Lemerre to overcome at this stage but he will be faced with the biggest task when the final qualifying stage comes around.
Group 9: Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Seychelles
As Morocco in Group 8, this section should be a piece of cake for Tunisia who have made it to the last three World Cups. They gave us one of the best games at Ghana 2008, perhaps even the most thrilling game in their extra time loss to eventual finalists Cameroon. Though their decision to part company with Roger Lemerre may have been ill-conceived, it may also have been a plot for news tactics and strategies. One of the best organisers in African football, trust Tunisia on what they do. Their biggest threat no doubt will come from Burkina Faso who have been inconsistent but have often defied the form book to record stunning upsets. Coached by the Portuguese Paulo Duarte, the only minus for the Stallions is that they will be facing the Carthage Eagles in their first match away in Tunis which is no good news at all. It means a win in the other tie in Bujumbura between the Burundi hosts and the Seychelles Island may give Burkina Faso an uphill task to claw back into the picture. The Seychelles have followed the pattern of most of the Africa teams who are all appointing new men in charge with the recruitment of Dutchman Jan Mak recently to steer them through the four qualification matches in June on a short-term contract believed to last a mere six weeks. This is Africa for you. A six-week contact.
Group 10: Mali, Congo, Sudan, Chad
Another evenly matched group, it will be a big test not only for the underachieving Mali national team but also for their new coach Stephen Keshi. The former Nigeria captain made history when he guided unfancied Togo to qualification success for Germany 2006 but after a disastrous Egypt 2006 African Cup of Nations campaign which included a spat with Togo star striker Emmanuel Sheyi Adebayor, Keshi lost his post to German Otto Pfister who coached Togo at the World Cup instead of Keshi. Keshi will later reconcile with Togo but lose out on qualification for Ghana 2008 on the last qualification day to Mali. Now the Malians have gone for him to help resuscitate their own flagging fortunes after a disappointing Ghana 2008 campaign. Much will depend on the form of Sevilla striker Fredi Kanoute as well new Barca recruit Seydou Keita in June after a tiring season in Spain.
Others such as the Juventus midfielder Momo Sissoko and skipper Mahamadou Diarra who won yet another La Liga title with Real Madrid must also step into the fray as Congo provides the test in the first match this weekend. Victory will be a huge boost ahead of subsequent clashes in the course of the month against Sudan and Chad, the neighbours whose conflicts with each other in Southern Sudan has forced an indefinite suspension of their tie scheduled for this weekend. Sudan's run to African Cup of Nations Ghana 2008 ended three decades of absence on the continental stage. Their three losses in Ghana was just to confirm to them how long their absence have been especially as they came to do battle with an experienced but clearly over-aged side. They should have learnt their lessons but the question is if they could be imbibed and antidotes found so soon. How they run especially Mali and Congo rugged in June will give us an insight.
Group 11: Togo, Zambia, Swaziland
This is a group which is definite that only their winner will earn through to the final stage of qualifiers following the sudden withdrawal of Eritrea. What it means is that with just four matches to be played by each team as compared by six to all other teams in the eleven other groups, there is no chance of the second placed team in this section overcoming any of the eleven others. It will be very difficult. Which means either Togo or Zambia will miss out on fighting for even a 2010 Nations' Cup spot as only the final 20 teams who will go into November's third stage draw stand a chance to gain 15 of the 16 places available to Angola 2010.
Togo, still serving a home ban for the crowd trouble in losing out on qualification to Ghana 2008 last year, play host to Zambia in what could yet prove the group decider right here in Accra, precisely the Ohene Djan Stadium which is less than 200 metres from where I am seated now putting this piece together. Togo captain Sheyi Adebayor has been busy answering questions to the BBC as well as receiving an award as 2007 BBC African Footballer of the year and undertaking charity events in Kumasi, over 250 kilometres from Accra less than 24 hours to the Hawks qualifier against Zambia. Togo also just appointed Frenchman Henri Stambouli to take over the coaching job as questions remain over how ready they will be for Zambia. The Chipolopolo have shown much more grit and I have seen them busying themselves in Accra more than Togo. As early as Thursday morning, they had already psyched themselves up with a friendly against Nania FC, owned by Ghanaian football legend and SA 2010 Ambassador Abedi Pele who is also a good friend of new Zambia FA boss Kalusha Bwalya. The Zambians also have in the dug-out of course until recently Ghana assistant coach Herve Renard who knows all about the Accra Sports Stadium.
Minnows and certainly underdogs Swaziland will not play until when they host the Togolese next week. They also just recently appointed a new coach in former South Africa coach Ephraim Mashaba to replace the Swiss tactician Raoul Savoy, who had promised much for the lowly ranked football nation.
Group 12: Egypt, Congo DR, Malawi, Djibouti
The tie of the group takes place in Cairo on this opening weekend as Congo take a squad of 20 European-based players including star men Shabani Nonda and Lomana Lualua to face the African champions. The first African nation to play at the World Cup way back in 1934, Egypt will not return again until 1990 and have remained absent ever since. But it will be regarded a major setback if the Pharaohs fail to make the journey to the 2010 event especially coming on the heels of their perceived dominance of African football a la back-to back Nations Cup triumphs. But a DR Congo side brandishing a very potent attacking machinery will attempt to defy the form book right from the onset even though Egypt's Cairo hunting ground is a fortress abhorred by even the fiercest of African football powerhouses. Not least the Congolese who were on the end of a 4-1 whitewash when last the two nations met in the quarter finals of the 2006 Nations Cup which the Egyptians of course went on to win.
Malawi and surprise packages Djibouti meanwhile will be psyching each other up in Blantyre in a match which gives Malawi a slight chance to start bragging rights over the Congolese ahead of their clash in Kinshasa next weekend. Should they grab the three points against Djibouti and Congo lose in Egypt, Malawi will have taken a huge step that could psychologically work for them but I don't see Congo letting up in Kinshasa. But Malawi could try. Meanwhile I will be fancing Djibouti to be plotting a surprise for Malawi. Blantyre would be a very good venue for them to secure their first ever away win and their second ever win overall. Come on Djibouti, come on surprises. I expect more surprises and where to start it than unfancied one-victory Djibouti, come on you Djiboutians.
I bet the 'Blessed 5' will scale this second qualifying stage hurdle before setting up the tantalisingly epic battles in the final stage of qualifiers. But as I have stated throughout this piece, I fancy many surprises as many of Africa's so-called minnows look to turn upside down, the form book. Surprises, where else could we start it than in my own Ghana? Come on you Libyans. But you know that will also mean the Black Stars will be suffering the unthinkable of missing out on SA 2010 which is not good for the continent's assault against the rest of the world, is it? Remember Germany 2006. That was just about two years ago. Had it not been for Stephen Appiah and his army of comrades and brave men, Africa would have had no say in the second round.
As we host in 2010, there should be no margin for error. All six (yes a record 6 African representatives at the FIFA World Cup) must fancy progress from their respective groups. And which teams can better do it than my 'Blessed 5'? come on Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Egypt/Morocco/Tunisia. But Djibouti, Swaziland, Chad, Seychelles, please, please and please keep the surprises on. This is Africa. The land of football surprises.
Meanwhile, catch me on the flipside of June for a review of all that happened on the opening four weekends of African qualifying to our own World Cup. The win in Africa with Africa is very much on. Come on surprises.
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