Held on 24 June and streamed live on FIFA.com, the draw for the African qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ produced some explosive groups, including one featuring three sides that appeared at both South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. Make no mistake, the five teams who will progress to the world finals will have earned it.
Tunisia’s experienced French/Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak knows a thing or two about the CAF qualifiers, having taken his first African assignment with Côte d’Ivoire in 1993. Sharing his views with FIFA.com about the final round of qualifying for Russia 2018, which starts in ten days’ time, he said the draw panned out more or less as he expected. “Everyone knows there are no minnows in Africa,” he began. “What can you say about the 20 teams still in the race? Well, the best teams on the continent are there, give or take one or two notable absentees.”
Kasperczak is of the opinion that the five groups are all as tough as they could be: “Some of the sections look very tight. Like I said, there are no weak teams that you can rule out from the start. All the matches will be huge and every point will be crucial. There are always surprises in Africa, so you need to be utterly professional in approaching each game and be utterly determined to go out and win.”
Home games the key
Having acquired extensive experience of African football, Kasperczak believes it has a character all of its own, especially when it comes to World Cup qualifying: “It’s very difficult to reach the finals from Africa, and I don’t agree with people who say that qualification all comes down to your away games. It’s important to come back with points if you’re going to qualify, but you have to win your home matches first and foremost. A team that wins three home games and one away has 12 points and is 99 per cent of the way there.”
We now have a fine chance to return to the big stage. We’ve got stronger and we’ve got a good squad together.
Siding with most of the pundits, Kasperczak had this to say about the make-up of the groups: “If you look at the group with Algeria, Nigeria, Cameroon and Zambia, you have to say that it’s very tough, as is the section with Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Gabon and Mali. The other groups are also difficult, especially the one with Senegal, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde Islands, and the last group with Egypt, Ghana, Congo and Uganda. At this stage, there’s no such thing as an easy route because there’s only one team that goes through.”
Back in the big time?
Kasperczak was pleased to see his Tunisia side avoid the likes of Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt and Morocco in the June draw, which placed the Eagles of Carthage alongside Libya, Congo DR and Guinea. “I think the other groups are much tighter than ours,” he said. “If we’d gone into groups B, C, D or E, our task would have been more difficult. Anything is possible here. Libya, Congo DR and Guinea are capable of springing a surprise and there are no favourites. Our goal is still the same, though: to qualify for the World Cup.”
Tunisia will have the advantage of playing their away game against Libya on neutral ground, far from the Libyan fans, on account of the ongoing conflict in the country. Discussing that particular situation, Kasperczak said: “I don’t think playing in Cairo is going to affect the Libyans because they’re used to playing away from home. They’re going to give everything they’ve got to ensure they don’t suffer the same disappointments as they’ve had in the past. There are more teams than Libya in our group, though, and playing in Conakry and Congo DR won’t be easy either.”
The Eagles of Carthage have not appeared at the World Cup since Germany 2006, and their fans are anxious for them to set that record straight, a fact not lost on Kasperczak: “Tunisia haven’t been to the World Cup for a while, and we now have a fine chance to return to the big stage. We’ve got stronger and we’ve got a good squad together. We lost to Liberia (in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers) but we knocked out Mauritania in the previous round of the World Cup preliminaries and we’re looking to achieve something positive in this group.”