Friday, May 30, 2008

African World Cup Qualifiers to Begin

And so we're ready to go on the Road to 2010, with 22 matches set to kick off this weekend in African World Cup and Cup of Nations qualifying.

After last year's preliminary round, 47 teams in 12 groups are now trying to grab just 20 places in the final qualifying stage.

Here is a quick breakdown of the groups and the qualifiers.

Only 44 nations are in action this weekend after the match between Sudan and Chad was postponed due to political tension between the two neighbors, while Swaziland get a bye this weekend after the withdrawal of Eritrea.

must recover from a self-inflicted wound Saturday to have a realistic chance of a second consecutive appearance at the World Cup.

The Hawks host Zambia in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, because of a four-match home ban owing to crowd violence that left two Mali footballers injured after a Cup of Nations qualifier in Lome last year. (MY POV: Very bad incident that scarred Mali and Togo. Hopefully we won't have a repeat of that anytime soon.)

With Group 11 reduced to three countries following Eritrea's withdrawal, the two fixtures between Togo and Zambia seem certain to determine who finishes top in a group that also includes minnows Swaziland. (MY POV: Even though Togo aren't playing at home, I expect them to get through ...)

With two fewer games, it will be almost impossible for the second-placed team ending among the best eight runners-up in the 12-group second round and advancing to the final qualifying phase.

Togo have only just secured the services of French coach, Henri Stambouli, who has done something of a u-turn this week to take charge of the Hawks after indicating he was going to manage a third division club in his homeland.

Chipolopolo (Zambia's national team is nicknamed Chipolopolo (the Copper Bullets) as copper is one of the southcentral African nation's main exports) have also turned to a Frenchman in former Ghana assistant coach Herve Renard as they seek a place among the elite of world football for the first time.

Senegal, whose shock qualification for the 2002 World Cup was followed by a stunning run that took them to the quarter-finals, launch their Group 6 campaign at home to fellow fallen giants Algeria. (MY POV: How great was that thrashing they gave defending champions France in the first match of the '02 Cup?)

Failing to progress beyond the first round at the 2008 Cup of Nations had severe repercussions as coach Henri Kasperczak and 29 of 40 national football federation officials resigned.

The lack of competitive football within the country since last September has been cushioned by coach Lamine Ndiaye naming an entirely foreign-based squad.

One big name missing is prolific scorer Mamadou Niang from French club Marseille, who has opted out owing to disillusionment with the Teranga Lions.

Also missing are long-serving Habib Beye, Lamine Diatta and Papa Bouba Diop, who have been axed for a match Fulham midfielder Diomansy Kamara says has to be won.

"When you play at home you always need to win and we have a very good chance because the team that confronts Algeria will be a strong one," he told BBC Sport.

Cameroon and Morocco are other big football nations in action Saturday and home advantage should ensure they get off to a winning start in groups they look capable of winning without undue difficulty.

The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, runners-up to Egypt in the Cup of Nations in February, host Cape Verde in Group 1 which is rounded out by improving Tanzania and outsiders Mauritius.

Morocco, under Fathi Jamal (until French coach Roger Lemerre takes over on July 1), entertain poor travelers Ethiopia while Rwanda host Mauritania in the other Group 8 fixture.

The season in Europe has taken a toll already with the likes of Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Benni McCarthy and Obafemi Martins missing out on the first exchanges this Saturday and Sunday.

Drogba is injured and Toure out after a back operation for the Ivory Coast's opening game against Mozambique in Abidjan on Sunday.

Striker McCarthy has withdrawn from South Africa's team for unexplained personal reasons ahead of their match against Nigeria in Abuja.

There are also several injury worries for Bafana Bafana with Everton's Steven Pienaar limping off during a 1-0 win over Swaziland in a friendly on Thursday evening.

Pienaar joins fellow midfielders Delron Buckley, Lerato Chabangu and Teko Modise on the casualty list ahead of the toughest fixture for South Africa.

The home side are without the injured Martins up front, giving an opportunity to 20-year-old Victor Anichebe for a competitive debut.

As well as Togo the Ivorians are among the five African teams that played at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany who all start with a home tie in their respective groups.

Ghana take on Libya in Kumasi on Sunday, when Angola have a home tie against Benin in Luanda. Tunisia host Burkina Faso at Rades.

The first group phase will conclude in October after which the winners of the 12 groups advance to the next stage along with the eight best second-placed teams.

The second phase starts in November with the 20 remaining sides divided into five groups of four. The group winners will qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

MY POV: Finger-licking good stuff for the football fan here. With the Euro 2008 tournament beginning in a week's time, the football connoisseur will not be starved for first class action.

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