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AFRICAN CUP QUALIFIERS KICK OFF
Competitive football kicks off in Africa again this weekend, as teams start to jostle for a place in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations to be hosted jointly by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
Africa’s great teams who disappointed collectively in the recently-concluded World Cup in South Africa would be looking to use this weekend as a springboard to bounce back to a position of respect after such dismal showing in June.
High-riding Ghana’s Black Stars, the only country that gave some credence to Africa in South Africa, start their campaign at lowly Swaziland in southern Africa. Nothing short of victory would be expected of coach Rejavic’s side, who has a wealth of experience and youth at his disposal. He could even afford to leave out Chelsea’s Michael Essien from his squad. Man of the moment for Ghana is Asamoah Gyan, who completed his transfer to English Premier league team Sunderland on Tuesday.
Nigeria, after weeks of what can be seen as crisis, seeing the country banned and unbanned by its own government in the wake of a dismal, albeit expensive sojourn in the World Cup, have a relatively easy tie to ease them into competition again. They play at home to Madagascar, but even with the seeming ease of the opposition, a lot is still happening in Nigeria and one can not rule the game as a definite win for the nation.
The country has stalled over the appointment of a new head coach to replace the under-achieved Swede Lars Lagerback, who turned them down on the offer of a new contract in spite of his woeful performance. Samson Siasia, ex international is seen as the Chief Coach-designate, but while the whole world knows he is getting the job, no one is offering it to him, as the Federation officials cite politics as a reason.
Cote d’Ivoire’s Elephants, again a shadow of their fierce selves in South Africa, play host to Rwanda. The Ivorians have finally climbed down from the high horse attitude of wanting a “big name” coach, a mistake they made in hiring Sweden’s former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to take them to South Africa. With local coach Francois Zahoui in full charge now having led the team to a famous 1-0 friendly win against former champions Italy, one can expect a straight-forward victory over a Rwanda side now being managed by Ghana’s coach of the year, Sellas “Bobor” Tetteh.
Again, Cote d’Ivoire would have to play the match without influential captain and reigning African Player of the Year Didier Drogba, who was left out of the squad. It provides an opportunity for young protégé Salomon Kalou to shine, while also stand-in captain Didier Zokora can add to his impressive 90 caps.
Spanish coach Javier Clemente leads the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon out in a fixture against Mauritius. This is a perfect start to a campaign which would turn really difficult as Cameroon is in the same group as Senegal. A game between these two greats will be the highlight of the qualifying campaign , especially as only one country is assured of qualification for the African Cup.
Clemente has a wealth of high-flying players to pick from; players who are doing so well in their various clubs and qualification should be a modest achievement for this country that boasts of great potential.
Algeria hosts Tanzania, while reigning champions Egypt start the defence of the crown with a home game against Sierra Leone.
Early pace-setters in the qualifying series deserve a mention here. Botswana have modestly but assuredly taken Africa by storm. In the only 5-team group, Botswana have raced into a 4-point lead at the top of the table, having played three games. These include a 1-0 win against Chad and a shock 1-0 triumph over Tunisia, away in Tunis. They have also drawn with Malawi away.
Botswana plays host to Togo this weekend, and another victory will make them difficult to catch in this race for qualification. This might see Botswana emerge as a qualifier for the Nations Cup for the first time in their history.
Togo presents stiff opposition, but with their charismatic leader Emmanuel Adebayor out, having announced a premature international retirement, a result for Botswana can not be ruled out.
It promises to be a weekend of intrigues, and Africa and the rest of the world is watching.