When the 32 best teams gather at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, five African countries will be dreaming of becoming the first side from the continent to reach the semi-finals. For 26 of the least-heralded African teams that kick-off CAF qualifying this week, the dreams are quite different with most hoping to survive the first round's two legged-ties as their immediate short-term goal.
For Comoros, Somalia, Seychelles, Eritrea and South Sudan to progress to the next round, they will – most likely – have to achieve something historic: they will have to win their first World Cup qualifiers. Comoros have played and lost their four. Somalia have drawn three and lost six, and Eritrea have drawn three and lost three. Seychelles have played 12 games without victory, drawing two, while South Sudan are entering the World Cup race for the first time.
Seychelles coach Ralph Jean-Louis, whose side is facing Burundi in the first round, is aware that his side has a mountain to climb but is confident that the Pirates can make a breakthrough. “We want to win our first match. We want to show the Seychelles people that we can do it, and I have the players that can beat Burundi.”
Comoros face Lesotho, while Somalia face an uphill battle against Niger. Eritrea, meanwhile, are up against Botswana, who will be buoyed by a victory against Burkina Faso in a CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.
Embarking on their debut campaign, South Sudan have been drawn against Mauritania, in a tie both sides will face optimistically. On the one hand, Mauritania beat South Africa in their last competitive match, an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier, and yet South Sudan also beat Equatorial Guinea in the same competition. Not surprisingly, South Sudan captain Richard Justin Lado, is oozing confidence. “We are ready, totally ready. We know what we have to do and we can spring a surprise. Our coach Sung-Jea Lee has created a style of play that’s based on defensive discipline and counter-attacking football, and I think we can cause some damage. We need to win, for many reasons, and we will win.”
But it is not only the so-called minnows of African football that are involved in the qualifying campaign. At the other end of the draw, strivers Namibia are away to Gambia in their first leg encounter and the Brave Warriors' coach Ricardo Mannetti has told his players that they need to be at their best if they want to be called up. “The first thing I look at when calling up a player, particularly a striker, is his goal-scoring record at club level. If I’m not impressed with his record or the player’s overall performance, then I will not call up that specific player,” he said when he announced the squad for the match in Banjul.
Tanzania's interim coach Charles Mkwasa, has called on his players to secure an advantage ahead of their return leg in Malawi. “It is important we post a handsome victory at home before playing on foreign soil. We have a very formidable football side.” Mkwasa can call on in-form strikers Thomas Ulimwengu and Mbwana Sammatta, who have just reached the CAF Champions League final with their Congo DR club TP Mazembe.
Liberian coach James Debbah, who was part of the Lone Stars team that came agonisingly close to qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, has already said that he will play an attacking game in their first leg at home, using four attackers - William Jebor, Francis Doe, Patrick Ronaldinho Wleh and Dioh Williams – against Guinea Bissau.
Scotsman Bobby Williamson, who is in charge of Kenya, has called up a number of foreign-based players including captain Victor Wanyama, who plays for Southampton in the Premier League. The Harambee Stars travel to Mauritius for their first leg and the islanders believe they could spring a surprise. “I want to believe we can do it. Even the smallest win is a huge achievement for us. Getting through to the group phase would be amazing for us,” said 'Club M' captain Jonathan Bru.
In other matches, the Central African Republic face Madagascar, while Chad are at home in the first leg against Sierra Leone. Ethiopia travel to Sao Tome & Principe, and Djibouti take on Swaziland.
The 13 winners of the two-legged ties advance to the second round, where they will be joined by the 27 seeded countries. The teams have already been drawn into ties, which will be played on a home-and-away basis. The 20 winners advance to the group phase, where they will be drawn into five groups of four teams each, with the winners of the groups advancing to the finals.