African success at past football tournaments at the Olympic Games adds an elevated status to the qualifying campaign for Beijing 2008. Indeed, two of the last three Olympic gold medals have been won by African countries: Nigeria in Atlanta in 1996 and Cameroon four yeas later at Sydney 2000.
With three places allocated at the 2008 tournament , African countries have devoted extra resources and added passion to this particular campaign, which this weekend will decide the 12 teams to go through to the highly competitive group phase of the qualifiers. The second leg matches in the third and final knockout round will decide the teams to go into three groups of four, from which the group winners will qualify for the next year's tournament.
Due helped by decisions
Senegal have already qualified for the group phase after their scheduled opponents, the Democratic Republic of Congo failed to appear for their two-legged tie. The Congolese did attempt to blame poor flight connections for their tardy arrival in Dakar but had their excuses rejected by FIFA, who handed Senegal a walkover into the next phase.
Burkina Faso are also counting the cost for playing two over-age players in the first leg of their derby against their southern neighbours Ghana. They selected Saidou Mady Panandetiguiri and Fousseni Traore in their first-leg victory but both were born before the age deadline of January 1, 1985. Therefore, an impressive 2-0 home win for the Burkinabe has been over turned into a 3-0 lead for the Black Stars, who host the return match with a comfortable advantage this weekend.
Sunday's game in Malabo is likely to unveil a wounded Nigerian outfit, whose reputation was severely dented earlier this month when they failed to qualify for the All-Africa Games, which are being held in Algiers later this year. Coach Samson Siasia, the former FC Nantes striker, is taking no chances with a repeat in the Olympic qualifiers and has called up six European-based professionals to ensure there is no likelihood of a home team comeback in Equatorial Guinea.
Ethiopia and Morocco are the two other teams with handy advantages going into the weekend's second leg encounters. Ethiopia won 3-1 away in Algeria in the first leg of their tie while Morocco were 3-0 winners over Rwanda.
South Africa stress importance
FIFA World Cup™ 2010 hosts South Africa have a more pressing desire than most to qualify for Beijing 2008. They believe the current crop of under-23 players will form the backbone of the senior national side by the time their hosting of the FIFA World Cup in just over three years comes around.
That makes defending a 2-0 lead in Uganda imperative for a side who have players from Sweden and Belgium back to strengthen their ranks. However, Uganda coach Jackson Mayanja has been helped by a decision by the Uganda FA to allow him to use players who ordinarily would have been in the senior side who play away in Nigeria in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier on Saturday. That means the strike partnership of Geoffrey Mssa, who plays his club football in Egypt, and Anthony Bongole will give Uganda's Kobs great hope of overturning the deficit.
Angola, who were surprise finalists at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, are also now focusing their attention on a new generation which they are grooming for 2010, when they host the Cup of Nations finals. Coach Nando Jordao takes his side to Conakry after a goalless draw in the first leg of their tie against Guinea, looking to the goal scoring acumen of Manucho, who has already won caps at senior level, to lead them to a difficult away triumph.
Former Olympique Marseille coach Gerard Gili gets a chance for a personally satisfying triumph when his Côte d'Ivoire side host Egypt in Abidjan on Saturday. Gili is also a former national coach of Egypt and helped to engineer a 1-1 draw away in the first leg in Cairo, giving the Ivorians a major advantage for the return game. His talented squad includes Bakary Soro from Germinal Beerschot in Belgium, Cisse Sekou, who plays for Dutch club Roda JC Kerkrade, and Zoumana Bakayoko, competing in the third tier of English football for London club Millwall.