With the beginning of the group stage in African qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the continent’s elite enter the fray with every point taking on dramatic resonance. There are many situations to watch in this weekend’s 20 contests - two in each of the ten groups - and over the next 15 months, as ten teams earn the right to advance to the next round.
The big game
Cameroon – Congo DR, 2 June, Stade Omnisports Ahmadou-Ahidjo, Yaounde, 15:30 (local time)
The Indomitable Lions are Africa’s most successful team in qualifying, reaching the FIFA World Cup finals six times in the last 30 years. However, supporters are worried by the tough draw into Group I with Congo DR, Libya and Togo, the long-term suspension of captain Samuel Eto’o and the failure to reach this year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals. New coach Denis Lavagne has suffered one defeat in six games using a young side and has been pleading for patience from what is sure to be a demanding crowd on Saturday. These two teams have an even record in three previous qualifying campaigns against each other, and in the corresponding fixture less than two years ago in the AFCON, the visitors - now led by veteran Claude Le Roy - claimed a fairly comfortable 1-1 draw.
Africa is known for its turnover of coaches, and there will be many new faces on the touchline this month. One of the newest is Frenchman Sabri Lamouchi, who just took up the wheel for Côte d'Ivoire this week as the Elephants prepare to host Tanzania in Group C. Next weekend, the African runners-up travel to Marrakesh to meet rivals Morocco, who open with a trickier trip to Gambia. Côte d'Ivoire are trying to become the fourth African nation to reach three FIFA World Cups in a row, a feat that can also be matched by Ghana, who are heavy favourites at home against Lesotho in Group D. The section’s other match sees new African champions Zambia away to a strong Sudan team, before hosting the Black Stars next weekend. Also expected to win at home is Tunisia, who are now coached by former international Sami Trabelsi and begin Group B at home against Equatorial Guinea.
Although a FIFA World Cup veteran himself, American Bob Bradley will make his debut leading Egypt in a qualifier when they open Group G on Friday against Mozambique. The Pharaohs have not reached the finals since 1990, and in that time they have won four African titles, so expectations are high for the football-starved nation. Next week they will face an even tougher test in Conakry against Guinea, who open at Zimbabwe. Two west African giants with similarly high hopes and new coaches are Nigeria and Senegal. Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles are looking to top Namibia in Calabar and dominate Group F, which also includes Malawi and Kenya, from the off. The Senegalese have caretaker Josephe Koto in charge as they begin Group J in Dakar against Liberia and their debutant coach Kaetu Smith. Angola and Uganda, angling to challenge the Lions of Teranga to the end, meet in a vital Sunday match in Luanda.
AFCON semi-finalists Mali begin with an awkward challenge in Benin as the two eye Group H favourites Algeria, who host Rwanda on Saturday. The Malians and Beninoise are both at the start of new managerial cycles under Amadou Pathe Diallo and Frenchman Manuel Amoros respectively. Group E might be the most even section with Niger opening in fortress Niamey against up-and-comers Gabon, while Congo will try to steal something at Burkina Faso on Saturday.
Did you know?
South Africa begin Group A against Ethiopia in Rustenburg on Sunday suffering after nine months without an international win. A slow start to the section, which also includes up-and-comers Botswana and Central African Republic, could see pressure quickly mount.
Player to watch
Ghana's Black Stars have a tough group, and they are looking to overcome the international retirement of striker Asamoah Gyan and a host of other absences. Into the breach will step veteran Sulley Muntari, who has turned around his career at AC Milan. With the experience of seven FIFA World Cup finals matches under his belt, the midfielder will wear the captain's armband.
What they said
“Benin have never beaten Mali, but we are here to erase history,” Benin coach Manuel Amoros, who starred for France as Les Bleus finished fourth and third at the 1982 and 1986 FIFA World Cups respectively.
Ghana - Lesotho
Egypt - Mozambique
Central African Republic - Botswana
Cameroon - Congo DR
Kenya - Malawi
Sierra Leone - Cape Verde Islands
Gambia - Morocco
Côte d'Ivoire - Tanzania
Tunisia - Equatorial Guinea
Burkina Faso - Congo
Senegal - Liberia
Sudan - Zambia
Algeria - Rwanda
South Africa - Ethiopia
Zimbabwe - Guinea
Togo - Libya
Niger - Gabon
Nigeria - Namibia
Benin - Mali
Angola - Uganda