Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana will both secure their places at the
Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing next year if they
win their matches in the penultimate round of African Zone
preliminaries at the weekend.
Ghana have a chance to become the first to book a trip to the Far East when they host Nigeria in Accra on Friday, contributing the latest chapter to a long-standing rivalry between the two west African nations.
The Ivorians have never before been to a football competition at
the Olympic Games but have come from behind in their group to find
themselves now on the cusp of qualification.
The only team that can effectively catch them is the Zambian side they host in Abidjan on Sunday. A win for the Ivorians will see them secure top place in Group B with a last round of qualifying matches to come in March.
A point to prove
Ghana's Black Meteors have a slender one-point lead over their Nigerian rivals but must win this last game or face opening the door for Nigeria to come back and win the group - and qualify for Beijing.
Ghana have veteran coach Cecil Jones Attuquayefio, who has a
winning record on the continent as both player and coach, to lead
their charge towards another Olympic appearance. Attuquayefio has
picked his strongest possible side for Friday's encounter,
naming nine foreign-based players including recalls for Nana Akwasi
Asare and Emmanuel Boakye.
But key to his hopes will be the scoring ability of Asamoah Gyan, who played for the senior side at last year's FIFA World Cup™ finals in Germany, and France-based Michael Helegbe, who has also been capped at full international level.
Nigeria still have a match at home against already-eliminated South Africa in March and if they can force a draw in Accra, they will be able to win the group in their last encounter. The group initially had four teams but Ethiopia withdrew.
Nigeria's captain Promise Isaac, a former U-20 international who plays at Genclerbirligi in Turkey, told reporters he believes the Nigerian side is stronger than their Ghanaian counterparts in all departments. "We have no other option but to win the game and all my team-mates know that," he said.
Morocco seek favour
Cameroon, gold medal winners in Sydney in 2000, have a tricky away tie away against Guinea in Conakry on Sunday, where they want to preserve a one-point lead over Morocco in Group C. Cameroon have assembled a formidable squad for the trip, including players from clubs in England, France, Germany, Holland, Portugal and from Iran, Indonesia and Tunisia.
Cameroon beat Guinea 6-1 in their opening group tie but are unlikely to find the going that easy again. Morocco are still hoping they will be able to turn around the situation in their group, but need Guinea to do them a favour.
"If we beat Botswana and Cameroon don't get any points against Guinea, then we'll be in pole position to win the group in our last match," said Salah Sbai, the Belgian-based Moroccu U-23 international who is likely to feature in the weekend's game in Gaborone.
Morocco coach Fetih Jamal named three new players in his squad, Yahia Iraqui from Raja Casablanca, Mehdi Zoubairi from Kawkab Marrakesh and Houcine Hidaga from second division club Rachad Bernoussi, who are have surprisingly reached the final of this year's Morocco Throne Cup.
Botswana's Young Zebras still have a mathematical chance at qualification but, even if they do not make it to Beijing, have shown considerable improvement in getting this far in the preliminary competition. The sparsely populated southern African nation is not used to footballing success, but the team received praise from the country's president Festus Mogae in his State of the Nation address in Parliament last week.
Mogae said the side had "made history' by reaching the group stage and were helping to boost the country's international image. "There is a flowering of competitive success," he added.