While 13 African countries have already had to say goodbye to their dream of competing in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, 27 others join a race this week that will end with the ultimate prize of participation on the grandest football stage of all. The 40 teams remaining in the African qualifying competition were drawn into 20 pairings, with the winners of the two-legged ties advancing to the group stages.
Arguably the pick of the draw sees four-time World Cup finalists Morocco face Equatorial Guinea, with the north Africans enjoying home advantage in the first leg. Moroccan coach Badou Zaki, who captained the Atlas Lions at the 1986 finals, has called up Bayern Munich's Mehdi Benatia, even though the defender has only just returned from injury. The Nzalang Nacional, meanwhile, are hoping to take their good form from the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, where they finished fourth, into the clash against the Moroccans.
Morocco's neighbours Algeria are aiming for a third successive World Cup appearance, while Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are aiming to make it four-in-a-row. As the top ranked team on the continent, they will expect to advance at the expense of Tanzania. The Taifa Stars have been preparing for the game in South Africa, and coach Charles Mkwasa believes Mbwana Samatta and Thomas Ulimwengu, who won the CAF Champions League with TP Mazembe, can carry over their form into the game. "The whole team is in high spirits and everybody is eager to play and represent his country. The attitude is encouraging, and I am sure we can surprise Algeria as the players are responding very well to training.”
Several coaches are embarking on their first World Cup journey, with Indomitable Lions legend Rigobert Song, who played at four finals, having recently been given the task of handling Chad. The Les Sao stunned Sierra Leone in the first round but will need an even greater footballing miracle to overcome Egypt. Another coaching newcomer is Alexandre Belinga, who represented Cameroon at the 1981 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Australia. He has taken over the coaching reins of the Indomitable Lions, after officials decided not to renew Volker Finke's contract. The Cameroonians begin their World Cup quest against Niger and Belinga has called-up a highly experienced side.
Super Eagles seek to fly high again
Nigeria coach Sunday Oliseh stunned the pundits when he called up USA-based striker Obafemi Martins for their match against Swaziland. He has also invited teenaged sensation Kelechi Iheanacho, who is on the books with Manchester City. The side will be without long-time Nigeria players Vincent Enyeama and Emmanuel Emenike, both of whom recently announced their retirement from international football. Oliseh though remains focused. “I want to get my country to the group stage and eventually to the World Cup. That is our only ambition, and if we don’t respect [our opponents], we will fall short of it. Swaziland is a difficult team, and it is not going to be easy playing them, especially on an artificial turf in their home.”
African champions Côte d’Ivoire have been hard hit by injuries ahead of their tie against Liberia. Michel Dussuyer will be without the services of forwards Wilfried Bony and Salomon Kalou, as well as midfielder Yaya Toure. Fellow west African giants Ghana take on the lowest-ranked team remaining in the competition, the Comoros, who have never won a World Cup qualifier. Les Coelecantes lost all four matches they played previous to this year, but they managed to draw both games against Lesotho in the first round and advance on the away goal rule. Their dream of a World Cup Cinderella story is unlikely to materialise against Avram Grant's Black Stars, who still rely on both Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre, as well as seasoned campaigners like Asamoah Gyan and Jonathan Mensah.
Clash of former finalists
Another intriguing match sees 2006 finalists Angola take on South Africa. It was not a draw Bafana Bafana welcomed, as Angola is capable of beating just about any opponent – especially in Luanda. South Africa coach Shakes Mashaba will have to take on the Angolans without goalkeepers Itumeleng Khune and Brilliant Khuzwayo, who both had to withdraw from the Bafana squad. Mashaba has a lot of respect for the Palencas Negras, saying: “They have quick, strong and skilful players in the middle of the park. We should not give them space or allow them to shoot. We need to defend smartly."
With two Sudanese clubs, Al Hilal and Al Merreikh, reaching the semi-finals of the CAF Champions League and providing most of the players on the national team, Sudan's supporters are hopeful ahead of a tough test against Zambia. Three of the Chipolopolo squad play for TP Mazembe, who had even more Champions League success, winning the trophy on the weekend.