In November of 2011, Africa's national teams embarked on a journey that they all hoped would culminate at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, and of the 52 that started qualifying, only ten remain. The draw for the final round of preliminary matches has thrown up several mouth-watering encounters, and the winners of the five home-and-away contests qualify for next year's finals.
The big game
Ghana – Egypt, 15 October, Baba Yara Stadium, Kumasi, 16:00 (local time)
Looking at the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the Ghanaians are considered favourites to reach the World Cup finals in Brazil, but the Pharaohs have the edge in head-to-head results. That makes Tuesday's tie too close to call between the giants of African football, and both camps are cautiously optimistic, with veteran defender Wael Gomaa, who captains the Egyptians, saying that while they respect their opponents, "they are determined to win" on the road. Black Stars coach Kwesi Appiah will be without the injured Kevin-Prince Boateng as well as defenders John Boye and Jonathan Mensah, but the Black Stars received a boost ahead of the game as a state-owned company promised to double their official bonus for a win. Appiah said that he was relaxed going into the game. "I was more anxious during the Zambia game, but there's been no panic since being drawn against [Egypt]."
Ethiopia, who are the only team remaining in the competition from the first round of qualifying, face formidable opponents in Nigeria's Super Eagles on Sunday. Much of the Walya Antelopes' success has been built on strong performances in Addis Ababa, where they last lost a preliminary match in 2008 when Rwanda won 2-1 (although the result was later cancelled after Ethiopia were suspended). Ethiopian coach Sewnet Bishaw's overachieving squad consists mainly of locally-based players, while his Nigerian counterpart Stephen Keshi has continued with the strategy that took him to success at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals earlier this year: complementing a list of star-studded European-based professionals with promising Nigerian-based youngsters.
Like Ethiopia, Burkina Faso have yet to compete on the biggest stage of world football, but after surprisingly reaching the final of the AFCON in South Africa in February, Paul Put's team is filled with confidence. The Stallions face Algeria in Ouagadougou on Saturday and even though the visiting 2010 World Cup veterans are favourites, the Belgian believes in his side's chances. "It will be historic if we qualify, and everyone is focused and motivated to deliver. Algeria has an advantage, but I trust my team to deliver a positive result," he said.
Côte d'Ivoire are looking for their third consecutive World Cup appearance at the expense of Senegal, who are away in Abidjan in the first leg on Saturday. The Elephants are the top-ranked team on the continent and have an array of stars like Yaya Toure, veteran striker Didier Drogba and in-form Gervinho. In contrast, many of the players in Alain Giresse's Senegal squad lack the experience of the Ivorians, and controversially the Frenchman has left out Chelsea striker Demba Ba - remaining true to his statement that he will only consider players who feature regularly for their clubs. Ironically, Ba made his second Premier League start after the team was announced and set up a goal for the Blues.
Another veteran coach, Volker Finke, could qualify for the World Cup at his first attempt if he manages to take Cameroon's Indomitable Lions past Tunisia. The North Africans received a second chance at qualification after Cape Verde Islands were docked the three points from their victory in Rades, where the first leg against Cameroon will be played on Sunday. The German, who only took over in May, said that his team plan to take the game to their hosts. "If you allow them to play their game, they are a very, very good side."
Did you know?
If Senegal want to secure their second World Cup participation, they will have to achieve something that they have never done before: beat Côte d'Ivoire in a major competition. The Lions of Teranga, who reached the quarter-finals at their only finals appearance in 2002, have lost all four matches against the Elephants - all of them in the AFCON qualifiers or finals.
Player to watch
Cameroon were regulars at the World Cup between 1990 and 2002. Since then, their fortunes have been on the wane, and a disappointing appearance at South Africa 2010 has not really appeased their fans. To secure qualification for Brazil, superstar Samuel Eto'o, who earlier announced he would no longer be available for international selection, has returned to the fold. The striker, who has struggled since joining Chelsea at the beginning of the season, told reporters after meeting with government officials that all players had "a duty to their country."
What they said
"We have studied Ghana well. We respect them, but at the same time, we are a good team. In Egypt, everyone speaks about their World Cup dream, regardless of their political background. Qualification could indicate that the country is moving forward," Egypt coach Bob Bradley.