The African Zone produced drama, passion and excitement aplenty, and ended with Algeria returning to the game’s greatest stage alongside four of the continent’s heavyweights.
The intensity and passion of the clash between Algeria and Egypt to decide the last of the African places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals has already become a prominent chapter in the continent’s FIFA World Cup qualifying history. The north African rivals had to go to a play-off, a first for Africa, to determine the winner of their group, with Algeria eventually edging past the reigning continental champions on the back of a goal worthy of winning any match. Antar Yahia’s volley from an incredibly tight angle just before half-time in neutral Sudan has already become an iconic goal, and the fervour of the celebrations provided further evidence of the power of the beautiful game. Egypt had done well to fight their way back into contention after a slow start in their group, and a dramatic goal five minutes into stoppage time of their last group game forced this fateful play-off. However, despite winning the last two CAF Africa Cup of Nations titles, Egypt again miss out on the FIFA World Cup.
Côte d’Ivoire ended the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup unbeaten, going through 12 matches without tasting defeat. Their campaign started slowly in the first round last year because new coach Vahid Halilhodzic had a major injury crisis on his hands for the first four games, but once that hurdle had been overcome, the Elephants stomped through the preliminary stage in emphatic fashion. In the second round they had expected to face a tough test from Burkina Faso and Guinea, but brushed aside their west African rivals, winning home and way against both. Indeed, the only points the Ivorians dropped were away in Malawi in their penultimate qualifier, when they needed just a draw to secure qualification to a second successive FIFA World Cup appearance.
Cameroon had just a single point from their first two final round qualifiers and were lying bottom of the standings. It was at that stage that they parted with veteran coach Otto Pfister and looked to be in a perilous situation. However, it proved a master stroke to appoint Frenchman Paul LeGuen for the last four matches of the campaign. The former Lyon, Rangers and PSG coach insisted on a whole host of improvements in the conditions surrounding the players and brought in a three-man support team to assist him. He also installed Samuel Eto’o as captain, changing the dynamic of the group. The result was four successive wins and an African record sixth trip to the FIFA World Cup finals.
Black Stars shine
Ghana had won four CAF Africa Cup of Nations title before they finally qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals in 2006, but the Black Stars have now evolved into a side who look as if they have been gracing the global stage for decades. They were the first side from Africa to qualify for South Africa 2010, doing so with two matches to spare in their group, easily shrugging off the challenge posed by a star-studded Mali side.
Super Eagles’ late show
Nigeria were one minute away from elimination in their penultimate group game against Mozambique when substitute Obinna Nsofor popped up to score a late winner. That kept the Super Eagles in the race for a FIFA World Cup place going into the final weekend of matches, and although they trailed Tunisia by two points in the standings, they came from behind to win 3-2 at Kenya while Mozambique overcame the Tunisians with a late goal in Maputo.
Samuel Eto’o is already a three-time African Footballer of the Year and one of the continent’s genuine world superstars. However, he has built his reputation mainly on his exploits at club level. With Cameroon, he has won two CAF Africa Cup of Nations titles but missed out on the last FIFA World Cup. In these qualifiers, Eto’o took the initiative and at times almost single-handedly drove Cameroon’s campaign forward. He finished with nine goals in the preliminaries and was the player that Paul Le Guen turned to as the new leader of a rapidly evolving group.
A career-threatening knee injury kept Stephen Appiah out of club action for more than a year and left him without a contract until he recently signed at Brescia in Italy. However, during all his travails, Appiah remained a valuable member of the Black Stars’ line-up despite a lack of competitive match action and fitness. The classy midfielder, who had to sit out the 2008 CAF Africa Cup of Nations tournament, which Ghana hosted, also contributed a goal as his team qualified in style.
Moumouni Dagano was the talisman for Burkina Faso, who romped through the first round of the African preliminaries with a 100 per cent record. He finished as the African Zone’s top scorer with 12 goals in 12 matches, competing in all of his country’s games, but was unable to prevent his side being overrun by the Ivorians in the final round.
“Our secret was simple, Algeria has nothing to fear from the other big names of world football. We told ourselves we were as good as anyone else and had every right to be in the World Cup finals. We had no intentions of letting our chances of qualifying slip away,” Karim Ziani, Algeria midfielder.
The qualified teams
Algeria, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria