The first salvoes on the road to the next CAF Africa Cup of Nations were fired while the FIFA World Cup™ was being played in June, but the majority of the region’s giants will begin their qualifying campaigns this weekend. Only one of the 11 pools kicked off early, because Group K has one more team than all the others, giving Botswana, Chad, Malawi, Togo and Tunisia an early start. They have already been through three rounds of matches and are set to play a fourth.
But the other 39 teams in the preliminary competition are poised to start their bid to reach the tournament, which will be co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Among them are reigning champions Egypt, who have been placed in a tough group including South Africa, and a Ghana side fresh from reaching the quarter-finals at the recent FIFA World Cup.
Most of Africa's established powers have apparently comfortable starts, but they will be wary that seemingly easy ties on paper are not necessarily the same in reality. Cameroon play a first game under new coach Javier Clemente in Mauritius, while Nigeria, still with a caretaker coach, host Madagascar in Calabar. Côte d'Ivoire will be without Didier Drogba but still heavily fancied to beat Rwanda in Abidjan, while Morocco attempt to their revive their reputation with a home tie against Central African Republic.
However, there is a clash of titans in Lubumbashi, where Congo DR and Senegal meet both seeking to make up for the disappointment of crashing out at the first stage of South Africa 2010 qualifying.
Egypt, who won an unprecedented third straight African crown in Angola earlier this year, are at home to Sierra Leone, whose uphill challenge has been made steeper due to the fact that the unfit Mohamed Kallon has not made the trip. South Africa also face a straightforward assignment in the shape of visiting Niger, who have not won a competitive qualifier away since 1992. Steven Pienaar has nevertheless warned his Bafana Bafana team-mates against complacency.
“We have got to be careful with the little mistakes that we make in these matches,” he said. “It still hurts to think about how we failed to qualify for Angola. We know how it feels to not make it into a big tournament like the Nations Cup, and we don’t want that to happen again.”
Ghana, Zambia up against minnows
Ghana have left out both Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari for their trip to Swaziland, but coach Milovan Rajevac has insisted he has faith in the youngsters who went all the way to the final of the last Cup of Nations and will make up the bulk of his squad for Sunday’s match at the Somhlolo Stadium. “We need to do well and build a good foundation,” said the Serbian coach, hailed as a hero in west Africa after the Black Stars reached the quarter-finals of the recent FIFA World Cup.
The tiny Comoros Islands will make their Cup of Nations qualifying debut this weekend, and they face a baptism of fire away to Zambia. The Indian Ocean islanders have turned to former France right-back Manuel Amoros to lead their campaign. He said: “We are not intimidated by a big team like Zambia. We have come to play football and if all goes well, we’ll get the three points.”
The winners of each pool, plus the second-placed finishers in Group K, will qualify for Equatorial Guinea/Gabon 2012, as will the best two runners-up from Groups A to J.