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 WCQ: Surprises ... you got them
Yssouf Kone. That is the name. His name may never have been heard by many a football fan but the man who plays his professional football in Romania set the second phase of African qualifiers alight on the very opening qualifying Match Day. Last time for Germany 2006, he enjoyed playing time for a total of 10 minutes in the qualifiers so starting on the bench as his Burkina Faso faced the might of Tunisia in North Africa was the norm for the Cluj of Romania forward. As expected, the hosts opened the scoring in the first half and went in search of a second, albeit elusive until Kone's moment came seven minutes from time. Within two minutes after coming on as a substitute, Kone had struck home the equaliser silencing the 15,000 capacity crowd at the Stade Olympique de Rades. But he wasn't finished yet. Another two minutes and he drove in the winner much to the disbelief of everybody including himself. Tunisia 1 Burkina Faso 2 the result read at the final whistle. Down surprise number one.
Burkina Faso is the country. It's true. The Stallions won in Tunisia thanks to the goals of Yssouf Kone but that they will go on, like the Tunisians, to win their next three games in June before holding the Tunisians last Saturday in the return encounter speaks volumes for the men from the former Upper Volta. In the qualifiers to the last World Cup, Burkina Faso did scare Ghana when the Stallions came calling in Kumasi in the final round of qualifiers. Having earlier inflicted what will also turn out to be Ghana's only defeat of those qualifiers back in Ouagadougou, the Stallions marched unto Ghana and dare take the lead and for the opening 70 minutes, kept the Black Stars at bay intensifying Ghanaian fears of missing out on the World Cup yet again.
The Black Stars of course fought back for a 2-1 victory in the end but a certain Moumouni Dagano left with his head held high. He had tormented the Ghanaian defence right from the first leg and deservedly scored the Burkinabe goal in Ghana. Three years down the lane and he's back to continue where he left off. His five goals is the joint highest tally in the African qualifiers along with Mali's Fredi Kanoute and the Benin striker Razak Omotoyossi. Three of those goals came in Victoria when the Stallions needed to dig deep to overcome the fierce resistance by a Seychelles Island side determined to shed off their 'whipping boys' tag. The most important part of their magnificent run over the five matches is that, like Nigeria, Benin and Cameroon, Burkina Faso are assured of making the last twenty with a match to spare.
According to the football statisticians, Burkina Faso are yet to make it into Africa's third and final phase based on the fact that Tunisia could still overtake the West Africans and win African qualifying group 9. What they forget is that Burkina Faso only need a point at already-ousted Burundi next month to top the group. Even if they don't get the needed point in Burundi and Tunisia duly overtake them, Burkina Faso's current tally of seven points garnered aside the results against rock bottom Seychelles will be strong for a fight for a top 8 runner-up finish, certainly. Down goes surprise number two.
Match Day Three. Surprise number three. Results read: Gabon 2-0 Ghana, Rwanda 3-1 Morocco, Tanzania 0-0 Cameroon, Uganda 3-1 Angola, Sierra Leone 1-0 South Africa, Gambia 1-0 Algeria, Botswana 1-1 Ivory Coast, Chad 2-1 Congo, Sudan 3-2 Mali, Swaziland 0-0 Zambia… wait for this… Malawi 1 the African champions Egypt 0. On the same day, Liberia rallied from two goals down to hold favourites Senegal 2-2, in Monrovia though.
So the story went in the five weekends of 2010 qualification in Africa. Shocks and surprise results galore. Many an occasion, the formbook was upturned as some of Africa's minnows rose to the challenge of their more illustrious compatriots. Admittedly, the Seychelles Island, Djibouti, Mauritania and Lesotho have yet to gain their first points after five games but even they have found the target. All four. Even Djibouti. Thrown into the deep end against the African champions Egypt, an attacking-minded DR Congo and a surprising lethal Malawi, Djibouti have shipped 26 goals, an average of over 5 per game. But twice Djibouti have scored, in different matches too. Lesotho, who have shipped 13 goals in Group 5, of course did score their only goals in the 2-3 loss to Ghana, but it was a close shave. Both goals came in injury time when Ghana 3-0 up, typical of the Black Stars, grew complacent.
And in the Libyan capital of Tripoli last weekend, the Black Stars came unstuck yet again as the Greens of Libya claimed all three points on offer thanks to solitary strike of Ahmed Osman. Surprise it surely sounds on paper, but on the football pitch in Tripoli, the Libyans were very superior and came close to breaking the deadlock on several occasions and were even earlier denied by the post until Osman's cool finish sent Libyans into raptures. Libya thus sit atop Group 5, three points to the good of the nine of Ghana and Gabon with just the last round of matches to go. In group 12, it is a more surprising Malawi who are pushing the African champions Egypt and the 1974 World Cup finalists DR Congo to the very wire. Chief among the Malawians results obviously was the win over the Egyptians on Match Day 3. But their 8-1 win against Djibouti on the very opening weekend remains the highest score of the second stage of African qualifiers.
In the process, the Malawian forward Essau Kanyenda struck home the first hat-trick in the African qualifiers. Egypt though have dug themselves out of the hole, the mark of the true champions the Pharaohs are. Star man Mohammed Aboutrika whose goal decided the African Cup of Nations Ghana 2008 final in January rose to the fore again in Kinshasa last Sunday with the only strike as Egypt completed the double over DR Congo. Now the Egyptians only need a point at home to pointless Seychelles to clinch the group, shifting the fight for survival unto the surprise packages of Malawi and DR Congo when the duo clash in Blantyre on October 11.
As the continent await the final Match Day action of the second phase of qualifiers next month, the race to the finish line couldn't have been any tighter. Aside the withdrawal of Eritrea and now ban of Ethiopia, only 11 sides have been totally knocked out of contention for a final 20 spot out of the 48 that entered this phase. Tanzania, Mauritius, Namibia, Niger, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho, Liberia, Mauritania, Burundi, Seychelles and Djibouti are the unfortunate countries already out of Angola/South Africa 2010, officially. Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon and of course Burkina Faso are assured a place in the 3rd phase of the African qualifiers. And to trust my instincts, the 'Blessed 5' - if you read my last article - will surely join them. So Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Egypt/Tunisia/Morocco are also in the hat for that final 20 draw, according to my attempts at being a sage.
The biggest test of all certainly belongs to the Brazilian Joel Santana who has the uphill task to dig the 2010 hosts out of the grove. South Africa need a win at Equatorial Guinea next month whilst at the same time praying for Nigeria to beat Sierra Leone in Abuja before Bafana can upstage the Leone Stars into second place. But that will be fruitless because to fight for a top 8 runner-up spot, Bafana Bafana will lose the six points they would have garnered against the bottom Equatorial Guinea and surely that cannot fight against the points of 11 other runners-up. So it is really over and the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosts will suffer the ignominy of watching from the sidelines Africa's Cup of Nations of the same year. Admitedlly, South Africa lack the raw talents to be moulded into the world beaters the 2010 hosts are aiming to present come the tournament. Any agreements with those who argued in the wake of Carlos Alberto Parreira's departure that the Brazilian World Cup winner had in fact jumped ship for a fear of the failure Joel Santana has now borne? Sad indeed.
Group 1: Cameroon ease through
Samuel Eto'O banged in four of Cameroon's seven goals in June and despite his absence last weekend through suspension, Cameroon ensured their progress with a 2-1 victory away in Cape Verde. Eto'O had however proved how pivotal he is to his country when the Taifa Stars of Tanzania dared take the fight to the Indomitable Lions in Yaounde on Match Day 4. Tanzania had a week earlier done the unthinkable holding the Cameroonians to a goalless stalemate in Dar-es-Salaam but nobody could have given them any chance in the return encounter. The Taifa Stars however had other ideas. For another 67 minutes they held Eto'O and company at bay. Then the FC Barcelona star broke the deadlock putting Cameroon in front. You would think Tanzania will fold up. But they struck back. Just five minutes later as the underdogs, the team which were already on the way out after only their opening two qualifiers, showed no fear for their more illustrious opponents. Again, Eto'O proved decisive underlying his quality with the winner in the very last minute of the 90.
Cape Verde though have not disgraced no matter what happens in their last game next month away in Tanzania. Thrown up with Ghana, South Africa, Congo DR and Burkina Faso in the qualifiers for the last World Cup, Cape Verde held their own even garnering an away victory before as was expected, they did fall by the way. But the experience gained has been immense and it has shown in the current campaign. They did lose, 0-2, away to Cameroon in their first game but recovered well to claim all nine points in the three remaining games, garnering another victory away from home in Mauritius. It also helps that the Portuguese coach of Cape Verde Joao de Deus has underlined that his side's current progress should be seen as a long-term objective towards the ambition of becoming more competitive in qualifying campaigns. But there is no margin for error, a win in Tanzania is priceless. It will move the island archipelago to 12 points, but more importantly six points for the race to determine the best eight runners-up.
Tanzania cum Mauritius were both eliminated after just four games when they were actually expected to fight for the second spot with Cape Verde. Tanzania have done well at home, avoiding defeat but the winless tie with whipping boys Mauritius on the opening qualifying weekend was a poor result indeed. That they were able to hold Cameroon in Dar-es-Salaam and only lose 1-2 in the Lion's den must be acknowledged but Tanzania have fared no better than Mauritius. Not even last Saturday's 4-1 win in the backyard of the Mauritians counts. They two sides have been forced back to the drawing board to see what different thing they can do for Brazil 2014.
Group 2: Kenya have edge
In a tale of reversal of fortunes, Namibia which beat Kenya on the opening qualifying weekend back in June, are bottom of the group and out whilst Kenya sit atop the standings and well-placed to make the final 20. Namibia replaced their Dutch coach Ari Schans with 35 year old Belgian Tom Saintfiet following three successive defeats that left the 2008 Nations' Cup finalists rock bottom of Group 2 after June's four games. Schans who took charge as Namibia coach last December just six weeks short of Ghana 2008 where his team duly got knocked out in the first round, was dismissed after losing their Match Day four tie 0-4 in Guinea. Ismail Bangoura's hat-trick, only the third in the African qualifying zone paid put for the Syli Nationale complete a double over Namibia following their own relative poor start. Guinea could only wrestle one point from their opening two games but dug deep to claim all six points when they engaged the Namibians in the double header, points they may eventually be forced to pay for if they don't win the group. 2-1 Guinea did triumph in Windhoek before the convincing result back in Conakry that paid put to Schan's job. Saintfiet who has previously worked in Qatar, Germany, the Faroe Islands, the Netherlands and Finland did not sign a contract and is taking charge of only two games. He lost the first in Kenya last Saturday and plays host to Zimbabwe next month.
Despite losing 1-2 in Namibia on the opening weekend, Kenya have got better and are very well placed to make the last 20 even if they lose in Guinea in October. They have taken ten points from the next available twelve to jump tops of the group. Most impressive of all, the Harambee Stars defeated group favourites Guinea 2-0 in Nairobi seven days later and regained some self-belief and confidence. A week later, the same venue, another victory by the same margin silenced a seemingly confident Zimbabwe and Kenya were on top of the group. A priceless point in Harare where yet again they shut down their post soon followed. So after last Saturday's 1-0 win over Namibia, thus it stand, four matches, three victories, ten points gained, no goal conceded for the Harambee Stars following from the opening day setback in Namibia. More importantly, with only three points gained against the bottom Namibians, Kenya already have seven points and are assured of at least a runner-up spot even if they lose to Guinea next month. Seven points, as it stands, will be enough to make the final 20.
So the pressure may be off Kenya but is fully rested on Guinea. The favourites can still win the group with the easiest of tasks: beat Kenya in Conakry. But the Syli Nationale are still haunted by their 2-0 loss to the same Kenyans back in June. Add it up to the need to win, and the pressure is on the pile. Anything less than the three points, and Guinea will not only be caught up by Zimbabwe a la victory in Namibia, but unlikely to fight for a best runner-up finish even if they beat the Zimbabweans to second place in this group. Guinea have gained six points against the ousted Namibians and will lose those points in that regard.
Zimbabwe on the other hand did very well by holding Guinea to a goalless stalemate on the opening day back in June. But Zimbabwe have only won once since, 2-0 secured at home over the hapless Namibians. Jose Claudinei Georgini, the Brazilian coach of Zimbabwe has promised to deliver the qualification ticket to the World Cup to be played next door to the politically instable nation. How he gets his side into that position will become a mystery if the man who has not been paid his salary since May can't get them to make the last 20 in the first place. That looks a distant possibility now because even if they do beat Namibia, they will only amass nine points. That will only bring them into the equation if Guinea who have eight points now, fail to claim all three points against Kenya. Even then, Zimbabwe will have only three points in the best second-placed teams scenario because their six points against Namibia will of course be scraped.
Group 3: Benin are the kings
Benin football is on the rise. Twice in the last three African Cup of Nations, Benin have played. And though they went out in the first round on both occasions, they have been impressive even in recording five defeats and a solitary draw in six games. The opponents speak for themselves. Tunisia 2004: Nigeria, South Africa, Morocco. Ghana 2008: Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali. And at least in the last year, in Razak Omotoyossi, Benin have also developed the talismanic of a player with the build and dribbling skills of Maradona, yes the Don Diego himself. I watched this guy play in Ghana 2008 against Mali and I couldn't help wanting more of him. His five goals so far is another testimony to how important Omotoyossi is to his country. So Benin football is on the rise, no doubt.
And so it has turned out in the 2010 qualifiers group 3, that the Squirrels have clinched the section with a game to spare. All after losing their opening fixture away to the 2006 World Cup finalists Angola. But it has been four victories from four games since for Benin who also swapped Belgian Patrick Aussems for the Frenchman Michel Dussuyer during June's qualifiers. Aussems had himself stepped in after the German Reinhard Fabisch resigned for health reasons which will later lead to his death, but never got going as Beninois football authorities debated among themselves if he was the right man. In the end, he was replaced by Dussuyer who has delivered qualification to the last 20 with ease. Last Saturday's 3-2 win over the Angolans rounded up the Squirrel's great recovery and confirmed them as one of three official group winners. In the process, they have pushed the Angolans to the wall. The Palacan Negras must beat rung bottom Niger to see off the challenge of Uganda if they are to take second place. But with just four points gained against teams other than the Nigeriens, it certainly remains a difficult scenario whether or not Angola can make the cut for Africa's final 20 hopefuls.
But on the opening weekend back in June, Angola had apparently paid put to what was supposed to be the only threat in this group. 3-0 they did defeat Benin. But the result was a flattery of the match action. Benin had held their own for the opening hour before the toil of the long European season on some of their key players and a lack of adequate preparation paid its toll on the Squirrels as they ran out of steam. Angola took advantage and banged in the goals in the last half hour. All three. The ever-predatory Al Ahly striker Flavio, the only Angolan to ever score a goal at the FIFA World Cup, again was the first to strike for his country, Ricardo Job and Mendonca also on target. But as it is, the Palacan Negras have fared no better since and even though they did win in Niger the following weekend, Angola appear to have been overtaken by events and may have gone to sleep since their relative success at Ghana 2008. Until they were awoken by the assault of the Cranes in Kampala on June 14. They couldn't awake still from the Kampala slumber and as it were dropped vital points at home to the same Ugandans. Just nine days later. 1-1 it did end in Luanda. Angola already qualify for the Nations' Cup of 2010 as hosts but are chasing qualification to successive World Cups following their success in the 2006 qualifiers. The strong field of challengers, especially those of the 'Blessed 5' group added to Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, I see Angola not capable of making it SA 2010 if they make the third qualifying round. And that is why I see Uganda beating them to the second place spot in this section.
Ugandan football was supposed to be in tatters, down the drain, quagmire, crisis. 30 years from their last and only participation in the African Cup of Nations, the Cranes are yet to return to the big stage. They have of course never made the World Cup and last time around, finished rock bottom behind even Cape Verde in the qualifiers to Germany 2006 and were victims of Mauritius' first ever World Cup qualifying win in the prelims though they did edge the tie 4-3 on aggregate. But the Cranes' runners-up finish in Ghana 1978 speaks about what they can do when they are in the mood. Thus it has emerged that Ugandan football may be shaping up a renaissance in this qualifiers. Though they were whacked 4-1 by Benin in Cotonou on Match Day 2, Uganda's 3-1 victory over the 2006 World Cup finalists Angola the following week was one of the highlights of a weekend of shock results in Africa. They didn't end there following it up with a journey to Luanda to hold their hosts to a goalless stalemate and of course as a result move level on seven points apiece with the Angolans.
The Cranes were then forced to also swap coaches following the departure of the Hungarian Laszlo Csaba to the Scottish Premier League club Hearts. So in came 47 year old Scotsman Bobby Williamson and though his side did disappoint last week falling 1-3 away to a hitherto pointless Niger, Uganda are well placed to make the final 20 draw if they can edge Angola to the runner-up spot in this group. In the event, they need to beat Benin next month for three points which will be added to the four gained against Angola and Uganda will surely make the top 20. It certainly is a major coup for the Cranes especially coming after competing against two teams who impressed in the African Nations Cup in Ghana earlier this year, Angola and Benin.
Group 4: No challengers for Super Eagles
Five wins from five games, no goal conceded, through to the last 20 and thus mathematically through to Angola 2010. What else can you ask for? The defensive steel is the best part: the men that provide such steel, goalie Vincent Enyeama, Joseph Yobo, Taye Taiwo, Obinna Nwaneri, Mohammed Yusuf and Yussuf Ayila have an average age of just over 24. Lots of promise for the future ahead if they don't get recycled too soon as often is the case in a multi-talented national team like Nigeria. Praise certainly must go to Super Eagles coach Shaibu Amodu who has brought a new experienced touch to his old job combining defensive steel and attacking efficiency to an effective end. Special mention must also go to the Everton defender Joseph Yobo who stood in as captain on the many occasions Kanu Nwankwo wasn't playing. And he led by the best of examples, rising from defence to score match winners when his team hit the road. Twice in Freetown and in Malabo on the second and third weekends of June, Yobo scored match winners for Nigeria in Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea respectively. That the Super Eagles have an avalanche of talents to choose from in midfield, add it up to Solomon Okoronkwo, Isaac Promise, Victor Obinna Nsofor, Onyekachi Apam, Dele Adeleye, Monday James, Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi, indeed the entire Dream Team IV, the heroes of Nigeria's Olympic soccer silver of Beijing 2008 and you are set with a team which should clearly not only qualify for SA 2010 but also make the semi finals at the very least.
But the mere mention of SA brings shivers down the spines of the 2010 hosts. A gradual slide down the accelerator has seen Bafana Bafana shrunk to their worst ever position since returning to international football after decades of apartheid enforced isolation. With a game to go, South Africa are desperate for only second place in this group. A finish they hope will get them a ticket into the final 20. But that is a mere fantasy. It will not happen. As it is, they must beat Equatorial Guinea in Malabo and hope Nigeria beat Sierra Leone then they can gain second spot, as it is. But if they do eventually get into that position, Bafana will lose six points gained against Equatorial Guinea and go into the best runners-up pool with just one point.
Sierra Leone on their own hand, need just a draw against the group winners of Nigeria to clinch second spot where they are in with a very bright chance. The West Africans have arisen from their slumped football and are an open threat to Bafana. Until they met South Africa, Sierra Leone had lost both fixtures away to the less fancied Equatorial Guinea and then at home to Nigeria.
But come Match Day 3 and the visitors to Freetown were the 2010 hosts desperate to cement what they had fancied was a renaissance in the qualifiers. Having lost 0-2 to Nigeria in Abuja on the opening weekend, South Africa chalked a 4-1 home win over Equatorial Guinea the following weekend. So victory against Sierra Leone will enhance Bafana's bragging rights for second place in this group. So it was that the Brazilian tactician Joel Santana, smarting from his first win in charge of his new side, led his charges to West Africa on what will turn out to be a weekend of shocks in Africa's 2010 qualifiers. Surprise it did turn out in Freetown too as the Leone Stars upstaged the form book to record a most stunning result. A penalty converted by the most famous Sierra Leone footballer Mohammed Kallon as early as after 21 minutes was defended to the hilt. Bafana's misery did not end in West Africa though. A week later and the Leone Stars marched unto Pretoria to record a much more stunning result:0-0. Goalkeeper Christian Caulker was the hero for Sierra Leone between the posts but wastefulness in front of goal was another bane for South Africa. Worse for Bafana coach Santana, he started the match with two holding midfielders and just one attacker. Hurt South African hearts remain unhealed and the Brazilian coach of the national team has come under intense pressure from the media. Santana, tasked with the unenviable task of building the South Africa national team into a competitive side when they do host the rest of world football 20 months hence, praised his lads even in defeat to Nigeria last Saturday. It was truly a match in which Bafana really impressed and dominated for much but failed to hit the target, not even returnee star striker Benni MaCarthy could.
Group 5: All up for grabs
Ghana has won the African Cup of Nations four times and has consistently remained one of the heavyweights of African football, even in not winning the continental title for more than 26 years. But the nation has consistently come unstuck once World Cup qualifiers came to the fore. Until the success of last time for Germany 2006, nine times the Black Stars had attempted to qualify to football's World Cup without success. We thought the lessons had been learnt and imbibed. But here come the qualifiers to 2010 and we are back to square one all over again. With just one match to go, albeit against pointless Lesotho, Ghana is once again gripped with the fear of missing out. The Black Stars have importantly beaten both group rivals Libya and Gabon a combined 5-0 at home, but have faltered away to these same opponents. Not only have they lost both away games to Gabon and Libya, the manner of the losses, amid a total dominance over the Black Stars remains a worry whether or not the national team can scale the hurdles to be confronted in the final phase of the African qualifiers. Admittedly the Black Stars have won away, but the 3-2 gained against the hapless Lesotho has turned out an unnecessary result because both Libya and Gabon have both now also beaten Lesotho home and away.
So with the Black Stars now on 9 points, same as Gabon against the 12 of Libya, Ghana will not be assured of top spot even if we defeat Lesotho by a record score and Libya manage to avoid defeat in Gabon that same weekend. That will mean that the Black Stars will also go into the pool of the runners-up. And that will again mean they will do so minus the six points to be gained against Lesotho. So six points against a field of 11 other contenders cannot be safe, is it?
On the other hand, if Gabon which have also won all their home games beat Libya in Libreville next month, all three sides will be locked on 12 points and will only be separated by goals scored. So Ghanaians are back to their mathematical bests again. We need to score Lesotho this number of goals, so in case of a Gabon victory then we will be tops and avoid this top eight runners-up business, they are calculating. That is what we do in Ghana, rather pathetic for this land of hugely talented football stars. What we are failing to do is to question why our FA have appointed a coach who of all deficiencies, can't speak our official language, English. Serbian Milovan Rajevac is the latest expatriate to hold the Black Stars' helm in a World Cup qualifying campaign. But the man who had previously also never taken charge of a national team, cannot communicate to his players directly. Even his so-called interpreter is himself not so fluent in the Queens' language. So did we go or did we come, with the appointment of Rajevac? All after the FA transferred themselves from the homeland to rented offices and an interviewing panel in Europe in a business-like quest to find the new coach, supposedly. Why the Serbian who cannot speak to his players was their choice has yet to be fully explained, only hints about his low salary demand have crept in. But again, what is the use in employing a coach for how low the pay they ask in relation to the job to be executed? Then why wasn't local man Sellas Tetteh who supervised the team's four games back in June, not kept in the saddle for what would have been five times less of what the Serbian Milovan Rajevac is taking? Or did we choose him because like Ratomir Dujkovic who first ever qualified Ghana to the FIFA World Cup, Milovan comes from Serbia too? Too many questions, so few answers.
And so it has turned out that his side put in a lame performance in Libya, not even the return of inspirational captain Stephen Appiah could help. Add it up the loss of midfield strongman Michael Essien and the Black Stars are on the backfoot. It remains to be seen if the Serbian tactician Milovan Rajevac can dig them out of the hole.
Group 6: Algeria with the advantage
It is a 3 way fight between the 1982 and 1986 World Cup heroes Algeria, the 2002 heroes Senegal and a new rising force in Gambia as the last qualifying Match Day for this phase comes next month. The Algerians have given themselves the edge following the 3-2 success against Senegal last week. It meant Algeria gained nine points to the eight of Senegal and Gambia who meet ironically in October when the Algerians will travel to Monrovia to face an unmotivated Liberia side rock bottom and already eliminated. Motivation for the Algerians will be at its apex because they did already defeat Liberia 3-0 in Blida back in June and will look for a repeat performance. A draw will even be enough for at least a second place finish but victory is the word of assurance.
If they fail to do just that, then the Teranga Lions of Senegal will be waiting on the fringes to hijack the group's first position. The coach of the Teranga Lions axed certain important players key among them the Marseille forward Mamadou Niang who had asked to be excluded from the qualifiers but has not been allowed in following his rescinding of that decision. Skipper El Hadji Diouf, the former African footballer of the year leads the line alongside Henri Camara as Senegal hope to revive their campaign. But the Senegalese have to overcome difficult and confident opposition in the Scorpions of Gambia. Admittedly, the first encounter between the sides in the Gambians' backyard ended scoreless but the football authorities in Gambia have been serious with the game's development in that country. Youth football has been on the rise in the West African country in recent years and it seems the guys are ready to extend it to the senior level. Should they miss out on further progress, there should be no crying for Gambia as they can take comfort in a hope for a better future. But that Senegal will be under massive pressure to win, is another morale booster for the Gambians who have nothing to lose. Striker Njogu Demba scored twice in their 3-0 victory over Liberia last weekend and the Brann of Norway forward must step into the fray once again in Dakar.
Group 7: No easy ride for Elephants
When the draw was made, many pundits had reckoned this to be the easiest of groups to call. The Ivory Coast boasting an avalanche of star players, stood tall shoulders and heads above Mozambique, Botswana and Madagascar. But new Elephants coach Vahid Halilhodzic had to do battle without many top stars including captain Didier Drogba, FC Barcelona star Yaya Toure, France-based striker Arouna Dindane among many others. As it turned out, the hitherto sharp Elephants attack was rendered toothless when Mozambique came calling in Abidjan on the opening weekend. U-23 captain Sekou Cisse's late goal after coming off the bench proved decisive as Halilhodzic managed to scrape all three points. But the next two weekends on the road went unproductive for the Elephants. First on June 8, 0-0 was the result they got in Antananarivo the same day Botswana were beating Mozambique away from home. Trips to Botswana and then Mozambique only last weekend have all brought 1-1 results. The Ivorians remain undisturbed though needing just a draw at home to Madagascar next month to win the group. In the process, Madagascar which currently sit second on 6 points, know that defeat will end their hopes of advancement because the winner of the group's other final Match Day tie between hosts Botswana and Mozambique will earn the privilege of being the runner-up.
Botswana effected the first coach change of the second phase of the African qualifiers sacking Englishman Colwyn Rowe after he could only manage a scoreless home tie with Madagascar on the opening qualifying weekend. Local army officer, Stanley Tshoane, replaced Rowe and within days had plotted and overseen the outstanding result in Mozambique. The result in Maputo remains one of the highlights of June and is in fact the only win to be notched by a team playing away in this group. Botswana themselves made sure of that statistic by holding the Ivory Coast 1-1 in Gaborone a week later, daring to score first against the favourites. Ivory Coast will of course right that wrong with a resounding 4-0 victory eight days later in Abidjan but their failure to win on the road means they cannot sleep soundly, not until they had cleared the last game, this time at home though.
The Mozambicans, yet to return to the African Cup of Nations after their 1996 debut, have five points, four of them taken off the draw masters of Madagascar. The Madagascans drew their opening two fixtures 0-0 before holding the Mozambicans 1-1 for three straight opening draws. It necessitated a switch of coaches as local tactician Franck Rajaonarisamba was handed the reins to hold the helm beginning with the return fixture in Maputo. It was to turn out for the worst. Keen to gain some points after earning just one from nine, Mozambique responded in style. 3-0 they did beat Madagascar but the draw with the Ivory Coast last time out means they are on level with bottom side Botswana. The Southern Africans though are counting on the Ivory Coast to deny Madagascar victory in Abidjan through which they could make the jump from bottom to second by completing the double over Mozambique. If this happens, then with six points gained against Mozambique alone who are bound for the bottom in the instance, then Botswana can only have 2 points to compete for a top 8 finish among the runners-up.
Group 8: No breather for Atlas Lions
When Rwanda beat Mauritania on the opening weekend, not many Moroccans took notice. No. They didn't. If they did, they would have found out that the result was the same as the one they had recorded against Ethiopia in Casablanca the same day, 3-0. And so it remained the following weekend when both sides played and won away. 4-1 Morocco did triumph in Nouakchott over the Mauritanians as Rwanda won 2-1 in Addis Ababa. Still Morocco refused to take notice, or so it seemed because when they showed up in the Rwandan capital of Kigali the following week, they were not ready for what the national team of the former war-torn country had waiting. Three goals the Atlas Lions did receive, only once they could strike back. 3-1 and the three points were Rwanda's. Three matches, three wins for the underdogs and the Moroccan favourites were pushed to the wall. They did bounce back to defeat Rwanda back in Casablanca a week later, but the confidence gained by the Match Day 3 win remains a big boost to the egos in Rwanda ahead of the third and final stage of African qualifiers for 2010. They did beat Ghana to qualification to their first ever Nations' Cup back in 2004 so Rwanda can dream big ahead of the final 20 showdown.
Rwanda have also received a big boost by FIFA's ban of Ethiopia from the qualifiers. The FIFA Emergency Committee suspended Ethiopia due to the non-compliance of the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) with the roadmap agreed in February by FIFA, CAF and the EFF in order to normalise the situation of the federation. One of the main points established by the roadmap was the organisation of an extraordinary general assembly to deal with the motion of dismissal. In addition, the EFF offices were to be handed over to the recognised leadership of the association. Despite several reminders sent by FIFA in recent months, none of the steps established in the roadmap have been taken. So Monsieur Blatter et al had no choice than to suspend the Ethiopians and cancel all the results of their four matches played in June. In the process, Rwanda's 1-0 win in Mauritania last Saturday was their last second phase qualifier. And on nine points, there is no doubt that even if Morocco does upstage them after their own game against the hapless Mauritanians next month, nine points could be the highest any of the 12 second-placed teams can boast of. So Rwanda for sure are in the last 20 too.
Morocco on the other hand sat out Match Day 5 as they were scheduled to play the Ethiopians in Addis Ababa before the FIFA announcement. Now they host pointless Mauritania in October with victory sure to win them the group. It means new coach of the Atlas Lions has yet to still oversee his side in a competitive game. Frenchman Roger Lemerre has switched North African camps after overseeing Tunisia in their four games in June. Lemerre, the only man to win both of the continental championships of Europe and Africa, has gained massive experience on African football in the four years or so he managed the Tunisians. Morocco definitely reckon it will help him steer them successfully through the qualifiers and grab one of Africa's tickets to 2010. First, they must be ready to avert any shocks by a totally abysmal Mauritania.
Group 9: Allez Les Etalons
Whatever it means I believe Burkina Faso's breathtaking display in June fits such connotation, sure. The Stallions sudden resurgence in the qualifiers has been astonishing not for a lack of talents or ambition. But Burkina Faso have been absent at the past two African Cup of Nations and before the qualifiers got underway, were in disarray. In came the Portuguese tactician Paulo Duarte however with his emphasis on organization blended with breathtaking attacking potency. The results speak for themselves. It will have been unthinkable back at the end of May but Burkina Faso sit atop the standings with 13 points and until last Saturday's stalemate against Tunisia, boasted of maximum points. More importantly, the Stallions don't sit above the four time World finalists Tunisia for nothing. Back on the opening weekend in the Tunisian city of Rades, Burkina did what could have contested for a ninth wonder of the world by taming the Carthage Eagles in their own backyard. And all after trailing their more illustrious opponents until five minutes from the end. 0-1 to Tunisia the result stated as Yssouf Kone replaced Soumaila Tassembedo after 83 minutes and within four minutes, the Rosenborg of Norway striker had equalised and put his nation ahead. It was just enough. Burkina Faso had secured a most famous victory in North Africa.
But the Stallions did not end their story there. Four matches later, three more wins and a draw means the men from the former Upper Volta have sealed their place in Africa's top 20 even before kicking a ball in their only remaining fixtures. And they have banged in the goals too. Kone has since banged in another goal to bring his tally in a total of 118 minutes playing time to three, the best average on the continent. But it is his teammate, the Al-Khor Sports Club of Qatar forward Moumouni Dagano who leads the scorers chart with five goals, including a hat-trick. The Stallions total of 11 goals is only bettered by Congo DR and Malawi who both netted 11 of their 13 and 12 goals respectively in group 12 against bottom bearers Djibouti alone.
Tunisia have former Morocco coach Humberto Coelho at the helm following the switch of Roger Lemerre to the fold of the Moroccans. Coelho has had time enough and even watched some of Tunisia's games in June and did indicate he was satisfied with the Carthage Eagles' display in the draw in Burkina Faso. Also trust Coelho and the Carthage Eagles to turn the heat on the hapless Seychelles Island in October and in the process not only enhance their qualification prospects but also overtake Burkina Faso at the top of the group should the Stallions falter in Burundi. Otherwise, the seven points already garnered outside of games against the Seychelles should be enough to propel Tunisia through. Seychelles which appointed Dutchman Jan Mak on a six-week contract to steer them through June's four matches, were aptly very disappointing collecting four losses and letting in a miserable 10 goals, striking back only three times. Even though Jan Mak is still in charge, the statistics have got even worse with last weekend's 1-2 home loss to fellow strugglers Burundi.
Group 10: Evenly-matched indeed
Just take the scenario: Mali get beaten at home by the bottom side Chad and Sudan defeat the visiting Congo in Khartoum. It is equal to nine points for the quadruple of Mali, Congo, Sudan and Chad. Evenly-matched indeed, this group.
But that is if. If is a big word. If Stephen Keshi gets his wish, his star-studded side will just romp to a massive goal margin win over the Chadians to stave off any challenge at all even if Congo grab all three points in Sudan. If the warlords in Chad had their way, their nation's football team will just manage the win over Mali in Bamako, a victory they will be too glad to call a national holiday and party on. If the Sudanese get their wish, it will be for a resounding victory over the Congo coupled with a Mali loss then they can overtake the group on goals. And if the Congolese were to decide, it will be as simple as claiming all three points in Sudan and hoping for a Chad upset in Mali, so they could win the group.
Yes, if is a very big word indeed. That is why we can't rely on certain scenarios. 90 minutes on the football field will decide. Stephen Keshi and his star-studded side should be able to beat Chad, a side they have already defeated in N'Djamena. Mahamadou Diarra (Real Madrid), Fredi Kanoute (Sevilla), Seydou Keita (Barcelona), Momo Sissoko (Juventus), the names on the Mali teamsheet should scare many a Chadian to death. But these were the same names that were on the teamsheet of the Malians when they got roasted in Sudan then Congo only last week. Chad's discomfort certainly lie in the fact that the Sudan and Congo shared a total of seven goals between them when they did visit Bamako. So Chad definitely cannot stop the Malians from winning this group so the match for survival is the other fixture in this group in October. Sudan did themselves a load of disservice when they failed to grab all six points in their double header with Chad in Egypt last week. 1-2 they did surrender in what should have been their home leg last Saturday before turning the tables 3-1 in the return encounter on Wednesday. Now they have put themselves in a tight corner. But victory over the Congolese will be vital especially when they have thus far grabbed just three points off the bottom sitters of Chad.
Group 11: You won't believe it
Yes you won't believe it. You won't. With a game to go in this section, it is the Kingdom of Swaziland which has the best chance of all three to win the group. Surprise packages Swaziland, the 2006 World Cup finalists Togo and Kalusha Bwalya's Zambia all know what to do to ensure success in this group. But it is the Swazis who need just a win to clinch the group though the Zambians can be assured of a top 8 runners-up spot even if the Swazis manage to upstage them. In the stingiest of groups, the five games have produced just six goals in total by all three sides. The Zambians went top last Wednesday after defeating Togo 1-0 on the fantastic strike of France-based forward Felix Katongo. Incredibly, that is the last African qualifier I watched before putting together this piece. The return encounter right here at the Ohene Djan Stadium was also the first one I watched. On that occasion, I was at the stadium myself but Wednesday's action was watched from the comfort of my home courtesy Multichoice Africa's DSTV.
On Saturday May 31, as I have just stated, I was a spectator at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra when the Hawks hosted the Chipolopolo. 1-0 Togo did win but not without a frustration of Zambia from the referee and his two assistants. After falling behind early in the game, several times Zambia did launch attacks for the equalizer but several times they were retarded by one dubious call or another. The worst of them came right at the very end, when on the stroke of full time, the equalizer, or so it seemed, did come. But before the hardworking Zambians could get into a jubilant mood, the referee had disallowed the goal. Why? His assistant's flag was apparently up on the premise that the Zambian goalscorer had been in an offside position in the first place. So it ended and the Chipolopolo left Accra empty-handed and very angry.
A week later in Mbabane, Togo came unstuck against a much less fancied Swaziland who will of course a week later also hold Zambia scoreless at the same venue. That loss has put Togo in a very difficult position. It means they now have to beat the Swazis next month to finish behind Zambia on six points through which they can also get into the runners-up equation. But first Togolese football authorities have to sort out their endless sea of misunderstandings between officials and players for their own good. Otherwise it remain elusive their quest to regain the glory of qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Since then they have never fared well at all in competitive matches. Star player Emmanuel Sheyi Adebayor's endless clashes with the football authorities has also often disillusioned the national team. One of them came to head this week when he refused to travel to Zambia for the World Cup qualifier simply because the President of the Togolese FA Tata Avlessi had also opted out of the trip to Lusaka to attend to his mother's funeral. So in Lome the Arsenal striker stayed and his absence was terribly felt by his teammates who lacked any bite in attack all game. So in the end, the initiative in the group was handed to Zambia.
Zambia's seven points have been gained on the back of two goals, only two goals. Two scored, one conceded. That is why the Swazis who have scored two and conceded two on four points, will move above Zambia should they scrape the victory over the Hawks of Togo next month. The footballers of Swaziland have certainly been deaf to their king's taste for virgins and the festivals involving thousands of maidens that go with it. So they have busied themselves with lifting their country's name through their football skills. And that is the unlikely mission they seek to complete against the Togolese of course whom they had already beaten 2-1 back in June. Wherever it is played in Ghana on October 10, I will be there to see the Swazis for myself.
Group 12: African champions show class
The stage was set. The venue was the national stadium in Kinshasa, famous for its usual filled to capacity and vociferous fans. The battle was code-named Rumble in the Jungle II. The African champions against the group leaders in the SA 2010 group 12 decider. Joint tops on 9 points, the Congolese who lost 1-2 when the pair met in the group opener in Cairo back in June had sworn to pay back the Egyptians in their own coin with a revenge victory. But it was never to be. In an exhibition of the temperament that enabled them beat the Congolese back in Cairo on the opening qualifying weekend in June, Egypt silenced Kinshasa. Star man Mohammed Aboutrika was once again the hero striking home the only goal after the opening half hour and it stayed that way. It means that the Egyptians need just a point in their last game at home to whipping boys Djibouti to win the group. Djibouti have conceded 26 goals in their five matches, have no wins and no points. So that is an easy call for the Egyptians.
So it is left to the tie between DR Congo and surprise side Malawi in the Malawian capital of Blantyre to settle it all. Malawi have been outstanding at home especially when beating Egypt 1-0 in a game they so dominated. They did lose to DR Congo earlier but the result, 0-1, added to their magnificent home record which has also seen them inflict an 8-1 whitewash on the miserable Djiboutians, give Malawi a load of confidence. That result in Blantyre remains the biggest scoreline in the African qualifiers for 2010. That however was not a one-off result against the whipping boys of the group. More was to come from the Malawians. When they visited Kinshasa a week later, the Congolese hosts whose coach Patrice Neveu has boasted of their attacking proficiency, could only grab a solitary goal win. That should have been it. Malawi were expected to crumble when the African champions Egypt were the next to call in Blantyre on Match Day 3. Though the Egyptians will win 2-0 in the return encounter, Malawi did the unthinkable by defeating the African champions in Blantyre for the biggest upset in the African zone.
Now they engage the Congolese in a do or die affair. We live to see what will eventually transpire come Match Day 6 on October 11.
So 48 teams pruned down to 46. 11 are officially out of reckoning and 3, Nigeria, Benin and Cameroon are officially through. The rest fight over the 17 next available places. I will not be sticking my head out for none other than the 'Blessed 5'. They are all still in reckoning at the moment and definitely will make it, no matter any dogfights by any surprises.
The surprises though have come thick and fast. For why will Benin be through to the next stage when Ghana, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Ivory Coast are still fighting to make it through. For Ghana, we are joking again as we did in the past and we never made it. Only I hope this time the authorities are able to organize the Black Stars with the ultimate goal to make it to South Africa 2010. We have got the players and like Sulley Muntari at Inter Milan and Michael Essien at Chelsea, many Ghanaian players are breaking into the top clubs in Europe. That helps us very much as we are therefore in a position where we can build a team strong in all departments. The striking problem which has plagued the Black Stars since time immemorial will be a thing of the past if the Inter Milan striker Mario Balotelli who has sworn never to play for Ghana but Italy, is persuaded to change his stance.
Surprises, we are on.
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