A leap for Africa's unlikely conquerors

Until their surprise triumphs over Egypt and Algeria respectively, both Niger and Central African Republic were relatively unknown quantities in world and African football. But if those wins weren’t enough for observers to take notice, then their meteoric climb up the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking should do the trick.

The 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying results were shocking enough given that Niger and Central African Republic were considered to be punching above their weight by even daring to challenge the Egyptian giants and the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ participants. But in the aftermath of the wins, both enjoyed giant bumps in October’s standings, with the Central African Republic leaping 60 places to 112th in the world – their highest position ever. Even more amazing for Les Fauves is that just two months ago they were in position 202, near the bottom of the world pecking order.

Now the 28th best-ranked team in Africa, Central African Republic are not total surprise packages, as they beat Equatorial Guinea to claim the CEMAC Cup in 2009 – a tournament contested by central African countries. In the semi-finals of that event, they defeated Gabon, a country, not so long ago, that commanded both respect and credibility in African football. Central African Republic are now top of Group D in AFCON qualifying with four points from two matches after they held the Atlas Lions of Morocco to a draw away from home last month. The Moroccans are second in the group (also on four points) but have scored fewer goals than CAR.

Mena make good
Like the Central African Republic, Niger have never graced the finals of a continental championship or a FIFA World Cup, but they have nonetheless been regarded as tricky opponents. Despite gutsy performances in patches, they have generally not been able to string together consistent results. But after their historic win over the Pharaohs, the Nigeriens are ranked 100 in the world, up 54 spots from the previous month. However, the Mena’s best ranking can be traced back to more than a decade ago in 1994 when they were ranked a heady 68 in the world after pushing Côte d'Ivoire uncomfortably far in USA 1994 qualifying.

Following our performance against Egypt, I think the guys are now starting to believe. Now we do not fear any team.
Niger coach Harouna Doula

But Niger coach, Harouna Doula, has been quietly rebuilding his side and creating a dangerous entity in Niamey. “We are gaining in confidence,” declared the coach. “Following our performance against Egypt, I think the guys are now starting to believe. Now we do not fear any team. I think we’re in a good period, and we expect more resources and preparation around this team to get as high as possible.”

Such brave talk may be dismissed as a gambit in some circles, especially for a side that had a shaky start to qualifying for the 2012 continental finals, to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. They were easily dispatched by South Africa 2-0 in Nelspruit in September, but their 1-0 home victory over Egypt moves them to second in the group behind Bafana Bafana.

Before conquering the Egyptians, Niger disappointed in qualifying for South Africa 2010, winning just one match out of six in the second round of the CAF preliminaries. Their lone victory was over an improving Ugandan team, but not much was expected of the Mena heading into qualifying for 2012. However, the emergence of France-based forward Moussa Maazou, who scored the winner against Egypt, has hopes high that the land-locked country will continue their upward trajectory.