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African World Cup Qualifying: The Stretch Run

Sunday 3rd September 2017
Russia 2018 is only months away. Before the New Year, all 32 participants will be known. Here's how African World Cup qualifying is set for the stretch run.

Just when you think you've got a handle on African football, everything turns on its head.

CAF rivals UEFA for membership, with 53 countries. In quality it is just above Asia and Concacaf. Europe's power structure looks more like a pyramid: several good teams, a few very good ones, then two or three great sides at the top. Africa is more like a mesa. There is no peak. The highest level is flat, offering room for several good teams. Its problem is no country has climbed higher. There are no elites.
Perhaps political upheaval, war, corruption, and economic hardship make it difficult for African nations to fund or build enduring football programs. Whatever the cause, there's very little consistency. In this African World Cup qualifying campaign, three sides we've become used to seeing in the final tournament, as well as perennial AFCON contenders Egypt, all look set to miss out. It could be that only one or two African sides from Brazil 2014 will qualify for Russia. Such turnover simply doesn't exist elsewhere.

CAF's qualifying process is as mercurial as its World Cup participation. The current edition is a three-step process. Round 1 saw the bottom 26 nations play ties to progress. The 13 winners joined the 27 countries given Round 1 byes. Those 40 drew to play two-legged ties in Round 2. The 20 winners were next drawn into five four-nation groups. Each quartet plays a round robin. Only the winners progress. There is no alternative route.

Here, the five groups are broken down with an eye toward which participants will find their way to Russia.

Group A

Tunisia 's Carthage Eagles have four World Cups under their belts. They first qualified in 1978, managing a win and a draw in three matches, scoring three goals, conceding only two. The North African nation failed to make it back again until 1998. Their turn in Italy began a run of three consecutive appearances. Combined, their record was 0-3-6 during that span. Woeful defending saw them allow ten more goals than they scored.

Nabil Maaloul's squad has plugged the leaks in Group A. Halfway through the round robin, they've beaten all comers while conceding a lone goal. On Tuesday, the Eagles play a return leg in Kinshasa against nearest competitor, Democratic Republic of Congo . It's a crucial match in both sides' quest.
Florent Ibenge's Leopards play a more attacking style, which may serve them well at home. As it is, they have the only marker in Tunisia's debit column. The teams are level on goal difference. Should the Leopards prevail, they'll claim the top place from Tunisia. The country was referred to as Zaire when it journeyed to West Germany in 1974, it's only World Cup appearance. You can't blame them for thinking Tunisia's had enough cracks at the egg.

Congo DR's roster is filled with players who represent clubs across Europe. Best known to English fans will be Bournemouthe's Benik Afobe. Everton's Yannick Bolasie has also featured for the Leopards, though injury has sidelined him for this international break. Tunisia's players are largely domestic or play in other Muslim nations. Still, four do play in Ligue 1 sides, and one, Wahbi Khazri is with Sunderland's squad (for now).
If Guinea could solidify its rearguard to take maximum points from its three remaining matches, the National Elephants could perform on the global stage. Then again, if Sam Allardyce thought before speaking, he might still be England manager. So, no.

Libya have yet to take any points in a group that must be won to earn progression.

Group B

Nigeria is the exception to the rule when it comes to inconsistency in African football. The Super Eagles waited a long time to reach the big dance. When they finally arrived in 1994, they made sure to be regular visitors. Including the US final, Nigeria has qualified for five from the last six World Cups. Dare we say they will make it an even half-dozen in 2018? Gernot Rohr's side is certainly well poised despite being drawn into a group with two other World Cup regulars, Cameroon and Algeria.

The squad is steeped in talent. John Obi Mikel captains from deep midfield. Victor Moses (Chelsea) and Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) are joined by a trio of Leicester City players: Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa, and Wilfred Ndidi. In goal, Nigeria has had options to survive the fallout between former coach Sunday Oliseh and world class keeper Vincent Enyeama. The Lille player is said to be ready to return to the squad after recovering from injury. Rohr has indicated he is welcome if in match shape. Enyeama may have to find a new club in order to comply. Marcelo Bielsa has signed a pair of netminders during his LOSC overhaul.
Only Zambia has the opportunity to prevent Nigeria from booking a Russian ticket. The two meet in Uyo, Super Eagles territory, on 7 October. Victory will wrap Group B up tighter than a drum for the hosts. Wedson Nyirenda's Copper Bullets kept their hopes alive by dispatching Algeria 3-1 yesterday in Lusaka. Before their critical confrontation with the group leaders, they must turn the trick again on Tuesday in Constantine.

To make up the five point deficit to the Nigerians, thus qualifying for their first World Cup, is a big ask for Nyirenda's squad. It consists largely of domestic and Israeli league talent. Only five players compete in continental Europe, none in elite leagues. Still, it has managed to better the two nations expected to challenge Nigeria in the group.

Cameroon 's powers have faded markedly with Samuel Eto'os retirement. These Lions are no longer indomitable. Quite the opposite.
Yet, somehow, Algeria has proven worse. The Desert Warriors were once staunch defenders. Now the attacking gifts provided by Riyad Mahrez, Nabil Bentaleb, and Islam Slimani have no support at the back. Lucas Alcaraz's side have only one point from three matches. They've conceded seven goals. Nigeria's only real threat in the group is complacency.

Group C

Ivory Coast defeated Gabon 3-0 away in Libreville yesterday to reclaim its two-point advantage in Group C. The Elephants are in position to join Nigeria as familiar African World Cup faces in Russia but their position isn't as secure.  Morocco stated its case the day before, with a six-goal romp against Mali.

The Ivorians have been to the past three World Cups. In none have they lived up to expectations as the African team with the talent to take the continent to the next level. Players like Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Wilfried Bony, Gervinho, Max Gradel, Yaya and Kolo Toure could not get the job done. Ironic then that the FIF hired Marc Wilmots to guide the next generation to Russia. He is the coach who couldn't meet the same challenge with Belgium's golden generation.
Gervinho, Kalou, and Gradel are still in the side. They're joined by promising youngsters Cheick Doukoure, Franck Kessie, and Jean Michael Seri. The rearguard is imposing, albeit not always composed, with Serge Aurier and Eric Bailly.

The question for Herve Renard's Atlas Lions is whether the Mali result was an aberration or his side at last finding itself? The Moroccans' lopsided victory featured all six goals the side has scored in the group. Its first two matches were goalless draws. The answer may be given on Tuesday in Bamako, when the return leg in the tie takes place.
Juventus' Medhi Benatia captains the squad, which also features Feyenoord's Karim el Ahmadi and Watford's Nordin Amrabat. Morocco hasn't been to the World Cup since 1998. Supporters have waited nearly two decades for a fifth appearance. If Renard's attack can keep clicking in the coming matches against Mali and Gabon, the November tilt in Coite d'Ivoire will determine whether their wait will end.

Neither Gabon nor Mali have been to the World Cup. That isn't going to change in the near future. Mali has several players in Ligue 1 and other European leagues. Gabonese players are also represented well in UEFA competitions, with Sunderland's Didier N'Dong and Southampton's Mario Lemina among them. For all that, Jose Antonio Camacho's Panthers and Alain Griesse's Eagles can't seem to get it together. Gabon is solid defensively but have yet to score. Mali has found the net once but have picked it from their own nine times in three matches.

Group D

Welcome to the African World Cup qualifying group of death. Unfortunately, it's death by a thousand cuts. The group is only so closely contested because it features four of the weakest African teams among the remaining 20. Each has won a single game. Only one has avoided defeat.

That distinction has Burkina Faso in front by a nose at the halfway mark. Paulo Duarte's Stallions aren't exactly throughbreds. They play mostly for mid and lower table European clubs. They've never been to the World Cup. Recently, they've shown promise at the AFCON. The Stallions were runners-up in 2013, third in the just-completed tournament. Reading that, you'd expect them to canter through this group. Instead, they've been corralled. Their strong defence, only one goal conceded, gives them an edge. If they don't start scoring, however, one of the other clubs will run them down.

The same could be said for Senegal , who sit second after playing out a goalless draw with Burkina Faso yesterday in Dakar. Unable to capitalise on their home advantage, the Lions of Teranga will have to close ranks even tighter in the return leg in Ougadougou on Tuesday. The way matters have been progressing, defeat will likely hand the group to the Stallions.

Aliou Cisse has players who can find goal. Sadio Mane and Moussa Sow are up front. Everton's Idrissa Gueye is in the midfield. Senegal made a surprise run to the semifinals in its only World Cup, in 2002. Surely, this group would love a chance to recreate past glory.
South Africa has been to three World Cups, last as hosts. Bafana Bafana are also top scorers in the group. They've beaten the keeper in every match. Unfortunately, they've conceded during every outing, too. If Stuart Baxter can shore up his defence, a surprise trip to Russia might be in the cards. It will be a treat for a squad mostly plucked from the country's wonderfully named domestic clubs. Not that that's a bad thing. Who wouldn't want to suit up for the Mamelodi Sundowns or the Bidvest Wits?

Meanwhile, the Blue Sharks from Cape Verde Islands are still circling in the shallows. Lucio Antunes' Creoles, as they're also known, have scored the least and conceded the most in Group D but are still only two points off Burkina Faso's--cough--pace. Cape Verde has seventh (2013) and 11th (2015) place finishes in the Cup of Nations on its CV but no World Cups. Two players, Sporting's Jovan Cabral and Spartak's Ze Luis may gain valuable Champions League experience before the World Cup. Sergio Semedo is also still alive in Europa League qualification with Apollon Limassol. Before that happens, the trio must keep the Blue Sharks from being swept out to sea.

Group E

Like Group B, this foursome appeared a more likely candidate for group of death status than Group D. Certainly, the two African powers within it are feeling rather mortal at the moment.

Ghana 's World Cup hopes are on life support. With just two points and a single goal the Black Stars are in critical condition. There are some top-class players on Kwesi Appiah's roster: Frank Acheampong, Asamoah Gyan, Andrew and Jordan Ayew. There is no question the four-time AFCON champion's run of three consecutive World Cup appearances is in jeopardy.

Egypt are in better shape. Hector Cuper's Pharaohs sit second, just a point behind the leaders. If their first two matches were any indication, they'd be ruling the group. They scored a brace in victories over the Congo and Ghana. However, a one-nil loss in Kampala on Thursday toppled them from their throne. The chance for revenge comes immediately. They face the Ugandans again on Tuesday in Alexandria. Another timely header from Ahmed Hegazy would be welcome, indeed.
Win and destiny is back in their hands. A draw will leave them needing help from two sides who haven't looked capable of giving it. A loss all but buries their hopes. What will happen? It's the new riddle of the Sphinx. One thing is certain. Past history isn't on their side. The Pharaohs have bossed the AFCON as seven-time winners but always come up short in African World Cup qualification.

The Congo ? The less said about Sebastien Migne's Red Devils, the better. They've scored but can't take care of their own goal. A World Cup debut in Moscow isn't in their future.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.


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