The Sleeping Giants of Africa face uncertain futures ahead of a mesmerising weekend of Afcon Qualifiers
Many of Africa’s biggest teams go into this weekend’s qualifiers for the 2013 Cup of Nations unsure of just how events will pan out. Several of the continent’s sleeping giants have been stung by smaller nations in recent times, and with Egypt’s elimination at the hands of the Central African Republic still fresh in the memory – few will be taking anything for granted.
What a weekend awaits us. Friday bubbles with expectation, with anticipation at the prospect of 30 of the continent’s nations battling it out. Saturday will see nerves, and that runny fervour of exhilaration, as whistles are blown across the continent, and as sets of eleven take to the field to do their countrymen proud.
But what will Sunday and Monday bring? Elation? Relief? Joy at the unexpected? We’ve seen that before, recall Libya, a year of desolation, unimaginable turmoil, and then triumph on the fields of Cairo and before too long, finally, they had made it, the continent awaited.
For some, anguish, undoubtedly; regret, definitely.
And what of shame? It seems that shame has been a regular theme in African competition recently – see the Senegalese as their Afcon 2012 ended at the first hurdle, bottom of the group, an embarrassing return. See the Nigerians and the Egyptians in qualifying for the last tournament, striding in, chests out, ready to steamroll any who stood before them. Although it didn’t quite end up that way, did it? And before too long the giants were sent packing, listless and cowed, blushing and broken, humiliated, and disgraced – Pharaohs and Super Eagles alike silenced as Guinea and Niger smirked onto the plane, passports at the ready, flying all the way to Gabon and Equatoria.
How will it be this year?
Well, the Egyptians won’t have much more occasion to be humiliated, seeing as the pathway of the seven-time champions halted with a jolt in Bangui. That was the first eye opener, the first sit-back-and-gawp moment. Were Egypt the continent’s sacrificial lamb this time around? Did the continent’s minnows make an example of them, their majesty and complacency, in order to terrorise the other lumbering giants of Africa? Would the likes of Nigeria, Senegal, and Cameroon heed this example and enforce themselves ahead of another potential failure and humiliation?
It seems not, and all three will have their work cut out to qualify for the Group Stage unscathed. For this triad of West African giants, there is everything to play for.
Senegal perhaps face the trickiest task. Cote d’Ivoire were a name that all wanted to avoid back when the draw was made, and unfortunately for the Lions of Teranga, it fell to them to square off with Drogba, Kalou & co. first in Abidjan, and then back in Dakar. It’s unlikely that the Elephants were over the moon in receiving Senegal, but the first leg did appear to put some distance between them and their West African neighbours. The score locked at 2-2 going into the last ten minutes, Drogba, with a penalty, and then Max Gradel, formerly of Leeds, struck, pulling daylight between the two sides. It’s not over for Senegal, but to overcome a two goal deficit against the dusty old golden generation is still a big ask for any team. A quick start by the Lions however, and it may be the Ivory Coast whose disappointing 2012 ends on a sour note.
Cameroon are another sleeping giant of Africa whose luck appears not to be changing anytime soon. They watched the Cup of Nations this year on their television sets in Douala, although without sign of any of their heroes, the four-time winners failing to qualify after inadequate results against DR Congo and Senegal. The draw seemed to have smiled on those formerly-Indomitable Lions this time around, and they saw off Guinea-Bissau in the first round before being paired with the minnows of Cape Verde in the play-offs. You could almost hear them booking their plane tickets in Yaoundé as the draw was announced…how could a nation of some 20 million people possibly come unstuck against tiny islands populated by a fortieth of that amount? Not a fourth, a fortieth.
In the end, it all happened fairly easily. Ricardo opened the scoring for the island nation in the 15th minute before striker Djaniny bagged a second just after the hour mark. As the referee’s whistle went in Praia’s Estádio da Várzea, Cameroon began to feel their chance of redemption slipping away. It’s a huge ask for them to overcome a two-nil defeat on Sunday, even with the partisan crowd at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo behind them. Samuel Eto’o, arguably Africa’s finest ever forward, has been recalled to terrorise the Cape Verdean defence, but even his twinkle toes may not be enough.
And what of Nigeria, perhaps the sleepiest of all Africa’s giants? A 2-2 result away in Liberia in the first leg wasn’t a dreadful outcome, despite the shaky performance, and the Super Eagles have put themselves in a good position to right the wrongs of years gone by. The mood in the national camp and among the nation’s media is one of bullish confidence, but Nigerians ought to be wary. The Super Eagles have choked on the big occasion before, and sometimes, in national competition, with home support behind them, it feels like the notion of a ‘banana skin’ was invented just to slip beneath the feet of West Africa’s slumbering great.
Elsewhere, Mali and Ghana, who, at the last time of asking, finished 3rd and 4thin Africa respectively, will qualify if they avoid defeat away from home. Mali travel to Gaborone after beating Botswana 3-0 in the first-leg, whilst the Black Stars take a two goal cushion to Malawi, who they overcame at the Accra Sports Stadium back in September.
Angola, who were eliminated in the group stages of the last tournament, will need to start strongly at home against Zimbabwe to stand any chance of qualifying this time around. Norman Mapeza’s men impressed in the first-leg in Harare, and will be dreaming of a place in the group stages for the first time since 2006. Reigning continental champs Zambia laboured to a 1-0 at home against Uganda in the first leg and will need their wits about them to qualify to defend their title in South Africa. The Cranes haven’t qualified for the continental competition since 1978 however, but have had some good results of late, and can be a handful in Kampala.
The action is almost too close to call between the Central African Republic & Burkina Faso, Gabon & Togo, and Guinea & Niger, whilst Ethiopia and Equatorial Guinea will require mammoth displays to overcome Sudan and the DR Congo respectively. As fans across the continent will witness this weekend, everything is very much still to play for.