World Cup qualifiers: Ethiopia stir African hearts with dream of debut


In Ouagadougou and Abidjan today the dream will flare again, just as it will in Addis Ababa and Rades on Sunday, and in Kumasi on Tuesday.

The odyssey of African World Cup qualifying has reached its final phase with a quintet of two-legged winner-takes-all ties. The only guarantee is drama.

Four years ago the fall-out from Algeria’s win over Egypt led to riots in Paris and a rupture in diplomatic relations between Egypt and play-off hosts Sudan, as well as between the combatants. In the previous qualifying series Cameroon missed out on the 2006  finals when, with the likes of Samuel Eto’o failing to step forward, Pierre Womé put a last-minute penalty wide enabling Ivory Coast to qualify at the expense of the Indomitable Lions.

The first match, at 5pm on Saturday, pits one of two potential debutants, Burkina Faso, against an Algeria side who have never matched the promise of their 1982 bow. An hour later is a highly-volatile clash between Ivory Coast and 2002 quarter-finalists Senegal, a pairing which ended in an abandonment when they met in Dakar in an African Cup of Nations qualifier last October. Senegalese fans rioted with the Lions of Teranga losing 2-0. As travelling Ivorian fans were attacked that day, Senegalese supporters will be given a special escort today to prevent revenge assaults. In all Ivory Coast will have 1,700 security staff on duty. The return leg will be played in Casablanca, Morocco.

While Didier Drogba’s team will not have to travel to Senegal, Michael Essien, his former Chelsea team-mate, will be expected to go with Ghana to Cairo for their second leg against Egypt despite complaints that, given the unrest in the city, it is unsafe.

If that match, like Tunisia v Cameroon, is a heavyweight one, the romantics will be looking at Addis Ababa on Sunday where Ethiopia are on the brink of history. African Cup of Nations champions in 1962, they did not even play in the continental finals between 1982 and this year and have never qualified for the World Cup. This benighted country, once a byword for despair, is agog with expectation but, 93rd in the world, they face Nigeria, the reigning African champions, a team replete with European  experience. Most of the Ethiopians play at home, the one player performing in Europe does so for Belgian club Lierse.

Nigeria will expect to go through, but then what? It is 23 years since a Roger Milla-inspired Cameroon sent England to the precipice in the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals before two late Gary Lineker penalties turned the game, launched Gazzamania and transformed modern English football.

Five World Cups later, including one hosted on the continent, Africa has still to produce a World Cup semi-finalist  despite providing players who have  embellished and enriched the Champions League and played major roles at the leading European clubs. But for a Luis Suarez handball Ghana would have made the last four in South Africa against Uruguay, but it is still a paltry return on the talent. In total African countries have played 110 matches in the finals and won just 23.

Despite fielding players such as Milla, Eto’o, Drogba, Yaya Touré, Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and so many others African football has so often been undone by leadership that is at best chaotic, at worst corrupt. This qualifying programme highlighted the problem with 10 matches being decided in the committee room after countries were discovered to have been fielding ineligible players. In some cases this was  attempted cheating, but usually it was simple negligence, most tellingly with Cape Verde. Their place in this final round was lost when it was discovered they fielded a player in the crucial match against Tunisia who was suspended.

A lack of leadership has been most telling in Cameroon and Nigeria, the two powerhouses of West Africa, Indomitable Lions led by donkeys, to re-work the old line about First World War generals. Then there is the lamentable failure of South Africa. In most African countries part of the problem is a talent drain which means players leave for Europe as teenagers. While this instills discipline into their game it means the  domestic leagues are poor and makes it hard for coaches to develops teams at age-group level. In some squads there are also splits between the players who have made it to Europe, and those who have been left behind. South Africa has a well-resourced domestic league but, contrarily, that is said to have made their players lazy. Whatever the reason, Bafana Bafana are one of the Continent’s biggest disappointments.

So this final round is just the end of the beginning for Africa’s qualifiers. The next challenge is to get to Brazil without squads being affected by disputes over bonuses or riven by internecine rivalry, and with a coach who does not quit on the eve of the finals because he is not being paid or is fired because the  national FA only believes a European can do the job. If the administrators can manage that, the players may finally have a chance of fulfilling their undoubted potential.

Out of Africa: World Cup record

Most appearances by an African nation (with best performance in brackets):

6 Cameroon (Quarter-final)

4 Morocco (Second round)

Nigeria (Second round)

Tunisia (First round)

3 Algeria (First round)

South Africa (First round)

2 Ivory Coast (First round)

Egypt (First round)

Ghana (Quarter-final)

1 Angola (First round)

Congo DR (First round)*

Senegal (Quarter-final)

Togo (First round)

*as Zaire

Final round of fixtures (two legs)

Burkina Faso v Algeria (today & 19/11)

Ivory Coast v Senegal (today & 16/11)

Ethiopia v Nigeria (tomorrow & 16/11)

Tunisia v Cameroon (tomorrow & 17/11)

Ghana v Egypt (Tuesday & 19/11)