It was the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. For ten African beach soccer teams that famous quote becomes real this weekend as they take a first step that they all hope will ultimately take them several thousand miles to the Bahamas and the ninth FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
The winners of the four two-legged play-off matches will qualify for the CAF Beach Soccer Africa Cup of Nations, along with hosts Nigeria as well as a trio of North African teams who qualified based on withdrawals. Joining the Nigerians will be Morocco, Egypt and Libya, who received byes into the finals after Liberia, Uganda and Sudan respectively pulled out of the competition.
The continental event is scheduled to be played in mid-December, and it will be there that two African teams book their tickets to the global finals, which begins in the Atlantic Ocean nation in April of next year.
Arguably the pick of the qualifying ties will be the encounter between Kenya and Ghana, with both teams pulling out all the stops to move on over the home-and-away legs. Harambee Sand Stars coach Rajab Babu is confident that they can beat the west Africans, saying: “We respect that our opponents are a tough nut to crack since they have been active in beach football for many years, but we want to win and should have an advantage in the return match next month in Ghana.”
Kenyan fans will be looking toward strikers Mudhafar Swaleh, Fahad Hassan and Mwinyi Manzu to provide them with the goals to defeat The Black Sharks, who will be counting on the experience of Daniel Kottey Niiquaye. The coach led Ghana to the 2015 Beach Soccer AFCON finals in Seychelles last year, where the team finished seventh. They also have Alexander Adjei, who was the tournament's top scorer last time around with 16 tallies in five matches. He was also voted man of the match in four of those contests.
The Black Sharks have received some support from the government to finance their trip to Kenya, prompting the president of Beach Soccer Ghana, Yaw Ampofo Ankrah, to believe his side can qualify for their third consecutive finals. “The Kenyans are a very strong side, they started training about six weeks ago which is good for them. But I’m certain that the Black Sharks will go to Mombasa and win. We are not complacent at all, the boys are very focused and willing to fly the flag of Ghana high.”
The defending African champions Madagascar, who won the last tournament in the Seychelles last year after beating Senegal in the final, face a difficult opponent in Mozambique. The southern Africans, who enjoy home advantage in the first leg, have thrice qualified for the finals of the showpiece event of African Beach Soccer, but have so far failed to escape the group phase.
Senegal, who are one of the most consistently successful African beach soccer teams and have missed the continental finals just once, are away to Cape Verde in their first leg. The Lions of Teranga, who are three-time champions and have been to five World Cup finals, can call on several of the players who represented their country at the global event in Portugal last year, where Ngalla Sylla and Seyni N'Diaye became the first African players to compete at five global events.
Côte d'Ivoire, who with Egypt and Nigeria are the only team to have played in all seven previous continental finals, have made it through to the last four on all but one occasion. Disappointingly, they have made the final – and therefore the Beach Soccer World Cup – just twice. They are away to Tanzania in their first leg.
The first round of matches will held this weekend, with the return legs scheduled for the weekend of 16 September.