Zahoui: Central African Republic don't feel inferior to the giants
Central African Republic have never participated in AFCON or Word Cup finals
Coach Francois Zahoui eyes maiden AFCON participation
Les Fauves approaching qualifiers without inferiority complex
Traditionally one of the weakest teams in Africa, Central African Republic have yet to reach the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, let alone a FIFA World Cup™. But over the past ten years, Les Fauves have been gradually improving and recording some impressive results, such as beating Algeria 2-0 in the AFCON 2012 qualifiers and Egypt 3-2 in Cairo in the 2013 edition of the same preliminaries.
The country’s football’s federation has recently appointed Francois Zahoui to coach the national team. The Ivorian reached the AFCON 2012 final with Côte d’Ivoire before losing to Herve Renard's Zambia. Fans of Les Fauves are now hoping Zahoui can steer their team to a maiden AFCON and participate in World Cup qualifiers without feeling inferior to the bigger teams.
"When I took the reins of the Central African team, our first goal was to reach the AFCON finals," Zahoui told FIFA.com. "But we ended up in a group alongside Morocco.
"Now given the impact of COVID-19, we'll find it tough to achieve this target, as our next game will be against Morocco, whose players are already back playing official competitions. As for our guys, they've not played competitively for a long time, which might hurt our chances in the remaining qualifiers."
The Qatar 2022 draw put Central African Republic in a difficult group alongside Nigeria, Cape Verde Islands and Liberia.
"We must accept that Nigeria are clear favourites," Zahoui said. "They've already participated in several World Cups, including the latest one, and have the required experience."
Regarding Cape Verde and Liberia, the coach said the former are "one of Africa’s strong teams. It'll not be easy for us to beat them in these qualifiers, as they’re more experienced. As for Liberia, I think we're more or less of the same standard.
"But all this is in theory – the pitch might have another opinion. However, as far as we're concerned, we'll certainly compete with everything we have to achieve positive results, although we know very well our standard compared to the others."
Modest teams like Central African Republic often head into World Cup qualifiers without feeling inferior and determined to challenge the established big guns. And why not when you have beaten both Egypt and Algeria in recent years?
"Taking part in World Cup qualifiers will enhance our experience and teach us a lot," said Zahoui. "Our team is small, and the country as a whole is facing multiple problems on many levels. What's good, however, is that there's a desire here in the country to develop the team. Everyone is doing their best to push the team forward."
Despite the gulf between Les Fauves and heavyweights like Nigeria, the coach is not ruling anything out.
"We won’t be lacking desire or ambition in these qualifiers," he said, "Although things will be theoretically tough, you never know what can happen on the pitch. We'll play with the utmost determination to get positive results, all while aspiring to improve and reach the level of the continent’s top sides.
"Our goal for the first year is to gain experience and improve ourselves through participation in the World Cup qualifiers. Then we'll seek to reach the AFCON finals for the first time in history. Playing against big teams in the qualifiers will certainly help us."
The favourites as seen by Zahoui
As a veteran coach in Africa with ten years' experience in international football, we asked Zahoui for his favourites for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
"The favourites are the ones that participated in previous editions and have the necessary experience, such as Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Cameroon, despite the latter’s recent travails. Côte d’Ivoire are also a strong side that will compete fiercely for a place. There're other teams that missed out on the last edition, such as Algeria, who I see as strong contenders for qualification this time.
"And you should also watch for some teams that have recently bounced back strongly, such as Mali, who I consider a good candidate for qualification, as well as South Africa. As for us Central Africans, that’s going to be extremely difficult."