The World Cup inevitably muscled in to steal the attention as the African Nations' Cup got under way yesterday. Five of the finalists in Mali will be heading for South Korea and Japan later this year, and Africa will stage the finals in 2010.
By that stage there will be at least six teams from the continent at the finals, if the Confederation of African Football have their way, but their president, Issa Hayatou, is realistic. He said in Bamako yester- day: "We want more than five representatives for the next World Cups because we have a total of 52 associations. The European association (Uefa) have 51 members yet they have 15 representatives at the 2002 World Cup. This is because they have performed better over the years.
"But if we manage to get our African teams to the quarter-finals or the semi-finals then we are going to demand that we get more places. It depends on how we do. We have had world champions at junior level but need to do better at the World Cup."
Cameroon, the defending champions in Mali, are among three World Cup finalists who face their first test today, when they take on the Democratic Republic of Congo in Sikasso.
Their coach, Winfried Schafer, has told his players to put all thoughts of the World Cup out of their minds. "I've made my boys understand that we must take one thing at a time, so our top priority is to retain the Nations' Cup," the German said.
They will have to have their wits about them against Congo, who spent an unprecedented $1m (£680,000) in preparing for the tournament, running training camps in four countries, including Belgium and Turkey, since November. However, they have had to prepare without their foreign-based key players, who linked up with the team only just before the finals. Much may depend on their strike force of Monaco's Shabani Nonda and Newcastle United's Lomana Tresor Lua Lua, who will be making his international debut.
Senegal and South Africa are also in action today, but Nigeria and Tunisia, the other two World Cup qualifiers, both play tomorrow. South Africa, the top seeds, should have little trouble against Burkina Faso in Segou, but Senegal face a tough encounter with Egypt in Bamako, where the scent of revenge will be in the air. Senegal surprisingly qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time, with Egypt one of the countries they denied a trip to the Far East.
There will be no question of the African finalists in 2006 not taking the event seriously. It will act as qualifying for the subsequent World Cup finals. The four semi-finalists plus one other team will then head for Germany, and that will mean delaying the draw until the new year.Reuse content