KAMPALA- Different parts of Africa received the second round draw of the 2022 Fifa World Cup Qualifiers with mixed feelings and a number of opinions arose on Tuesday night after 40 teams were pooled into 10 groups of four each.
After Ivorian female legend Clémentine Touré placed East African nations Rwanda and Kenya together from pots 3 and 4, then 1998 World Cup winner Frenchman Marcel Desailly completed Group E with Uganda and top seed Mali at the Nile Ritz Carlton in Cairo, Egypt.
Geographically, West African nation Mali is misplaced here. However, this is a group that Les Aigles will fancy because it is the only pool where none of the members has reached the World Cup finals before.
Such is part of what presents the continent with an aura optimism that Africa may get new representatives at the World Cup in Qatar 2022. Mali are favourites here backed up by a squad that has achieved a lot over the last decade.
Two third-place finishes at the 2012 and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), second place at the 2016 Chan finals in Rwanda and now building a crop of players who won the 2017 Afcon U17 title in Gabon and advanced to win the Afcon U20 title in Niger last February.
In between, Mali’s budding Eagles settled for fourth place at the 2017 Fifa U17 World Cup in India before losing to Italy in extra time at the 2019 Fifa U20 World Cup quarterfinals in Poland.
This is what Cecafa kings Uganda, keen to build on nine points including a 1-0 win over Egypt from the previous World Cup qualifying campaign, must match.
Cranes as well must know that familiarity with neighbours Kenya and Rwanda breeds contempt in the quest for the top spot to the two-legged third round.
“So you look at their years of progression from 2015 to date, really Mali – over the next five or six years – they are going to be the team to watch in Africa, replacing Senegal,” Cranes’ coach Johnny McKinstry told this paper early this week.
“However, with youth comes inexperience and unpredictability, so we have to make sure we use our experience to get the correct results against Mali. But we cannot underestimate them because there is a lot of talent in that team.”
While the Cranes have produced some commendable progress over the last five years, the four tricky derbies present a more complex puzzle than even 180 minutes against Mali.
Group E offers Uganda a chance to revenge for the witch-craft christened 1-0 home loss to Rwanda courtesy of Jimmy Gatete during the 2004 Afcon Qualifiers and painful goalless draw against the Harambee Stars that locked out Uganda from getting a ticket to Afcon 2012.
“Derby games are always unpredictable. There is always more at stake than three points in these derbies, there is local pride, so we’ve got to make sure we are at the very top of our game.
“And if we are, we are more than capable of taking maximum points against our neighbours,” added McKinstry.
While a new face will emerge here to the top 10, there a number of pointers giving emerging sides a big shot to Qatar in other groups.
“In totality, this is a draw loaded with storylines. From Cameroon’s fear of missing out again after getting a tough draw pre-2018, to Algeria hoping to continue dominate the continent and potential surprise packages like Tanzania and Zimbabwe, it’s got it all,” Guardian’s contributor Ghanaian Gary Al-Smith says.
“No matter what happens, Qatar will be seeing at least two African nations the World Cup hasn’t seen before. And that’s what will motivate every one of the 36 teams out there.”
Only 13 African nations have been to the World Cup finals and the last time the continent had a debutant there was at the 2006 edition when Angola, Togo, Ivory Coast and Ghana arrived.
Two bigwigs Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions and Ivory Coast’s Elephants missed out on Russia 2018 and now must fight for one slot with Mozambique and Malawi in Group D.
It is the same for three-time finalists Ghana who meet 1996 Afcon winners South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia in Group G. “For Ghana, this would normally be manageable on paper, but these are not normal,” Al-Smith notes.
“A new coach Charles Akonnor is in the picture with zero national team management experience. He will have a solid institutional memory and structure behind him, but ultimately, it’s about how he manages players and situations. Nothing less than a top-two finish, but, it is very uncertain if CK can get Ghana to Qatar.”
Coaching changes and rebuilding phases remain the trap to best chemistry and momentum for many teams during the remaining qualification period beginning October.
Having missed out on Russia, reigning Africa champions Algeria are favourites to top Group A which has Burkina Faso, Niger and Djibouti. Like Uganda, Niger faces two neighbours Algeria and Burkinabe.
“It is a relatively good one for Algeria. I expect most of the powerhouses to advance to the playoff round but I also expect a surprise or two,” Canada-based Algerian journalist Walid Ziani opines.
Egypt may have Mohamed Salah but will need to call their house to order if they are to go over Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon, neighbours Libya and Angola in Group F.
“Egypt is not in the best shape especially after the last Afcon. Libya is not the strongest but they offer a North Africa derby and they know how to play good against us,” said BBC’s Cairo-based correspondent Tarek Talaat.
Then former Cranes’ coach Micho Sredojevic is Zambia’s new tutor and he will try throw the spanner in Tunisia, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea’s works in Group B.
Like Uganda’s, Group J is equally open with 1974 WC finalists DR Congo, Benin, Madagascar and Tanzania all previously at the Afcon in Egypt last June. Interestingly, it is Benin and Madagascar who reached the quarterfinals there.
AFRICA AT THE FIFA WC- TIMELINE
1934: Abdulrahman Fawzi of Egypt, first African to score at the World Cup, who scored both Egypt’s goals in 2-4 loss against Hungary. He netted a third, but was ruled offside.
1974: Mulamba Ndaye of Zaire (DR Congo today), first African player to receive a red card at the World Cup against Yugoslavia on 18 June 1974.
1978: Tunisia, first African to win a match at the World Cup Finals, with 3–1 over Mexico
1986: Algeria, first African team to qualify twice in a row (1982 and 1986)
1990: Cameroon, first team in the history of the World Cup to win a match with nine players only winning Argentina 1-0
1994: Roger Milla of Cameroon, the oldest player to score at World Cup Finals, aged 42, against Russia. (Russia won the match 6-1)
2010: South Africa, first African country to host the World Cup
2014: Stephen Keshi of Nigeria, first African coach to reach round of 16
2018: Sofyan Amrabat of Morocco, who came on as a substitute for his brother Nordin Amrabat in the 76th minute in the group match against Iran, is the first player in World Cup history to come in for his brother.
7 times: Cameroon (1982, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010 & 2014)
6 times: Nigeria (1994, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2014, 2018)
5 times: Morocco (1970, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2018), Tunisia (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2018)
4 times: Algeria (1982, 1986, 2010, 2014)
3 times: Ivory Coast (2006, 2010, 2014), Egypt (1934, 1990, 2018), Ghana (2006, 2010, 2014), South Africa (1998, 2002, 2010)
2 times: Senegal (2002, 2018)
1 time: DR Congo (1974), Angola (2006), Togo (2006)
ROAD TO QATAR 2022
QUALIFYING POOLS – AFRICA
Algeria, B. Faso, Niger, Djibouti
Tunisia, Zambia, Mauritania, Eq. Guinea
Nigeria, Cape Verde, CAR, Liberia
Cameroon, I.Coast, Mozambique, Malawi
GROUP E: Mali, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda
GROUP F: Egypt, Gabon, Libya, Angola
Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia
Senegal, Congo, Namibia, Togo
Morocco, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sudan
DR Congo, Benin, Madagascar, Tanzania