The world’s least forgiving World Cup qualifying process kicked off its second round this weekend in Africa. Forty teams drawn into 10 groups will be cut by 75 percent over the next 16 months, after which the survivors (the group winners) will be drawn into five two-legged (home-and-away) matches. The winners qualify for Brazil 2014.
It’s the only major qualifying tournament where no second place finishers advance to at least a playoff. In our neck of the woods (North America), second and third place finishers advance from the Hex (you don’t even have to win your preliminary group to make the final stage). In Europe, if you finish second in your group, you’re likely headed for a playoff. In South America, you could finish fifth an still make the show, while Asia is much like CONCACAF. As long as you keep finishing in second, you’re through.
This is the reason why Africa always has such shocking qualifying results. Egypt won three straight Cup of Nations from 2006 to 2010 yet haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1990. They didn’t even qualify for 2012’s Cup of Nations. Cameroon, Nigeria, and Algeria also missed the tournament.
It’s a ridiculously unforgiving format made all the more ludicrous by not allowing Africa’s aspirants the same margins of error that nations like Argentina, Portugal, Uruguay, France, and Mexico used to make the last World Cup. While it’s hard to call a self-imposed process unfair, in a subtle way, the format undermines the World Cup.
Africa is rarely sending its best representative(s) to the world’s most prestigious event, something that not only hurts those nations but also us fans. I sure would have liked to see Ahmed Hassan compete in a World Cup.
This weekend, with 12 nations having already been shown out of the competition in preliminaries, Africa’s World Cup qualifying began in earnest. With only six games played in each group, losses are huge.
CAF World Cup Qualifying Results – Group by Group
Results: Central African Republic 2-0 Botswana; South Africa 1-1 Ethiopia
Implications: Central African Republic sprints to the top of the group, but the big story is South Africa dropping points at home. They were the group favorites and have now opened the door for an upstart. The result will cost South Africa’s coach his job.
Forecast: In this group, South Africa still has time to recover, but they’re a long way from Brazil.
Results: Tunisia 3-1 Equitorial Guinea; Sierra Leone 2-1 Cape Verde
Implications: Form is held. Tunisia scoring three times is encouraging, especially after giving up the opener. Sierra Leoea is a side that might be dangerous, though you couldn’t tell by this score.
Predictions: Tunisia still in position to contest a spot in Brazil.
Results: Cote d’Ivoire 2-0 Tanzania; Gambia 1-1 Morocco
Implications: It was a good day for Les Elephants. They held serve at home (with goals from Didier Droba and Salomon Kalou) and saw the two teams which could surprise split points in Banjul. Gambia’s squad was undermined by withdrawals, leading to a result which should debilitate their slim World Cup dreams.
Predictions: Cote d’Ivoire has given us no reason to think they’re not going through.
Results: Ghana 7-0 Lesotho; Sudan 2-0 Zambia
Implications: Dominic Adiyiah and Jordan Ayew are scored twice as the Black Stars opened with a rout. Overall impression: Yikes. Zambia, African champions, were dealt a not-to-surprising setback in Khartoum.
Predictions: Ghana’s clearly the group’s best team, but Sudan’s served notice. The teams don’t meet until March.
Results: Burkina Faso 0-0 Congo; Niger 0-0 Gabon
Implications: A terrible result for Burkina Faso, who would have “fancied” their chances to advance when this group was drawn. They responded by being drawn by one of the tournament’s weakest teams. Gabon, on the other hand, got a valuable point against a tough opponent.
Predictions: Gabon may now have the inside track.
Results: Nigeria 1-0 Namibia; Kenya 0-0 Malawi
Implications: Malawi gets a point on the road and becomes the most likely team to unseat Nigeria, though it’s strange to think of the Super Eagles as sitting on a perch. It’s been a while since they lived up to their hype, and after failing to impress against Namibia, it look like they could be had.
Predictions: This group’s still a crapshoot. Malawi hosting Nigeria this weekend could be the group’s most important game.
Results: Egypt 2-0 Mozambique; Zimbabwe 0-1 Guinea
Implications: A huge day for the Pharaohs, but more for societal reasons than anything that will effect World Cup qualifying. The played in font of an empty stadium, the country still coping with the Port Said tragedy. As fragile as Egypt has been in past qualifying campaigns, each match is an exercise in preserving egg shells. Bob Bradley, however, was the right hire for this kind of job, though his talents will be tested this weekend at Guinea.
Predictions: Egypt’s still the favorites. A point on Saturday will cement that status.
Results: Algeria 4-0 Rwanda; Benin 1-0 Mali
Implications: Algeria could be the group’s best team, but after an unsettled period in their soccer history, this group looked wide open. An opening match trouncing of Rwanda hints the Desert Foxes could be ready for another World Cup run. In Cotonou, Benin held serve against Mali, an obligatory result against a nation experiencing so many hardships at home.
Predictions: Algeria scoring four goals can’t be ignored. They’ve reclaimed the favorite’s spot.
Results: Cameroon 1-0 Congo DR; Togo 1-1 Libya
Implications: Great point for Libya, who seem set to build on their Cup of Nations qualification. A 1-0 win at home versus Congo DR hints Cameroon remains very much a
Indomitable Lion. Samuel Eto’o is still serving his suspension.
Predictions: Libya looks dangerous. Cameroon still seems uninspired. The Lions are ready to be tamed. Again.
Results: Senegal 3-1 Liberia; Angola 1-1 Uganda
Implications: As we saw from Senegal’s early Cup of Nations exit, they rarely play up to their talent. This weekend, however, they couldn’t have asked for a better start. A decisive home win coupled with a draw in the group’s other match give the Lions of Teranga sole possession of first.
Predictions: One more weekend like this, and Senegal can’t help but go through.