African rivals reach for London tickets
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Half of the field at the upcoming African qualifying tournament for the 2012 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament have a chance to compete in London, meaning there will be tense action from the start of the tournament in Morocco.

The top three finishers in the eight-team, two-week event are guaranteed automatic entry to the games while the fourth-place nation will take on an Asian qualifier in a one-off play-off match in Coventry, England next April. Play gets underway on Saturday with a double-header kicking off the Group A action in Tangiers while the other venue is Marrakech where Group B starts on Sunday.

The two top finishers in each group go through to the semi-finals on 6 December, and the winners of those games are ensured places in London. The semi-final victors will be in the first-ever CAF U-23 Championship final, but there is likely to be just as much focus on the third-place play-off game in Marrakech on 10 December. The winner of that encounter also goes to the finals while the loser gets another opportunity in the cross-continental play-off.

The match
Despite taking over hosting duties from Egypt relatively recently, Morocco showed their serious intent last year by hiring Dutch coach Pim Verbeek to oversee their Olympic dreams. Verbeek actually took the position before leading Australia at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and the Lionceaux have been preparing resolutely in Rabat for these matches. Their key contest could be this weekend’s Group A opener against Nigeria, who have had the most Olympic success of any African nation. Known to Nigerians as The Dream Team, their Olympic side made history by winning a gold medal at Atlanta 96 and followed that up with silver at Beijing 2008. Whichever team seizes the impetus in the first match will undoubtedly have the momentum going up against Algeria and Senegal in the next two matches.

Other attractions
It is never easy in age group competition to draw any form from history, but Nigeria’s pedigree in previous qualifiers dictates they will command respect from their opponents. Although he will be missing many big name stars - including Joel Obi, Lukman Haruna and Ahmed Musa - coach Austin Eguavoen says six weeks together in preparation has built up a potential winning team spirit. “I have confidence in the squad we are taking to Morocco, and there is a growing confidence in the team that we can secure a ticket to London,” said the former Super Eagles defender. In total, Nigeria’s men’s team has been at six separate Olympic finals, the same with Morocco, who will also be counting on a massive boost from the home atmosphere.

South Africa were runners-up at September's All-Africa Games in Mozambique, where Senegal also competed and won bronze. Both therefore have some form and extra practice to take to the tournament in Morocco. South Africa’s top league clubs are allowing one player per club to travel to North Africa with the squad while Senegal have managed to obtain eight players from French clubs despite the qualifiers not being played on dates on the co-ordinated international calendar. All-Africa Games gold medallists Ghana went out early in the Olympic qualifiers to Sudan.

Egypt have played in ten Men’s Olympic Football Tournaments dating as far back at 1920, so they figure to be in the mix, while Algeria (1980), Côte d’Ivoire (2008) and South Africa (2000) have each gone to one previous tournament. Only Gabon and Senegal have no prior Olympic experience. Hani Ramzy, who played for Egypt at the 1990 FIFA World Cup™, leads the Egyptian side while Algeria have put in some quality preparation under Azzedine Ait Djoudi.

Players to watch
Levy Madinda of Celta Vigo in Spain played for Gabon’s senior side in midfield against Brazil earlier this month and is one of four foreign-based players in his country’s unheralded squad. Algeria’s captain Mohamed Chalali scored twice in friendlies last week against South Africa and comes from Scottish club Aberdeen. Imad Najah is Dutch born and the captain of the PSV Eindhoven side, and he will be among Morocco’s star attractions.

The stat
2 - The number of times Egypt have reached the Olympic tournament finals in the last 11 events going back to 1968.

What they said
“All the teams are contenders to qualify. There is little that is unknown between any of them,” says Senegal coach Abdoulaye Sarr.