High time for the Guineas

While the dust is still settling on the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, qualifying for the next round of continental tournaments has already begun. In Africa, the early matches on the path to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and the next CAF Africa Cup of Nations have allowed some of the zone’s smaller sides a chance to shine.

Indeed, two of the biggest climbers in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings are Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. Neighbours buried in the footballing hotbed of West Africa, this ever-improving pair are hungrily eyeing a trip down the continent’s coast for the 2012 event.

Lucky 21 for Guinea
Although Guinea-Bissau took the biggest leap in the rankings by rocketing 48 places to 140th in the world, Guinea are considered more serious continental contenders. The Syli Nationale (National Elephants) surged 21 spots to 81st, moving just in front of China PR, and are now in 18th position on the continental ladder after beating Mali in a friendly and Ethiopia in AFCON qualifying. The latter was a particularly emphatic 4-1 result in Addis Ababa, with goals from Ibrahima Yattara, Oumar Kalabane, Karamoko Cisse and Kamil Zayatte giving coach Michel Dussuyer’s side the perfect start to Group B. They can even lay claim to topping the table ahead of giants Nigeria on goal difference.

The win over Ethiopia was Dussuyer’s first match back in charge of the side after six years away, having previously led this nation of ten million people to the Cup of Nations quarter-finals in 2004, which at the time was their best finish since reaching the final in 1976. It kicked off a good run, however, and Guinea also advanced to the last eight in the next two events. Surprisingly, they failed to qualify for the 2010 Cup of Nations in Angola, and never looked likely to challenge for a place at South Africa 2010. In the preliminaries that covered both, they reached the final round after initially topping a tricky group that included Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia. However, they proved to be out of their depth in the next stage against Côte D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Malawi, taking only three points in their entire campaign.

A new wind in Bissau
While their larger brethren have been to nine AFCON tournaments, Guinea-Bissau have never reached the finals and are widely considered one of the continent’s minnows. But a new Portugal-born coach and an influx of young expatriate and foreign-born players saw this nation, which has a population of less than two million, start off qualifying in style earlier this month with an unlikely 1-0 victory over Kenya.

Their previous ranking of 188th - 72 places behind Kenya at the time - was partially a reflection of the national team not having played an international match in almost three years. But the result was still significant for the Djurtus, who had not won an official match since 1996 and were eliminated from 2010 qualifying in the very first stage - losing 1-0 to Sierra Leone over two legs. But a breakaway goal following a defensive giveaway just 14 minutes from time allowed the hosts to knock off a side that included Inter Milan’s highly rated McDonald Mariga. It was a result that cost Kenya’s Twahir Muhiddin his job as coach, while his opposite number Norton De Matos will surely have his Guinea-Bissau players enjoying their time at the top of Group J, an honour they share with Uganda. The underdogs will next test their resolve in the second weekend in October away to wounded Angola, who sit bottom of the table after a 3-0 loss to Uganda.

"It was an important win," said De Matos, who lives in neighbouring Senegal. "A win that gives us better conditions to build for the future that will make people believe that we have good players, players who, within the context of Africa, can really play an important part in each match they play. However, let’s not get too carried away with it. We still have one month to prepare for our match against Angola and, again, we’ll fight for the best result with the same confidence and enthusiasm."

Guinea also face a tall task in the next round of qualifying as they host Nigeria in Conakry. However, the Syli Nationale have some history on their side, having never lost to the Super Eagles at home.