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Friday, June 1, 2012
Africa's race for Brazil begins

Firdose Moonda

Thirteen coaches will begin their competitive reigns across Africa this weekend as the second round of World Cup qualifiers gets underway. In truth, this is where the race to Brazil begins, as the continent's giants compete with the nearly men. The matches will serve the dual purpose of deciding which teams will participate in the African Nations' Cup (ANC) next year in South Africa. ESPN previews the first round of fixtures.

Group A: Central African Republic v Botswana, South Africa v Ethiopia

The Central African Republic are one of the teams with a new coach after Jules Accorsi quit days ago having not been paid for more than six months. Accorsi put CAR on the map, taking them from bottom feeders, ranked 202 out of 205 countries, to 123rd in the world. Under him, they were just a glass slipper short of qualifying for the 2012 ANC. Their opponents, Botswana, have had a similar fairytale story, though their carriage turned into a pumpkin earlier this year. They were the first team to qualify for ANC, having sustained an unbelievable run, but failed to build on that in the event. They have also had trouble in the lead up to this match. Unpaid bills by the country's FA resulted in Botswana not being able to pay for training facilities and having to cut sessions short, while they will also have to do without midfielder Magogi Gabonamong and captain Mompathi Thum. South Africa's Pitso Mosimane recalled 34-year old veteran striker Siyabonga Nomvethe, who ended as the domestic league's top goalscorer, for the match but it hasn't been smooth sailing for his camp. No. 2 goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs asked to be withdrawn from the squad, citing a lack of opportunities, which caused a furore. Mosimane has been given time to build but will be expected to produce in these qualifiers. Ethiopia will start the match with a sour taste in their mouths. The team was denied visas to enter South Africa early in the week but have made it in time for the match.

Group B: Sierra Leone v Cape Verde, Tunisia v Equatorial Guinea

Sierra Leone's Swedish coach Olaf Mattson has finally been given a full-time contract, despite being in charge of the team for more than a year. His task is to qualify for both the ANC and the World Cup. It will be a tough one because he starts without midfielder Rodney who failed to recover from an ankle injury he suffered in training. Financial problems have also plagued Sierra Leone. The FA headquarters were shut down this week and the team bus impounded because of an unpaid construction bill. By contrast, Cape Verde are upbeat and looking to qualify for a continental event for the first time. A similar energy surges through Equatorial Guinea, who successfully co-hosted this year's ANC. They take on a much-fancied Tunisian side, who routed Rwanda 5-1 in a warm-up game earlier in the week.

Group C: Ivory Coast v Tanzania, Gambia V Morocco

Africa's top-ranked side, Ivory Coast, welcome back Didier Drogba, who will play for the country for the first time since he missed a penalty in their loss to Zambia in the ANC final. He should add stability to a camp that has been rocked by a recent change in coaching staff. Francois Zahoui was fired on Monday and replaced with former France international Sabri Lamouchi, who has no coaching experience. They are favoured over minnows Tanzania, who have never qualified for a major event and are ranked 145th in the world. The East Africans have been buoyed by a massive sponsorship this week, in which Tanzania Breweries promised US$10 million for football over the next five years, of which US$2 million will go towards the expenses of the national team. Gambia, who also have a new coach in charge, Italian Luciano Mancini, host a confident Morocco in a state of flux.

Group D: Ghana V Lesotho, Sudan v Zambia

Two of Africa's darlings headline this group, each with a point to prove. Ghana will want to show their ability to dominate Lesotho in Kwesi Appiah's first match as head coach. His aim is to take them to their third consecutive World Cup finals, but he will be without Asamoah Gyan, who is still on self-imposed exile, and Andre "Dede" Ayew, who is injured. Zambia will play their first competitive match since becoming champions of Africa earlier this year and will be keen to show that they are deserving of that status. They face Sudan, who they beat in the ANC and who coach Herve Renaud labelled as "sleep-inducing" opponents.

Group E: Burkina Faso v Congo, Niger v Gabon

Burkina Faso have brought back Cameroonian-born Herve Zengue, who caused controversy ahead of this year's ANC. He was dropped from their side after Namibia launched a case against Burkina Faso for fielding him as an ineligible player. The court of arbitration ruled in Burkina Faso's favour but they went into the fnals without Zengue. New coach Paul Put has selected him for the match against Congo. Gabon, having given a respectable account of themselves as co-hosts in the ANC, take on a much-heralded Niger side. Gabonese football was given a major boost this week when Samuel Eto'o inaugurated an academy in his name, which was launched as part of an initiative to develop the sport in the country.

Group F: Kenya v Malawi, Nigeria v Namibia

Kenya go into their match against Malawi having been assured of the services of former captain Dennis Oliech. He made himself available during the week after a dispute with team sponsors over image rights was resolved. Nigeria have embarrassment to undo. Captain and first-choice goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama vowed to ensure the country do not miss out on the World Cup for a second successive time. The Nigerian FA has denied rumours that new coach Stephen Keshi faces a litmus test in these matches and said it has faith in him. He has been in charge of Nigeria for seven games, of which they have won just two. They face a Namibian side that is not short of bullishness. The Brave Warriors spent the week training in Germany and critics have warned the Super Eagles not to take them lightly.

Group G: Egypt v Mozambique, Zimbabwe v Guinea

Bob Bradley's hour has arrived. Although he has been in charge of the Egyptian side since September last year and has overseen them in 12 warm-up games, he has not had the chance to manage them when it mattered, until now. He should have a relatively simple task against Mozambique and the seven-time African champions' concerns are said to be more related to themselves than the opposition. Egypt's league was cancelled following the Port Said disaster, bringing the county's football to a halt. They will also play behind closed doors because of security concerns. Brighter news is that midfielder Mohamed Shawky has been recalled despite claiming Bob Bradley is "disorganised". Zimbabwe begin their quest for renewed respectability after the match-fixing scandal threw their reputation into question. Three midfielders who were suspended in the saga have been recalled. Ovidy Karuru, Khama Billiat and Willard Katsande were cleared of all allegations and will be part of the squad that plays against Guinea.

Group H: Algeria v Rwanda. Benin v Mali

Rwanda will take to the field in mourning, following the death of former captain Patrick Mafisango. The midfielder was killed in a car crash in Dar es Salaam, where he plays club football, on Thursday morning and was part of the squad for the World Cup qualifiers. Mali will look to put aside turmoil at home when they play Benin. They have a new coach at the helm, Amadou Pathe Diallo, who reportedly met with PSG's Mohammed Sissoko to try to convince him to come out of retirement for the team. Diallo is still waiting to hear if his talk with the midfielder will yield any fruits.

Group I: Cameroon v DRC, Libya v Togo

Cameroon will play Togo without midfielder Enoh Eyong, who was cleared to play, following a suspension over his involvement in a player strike. Eyong was given a two-match ban, which was later halved, after protesting over the payment of bonuses but will miss the match with an injury. Cameroon are also without Samuel Eto'o, who is still serving his eight-match ban. The other match in this group, between Togo and Libya, will also be played behind closed doors because of security concerns in Libya.

Group J: Senegal v Liberia, Angola v Uganda

Both Senegal and Liberia have had to put up with dissenting voices this week. Former Senegal captain El-Hadji Diouf continued his verbal assault on the side and called on the current crop to put national pride ahead of personal ambition. They may have to heed his words as injuries have plagued their preparation. Senegal will be without Demba Ba, Issar Dia, Kader Mangane, Souleymane Diawara and Pape Malickou Diakhate. Liberia, meanwhile, have had to listen to former player George Weah say it was a "mistake" to appoint Kaetu Smith as coach, following the sacking of Robero Landi. Weah said Thomas Kojo, the stand-in coach, should have been given a chance instead. Angola have the blessing of their sports minister, Goncalves Muandumba, as they prepare for Uganda. Muandumba said he understands that creating a winning team takes time and he does not expect overnight results. He went on to confirm that he will not criticise the team if they fail to qualify for the ANC. Angola have been training in Portugal, where they have had good results over club sides in the lead up to their match.

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