Africa's Gladiators: The Continent's Qualifiers for Next Year's Football World Cup in Japan and Korea Are Now Complete. Ola Sheyin Traces Their Qualification Routes and Chances. (Football/World Cup)
Sheyin, Ola, New African
The five African countries going to Japan and Korea are officially the continent's best five. Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia and Senegal (in that order) were the countries that emerged as victors from last year's African Nations Cup jointly hosted by Nigeria and Ghana.
The qualification process for the World Cup was, however, not so predictable. As a matter of fact, several teams were still capable of qualifying only minutes away from the final whistle of their final group games.
In Group A, Cameroon, the current African champions, were expected to be pushed all the way to the qualification tape, by Zambia, Angola, Libya and Togo.
After an opening 3-0 bashing of Libya in Tripoli on 18 June last year, and a similar scoreline against Angola in Yaounde three weeks later, Cameroon seized initial control of the group.
They would follow those results with a 2-0 victory over Togo in Lome, and a tight 1-0 win over Zambia in Yaounde. Qualification for Cameroon then became a matter of when, not if.
But they had to wait another five months, (while Angola forced themselves into reckoning), before a 2-0 victory over Togo in Yaounde made Cameroon the first in the world to quality for Japan/Korea.
Group B seemed divinely created to fan the continent's oldest soccer rivalry between Ghana and Nigeria. The others in the Group -- Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia -- were supposedly just there to make up the numbers, but George Weab, the former world footballer of the year who doubles as the coach/player of the Liberian team, had other ideas.
A 3-1 victory over Ghana in Accra was both shocking in the feat accomplished, and the margin of the accomplishment.
As Liberia's profile rose, that of Nigeria began to slip as quick loses to Liberia and Sierra Leone threatened the Super Eagles bid for qualification.
Nigeria's foreign coach, Jo Bonfere, was removed to save the costs of a team "no longer going for the World Cup". A "native" alternative, Amodou Shuaibu, was hired in his stead "to build a ream for the future".
Shuaibu changed the team drastically, pushing in home-based players and giving chances to fresh and hungry foreign-based ones. Ghana would do Nigeria a favour by defeating Liberia in Monrovia, while the Eagles kept their focus to reel out impressive victories in their last three games, to snatch qualification from a hitherto mathematical chance.
Group C, ultimately won by Senegal, was the theatre of dreams. On paper, it looked by far the most evenly balanced group, and aside from Namibia, every other group member had a realistic chance of qualification.
The games were predictably tight. Senegal opened the campaign with an away draw to Algeria, just as Morocco was playing a draw away to Namibia. Senegal then drew 0-0 again at home to Egypt, before proceeding to Morocco to repeat the scoreline. …