Whichever team wins what is expected to be the liveliest of play-offs in Sudan today between Algeria and Egypt will complete the largest African representation – six countries – yet seen at the World Cup finals.
There would be a certain symmetry if it should be Egypt, who appeared at a World Cup fully 75 years ago. It seems almost that long since Pele, a man whose predictions have never remotely matched his footballing talents, first suggested that an African country would win the competition; a football-obsessed continent of 900 million people is still waiting for that glorious day, but with home advantage next June there is optimism that at least the previous best achievements can be surpassed.
Cameroon, in 1990, and Senegal 12 years later both defeated the holders in their opening game and went to extra-time in a quarter-final before losing, to England and Turkey respectively. Who could improve on those brave performances this time? Cameroon, the "Indomitable Lions" (every African team must have a colourful nickname) will be there again, for the sixth time in eight tournaments, though not impressively. Samuel Eto'o's goals were required to squeeze them through ahead of Gabon and Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo, and it may take a favourable draw next month to improve their prospects. Others among the four West African qualifiers are expected to provide a stronger challenge; above all Ivory Coast and Ghana.
Four years ago Didier Drogba's Ivorians received the toughest of draws and lost 2-1 to both Argentina and the Netherlands before defeating Serbia. In Drogba and Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora, Kolo Touré and his brother Yaya, they possess solid experience at a high level and are fancied in many quarters to become Africa's first semi-finalists.
Michael Essien will have something to say about that, and probably does at regular intervals to his Chelsea team-mates Drogba and Kalou. Essien will be only one of the physical powerhouses in Ghana's side, according to the Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, who watched them on several occasions before signing the centre-half John Mensah. "John's a physical beast of a man, strong and powerful," Bruce says. "And whoever plays Ghana in the World Cup, there's 11 of them, all like him. A good team they are, and I hope England stay clear of them."
If Nigeria's John Obi Mikel joins the banter in the Chelsea dressing-room, it may be with less bravado. The Super Eagles, like their great rivals Cameroon, are back after missing out on the 2006 finals but with Mikel one of the few squad members playing at Champions' League rather than Europa League level.
That leaves South Africa, whose main aim, sadly, would appear to be avoiding embarrassment as the first host country failing to reach the second round. Carlos Alberto Parreira, Brazil's winning coach in 1994, has returned for his second spell with Bafana Bafana, immediately recalling Blackburn's Benni McCarthy, but has not been impressed. Neither has the former Bolton and Charlton defender Mark Fish, who says of his country: "We should focus on 2014 and 2018." And he is supposed to be an ambassador for the tournament.Reuse content