Egypt are closing in on a World Cup place, an achievement that would wipe away two years of pain for the country’s game and put the team back at soccer’s top tournament for the first time in more than 20 years.
Unbeaten and leading Group G, Egypt play Zimbabwe tomorrow and a win would just about clinch the group and a place in the final playoffs for former US coach Bob Bradley’s team, but Africa’s tricky and demanding qualifying process for Brazil next year can still spell trouble for the bigger teams.
The 10 group winners have to face off in those decisive two-legged playoffs to be one of Africa’s five countries at the World Cup, a change that means the trip to Brazil will ultimately hinge on one tie and not a prolonged group competition like last time.
A slip there and a team loses everything.
“Qualification in Africa is difficult,” Bradley said.
“That home-and-away tie against another group winner. There will be no margin for error,” he added.
Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon also lead their groups, although none of them convincingly, while Ghana trail Zambia and are under pressure. Morocco’s hopes appear to be over, while South Africa are in danger of going from World Cup hosts to absentees.
The next two rounds of qualifiers feature 40 games packed into 11 days, leaving just one more group date in September before the playoffs later this year.
Egypt have a perfect record and a five-point lead over Guinea, a surprisingly smooth ride so far after political upheaval at home over the past few years led to the seven-time African champion’s failure to qualify for successive continental championships last year and earlier this year.
Victory in Harare and Guinea failing to beat Mozambique would send Egypt to the playoffs, a step away from what would be a third World Cup appearance and a first since 1990.
Top-ranked in Africa, Ivory Coast are at Gambia today, Group C’s bottom-placed team, and are hoping to extend their one-point lead over Tanzania without striker Didier Drogba.
Coach Sabri Lamouchi decided to rest Drogba from World Cup qualifying since the Africa Cup of Nations at the start of the year to look to Ivory Coast’s future.
“We need a dynamic and youthful selection,” Lamouchi said ahead of the Gambia game, adding that Drogba would be back in August. “I remain convinced that Ivory Coast holds many talents. My concern is to create a balance between old and new.”
African champions Nigeria beat Kenya 1-0 through a late goal by Ahmed Musa on Wednesday to open a two-point lead over Malawi at the top of Group F. Those fixtures were brought forward so Nigeria can travel to the FIFA Confederations Cup later this month — a possible distraction to their World Cup qualifying effort.
Cameroon have a slender one-point lead over Libya to protect when they visit Togo tomorrow without striker Samuel Eto’o, who was injured playing for Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala.
Cameroon have also brought in Germany’s Volker Finke as their new coach, a risky time to make a change.
Ghana, Africa’s only quarter-finalist at the 2010 World Cup, traveled to Sudan yesterday, while rivals and Group D leaders Zambia are at home to Lesotho today.
South Africa’s trip to Cameroon to face the Central African Republic on neutral territory raises another challenge for teams playing in Africa — travel problems.
The Bafana Bafana squad left South Africa early on Tuesday, but only arrived in Yaounde late on Wednesday after flight cancelations in Douala and an eventual five-hour bus trip and a 36-hour journey in all.
“Waiting at the airport for the next flight was not going to be an option as there were no guarantees that it would arrive and we didn’t want to find ourselves stranded again in the middle of the night,” South Africa coach Gordon Igesund said. “The fact is that it is not the ideal preparation, but we will not allow it to upset us, what is done is done.”
Weary South Africa are two points behind Ethiopia, who are away to Botswana in Group A’s other game today.
Elsewhere, Tunisia lead Group B by five points ahead of their visit to Sierra Leone, the Republic of Congo surprisingly lead Group E by six points, Algeria and Mali are locked in a battle at the top of Group H, while Senegal top Group J.