The race to qualify for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament has entered the home stretch in Africa as the last decisive match day beckons. Nigeria, Cameroon, Angola and Zambia are in pole position to earn places in Greece, but all is far from decided. As the tension mounts, we take a look at the current standings in the four groups.
Group A: Nigeria top, Tunisia on fire, Senegal lying in ambush
Nigeria and Tunisia are neck and neck at the summit of Group A. The winners of the final showdown in Tunis will secure their ticket to Athens, regardless of the result in the other game between Senegal and Egypt. And as if these stakes were not high enough, the game also gives Nigeria an early opportunity to avenge their African Cup of Nations semi-final defeat at the hands of the North Africans at Rades Stadium.
Nigeria boss, Kadiri Ikhana, who took over the team when their qualifying campaign was at a low ebb, has called up the cream of Nigerian youth for this vital encounter, as the Super Eagles bid to qualify for their third consecutive Olympic tournament. Striker Obafemi Martins, the indisputed star of the squad, has even been released by Inter Milan for the grand occasion. While a draw might suffice for the Nigerians, Ikhana is not mincing his words: “it will be a real street fight, and we are ready to rumble.” The Tunisians will be taking nothing for granted, fielding several of the heroes of the CAN 2004, such as Karrim Hagui. Top-class striker, Ali Zitouni, is also expected to be in the starting lineup.
The Senegalese still have an outside chance of qualifying, but to do so they need to beat Egypt by at least four goals, whilst at the same time hoping that Nigeria and Tunisia draw in their game. Suffice to say that their destiny is no longer in their own hands.
Group B: A Mali – Cameroon group ‘final’
By failing to beat the Democratic Republic of Congo in Yaoundé in the previous round after Mali had lost (2-1) the day before in Abidjan, the Cameroonians put themselves in a perilous position. For while they still have a two-point cushion over the Eagles, they are going to have to battle hard in Bamako to prevent their seemingly assured Athenian rendez-vous from slipping through their fingers.
Nevertheless, this hiccup in the forward march of the reigning Olympic champions does not seem to have undermined their self-belief, despite the words of their sports minister after the Congolese stalemate: “there’s no question of you being blamed for the result against the Congo. Our duty is instead to make you face your responsibilities.” For Cameroon coach, Jean-Paul Akono, who has called up several experienced players for this crunch match (Idriss Kameni, Eric Djemba, Samuel Eto'o, Modeste Mbami), confidence is still very much the order of the day. “We are going to qualify,” he declared abruptly after the DRC disappointment. No doubt the Malians see things differently.
In the other game, between Côte d’Ivoire and the DR of Congo at Kinshasa, there is little more than pride at stake as both sides are already out of the race for qualification.
Group C: Angola, Ethiopia and Morocco still on course
The task now facing the Moroccans looks far from straightforward. After having been in an excellent position two weeks ago, the North Africans have to defeat Angola away, whilst at the same time hoping that Ethiopia fail to beat Uganda, who are already eliminated, in Kampala. At least the words of Crispus Muyinda, a Ugandan federation official, must have offered a crumb of hope to the Moroccans, as the Ugandans do not seem to be taking the match lightly: “We’ll be fielding a similar team as against Angola, but with a few new elements.”
At the same time, the Moroccans will need to win at home in Rabat against Angola, who trounced Ethiopia (4-0) in late February before defeating Uganda in mid-March (1-0). It looks a tall order for the North Africans, who appeared out of sorts during their last game in Addis Ababa (0-1). They have it all to do, and to make matters worse, there is little doubt that their premature elimination will be seen as a failure after the senior side’s exploits at the CAN.
Group D: Ghana and Zambia slug it out
With Algeria and South Africa having fallen by the wayside, the last match between Ghana and Zambia carries fundamental significance for both outfits. And as the clash in Kumasi (Ghana) draws nearer, the tension is already palpable, with a dispute over the choice of referee serving only to ratchet up the pressure. But, Mariano Barreto, Ghana’s Portuguese coach, is quietly confident. “I can’t say in advance that Ghana will definitely win it, but I can assure you that my players will keep fighting to get to Athens right until the final whistle.” Their determination stems in part from the fact that since claiming the bronze medal at Barcelona in 1992, the Ghanaians have failed to reach any of the subsequent Olympic events.
Down Zambia way, the government itself has expressed its support for the players... and its expectations. Leslie Mbula, a high-ranking member of the Zambian government, recently paid a special visit to the young Zambian players, urging them to go for it against Ghana. “I am here to demonstrate the commitment of the Zambian government to the development of football in our country,” he added. It looks like being a torrid night...