For the last two FIFA World Cups™, the same five African teams have progressed through qualification to the finals, but the field for Russia 2018 will definitely be different as three of the finalists from South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 have been drawn into the same group. The four teams in five groups will play home-and-away matches with only the group winners advancing to the Mundial.
The draw at Confederation Africaine de Football's (CAF) headquarters in Cairo began with a moving tribute and minute of silence for Nigerian World Cup player and coach Stephen Keshi, who passed away just over two weeks ago, aged just 54.
Group A: Leopards eye second finals
Veteran coach Claude Le Roy, who has been in charge of eight teams at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations and is currently leading Togo, is just one of several experts who believes that the Congo DR team is currently one of the strongest on the continent. The Leopards, who in 1974 became the first sub-Saharan team to qualify for the showpiece event of world football but have not qualified since, will like their chances up against Guinea, Libya and Tunisia. Guinea will go into the group phase with a new coach after Frenchman Luis Fernandez threw in the towel after the Syli Nationale were eliminated from AFCON 2017 qualifying. Tunisia qualified for three consecutive World Cups from France 98 but have not been back since 2006, and they have their own argument to be considered favourites, although their North African rivals Libya will also be anxious to prove themselves after a disappointing AFCON qualifying campaign.
Group B: Lions, Eagles and Foxes, oh my
If every draw has to have a "Group of Death", this clearly is it. Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria were three of the finalists in 2010 and 2014, and between them, they can look back at 16 appearances on the greatest footballing stage. For the Super Eagles of Nigeria, who have already been knocked out of the AFCON, the draw must come as a bitter disappointment as they were looking toward the World Cup to salvage some lost pride. But for a team that has become famous for dramatic qualifications, they will still bet on their chances against the powerful Foxes of Algeria, the talented Lions of Cameroon and 2012 African champions Zambia, who have also been eliminated from qualifying for next year's AFCON in Gabon.
Group C: Elephants look to throw their weight
Côte d'Ivoire will consider themselves lucky to have been drawn into Group C alongside Gabon, Morocco and Mali, even though Elephants coach Michel Dussuyer did not get his wish of avoiding four-time finalists Morocco and their coach Herve Renard, who led the Ivorians to a long-awaited African title in 2015. Gabon struggled to get past Mozambique in the previous round of Russia 2018 qualifying, and likewise Mali had to secure a 2-0 win in the second leg of a tie against Botswana to come from behind and reach the group stage.
Group D: Can the Lions be stopped?
Like Congo DR, Senegal is also being tipped as an outsider ready to thrust themselves into the Russian conversation. Coached by former national team captain Aliou Cisse, Les Lions de la Teranga sensationally made it to the quarter-finals in 2002 after beating reigning champions France. Cisse was one of the VIP helpers at the draw and said that captaining his side at the finals was one of the highlights of his career: “At that time to qualify, we came through a group consisting of Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, so it was very tough.” In Burkina Faso, South Africa and Cape Verde Islands, the west Africans have avoided any North African opposition and will fancy their chances of qualifying for their second appearance at the World Cup finals.
Group E: Can Egypt get revenge?
Any Egyptian fan watching the draw will immediately have thought “6-1” when the final ball was pulled out of the bowl. The final qualifying round for the 2014 finals saw the Pharaohs take on Ghana's Black Stars for a place in Brazil and a stunning 6-1 victory in Kumasi killed off any hopes the North Africans had of making it to the finals for the first time since 1990. The two teams will again face each other after being drawn into Group E together along with Uganda and Congo, whose coach Pierre Lechantre is aware that it will be very tough for the Diables Rouges to qualify. “We will face very strong teams. But having said that, I believe my team has a chance," said the former African champion with Cameroon.