At a time when most African national teams are dominated by players who ply their trade in lucrative European leagues, Sudan's Desert Hawks provide a refreshing alternative. Nearly the entire squad is drawn from the country's two main clubs, Omdurman-based Al-Merreikh and Al-Hilal, who have virtually made the Sudan Premier League their own since 1970. The only team to break their dominance was Al Hilal Port-Sudan, who took the title in 1992.

But even if the Desert Hawks do not have a Drogba, Essien or Kalou in their side, football fans in the north east African country are looking forward to the start of the final round of qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ - and much of their hope lies on the shoulders of well-travelled coach Stephen Constantine.

He signed a two-year contract in February and will be in charge of the team in Saturday's home match in Group D against Mali. The 46-year-old, who previously coached Nepal, India and Malawi, has said that he is looking forward to the game, even though it's against a side filled with European-based players.

"Most of their [Mali's] players are playing overseas, so it is a very difficult situation for us," Constantine said. "The level of professionalism is far greater in Europe of course, and the players have excellent facilities. They are exposed to the latest sports science, and of course play at the highest level.

"This is a huge advantage," the coach continued. "But the beauty of football is that on any given day anything can happen and we will be trying to upset as many teams as we can."

The beauty of football is that on any given day anything can happen and we will be trying to upset as many teams as we can.

Stephen Constantine on being the underdog.

With only the group winners going through to the finals and the top three qualifying for next year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Angola, there is a lot at stake for both Sudan and Mali, as well as the other two teams in the section; Benin and Ghana.

Sudan and Mali met in the previous round of the qualifiers, with goals by Alaeldin Yousif, Mohamed Tahir and Haytham Kamal giving the Desert Hawks a 3-2 home victory at home, with both goals for the visitors scored by Spanish-based striker Frederic Kanoute. A week later Kanoute struck again before Seydou Keita added a brace to give the Eagles a 3-0 victory in the return fixture.

One of the difficulties facing the English coach is that he has had so little time to get to know the players. "It has been very difficult. I have worked with the players for just over a week and trying to understand them and getting them to understand what I want is not easy in such a short time.

"I must say though that the players have been great and accepted some of the new things we are trying to implement," he went on. "The standard of football is quite good, but as in many African countries, tactically there is a lot of work that needs to be done. I think in Europe the players are over-coached sometimes, but in Africa it's the other end of the spectrum in that there is not enough coaching at grassroots and at club level."

I think in Europe the players are over-coached sometimes, but in Africa it's the other end of the spectrum in that there is not enough coaching.

The Sudan coach on differences in attitude.

Constantine sees no problem in the fact that most of his players are from Al-Merreikh and Al-Hilal, whose city derbies are akin to Everton against Liverpool, Celtic against Rangers or Kaizer Chiefs against Orlando Pirates.

"I don't think it is a problem. I pick the best players available to me and don't look at where they come from, as long as they are eligible for Sudan." He adds that he expects his players, irrespective of which club they play for, to give it their all. "They have to be prepared to work hard for the national team. That's the only thing that interests me. All I can try and do is help, and in my capacity as national coach I will do so in whatever way I can.".

The best way Constantine can help is to bring some joy to the Sudanese people with a victory against Mali. He is aware that it will not be an easy test. "It is a dream to go to the World Cup for any coach or player and we feel the same," Constantine said. "Four of the last five African teams that went to the last World Cup were going for the first time and to take Sudan would be something very special.

"Looking at the group, however, you have to think with one team going through, Mali and Ghana are the favourites. But you never know, and as it stands right now, we are six games away from the World Cup."