As the race for places at the 2015 African Nations Cup (Afcon) begins on Friday, football supporters across the continent will be keeping their fingers crossed that by the time the qualifiers end in November, their countries would be amongst the 16 nations which have secured a berth at the Morocco showpiece. The Zebras find themselves in a difficult Group G which has heavyweights Tunisia, Senegal and Egypt. On paper, Botswana have no chance of getting out of this group but football has proven to be an unpredictable game. Sunday Standard journalist TSHEPO MOLWANE looks at the four countries ahead of the two qualifiers penciled for this month.
The Pharaohs are the highest ranked side in this group lying fifth in Africa. The seven time champion have been on a decline in the past years proven by their failure to qualify for the 2012 showpiece which was co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. They also failed to make it to the South African showpiece which was held last year. Taking this into consideration, head coach Shawky Gharib will be under immense pressure to deliver the goods. Failure by his team to stamp authority from the onset in this group might see him being shown the door. There is no doubt that it is not going to be easy for the Pharaohs but Gharib has hinted that he has confidence in his 30-man squad which is dominated by youth.
While he has made it clear that he wants a squad which will be there till the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Gharib has selected some of the statesmen of Egyptian football with veteran goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary being among the four goalies. The 41 year old Ismaily goalkeeper is likely to get the nod in goal when they take on Senegal in the opening match in Dakar on Friday night. The Pharaohs were scheduled to play against Kenya in a friendly match yesterday before heading to West Africa. “I want to have a younger average age in our squad. For now our goal is to qualify for Morocco 2015,” Gharib told journalists in Cairo when announcing his squad for the two qualifiers against Senegal and Tunisia (September 10).
In the two qualifiers this month, Egypt will without doubt look up to Chelsea striker Mohamed Salah and Sporting Lisbon’s Mohamoud Abdel Razeq to bang in the goals. In defence they have the experience Ahmed Hegazy of Fiorentina in Italy.
The Carthage Eagles start the race with a home match against the Zebras in Tunis. The last time both sides met at the same venue, it was the lightweights the Zebras who left with smiles having achieved a 1-0 win over their hosts. It was at the start of the 2012 African Nations qualifiers and the loss did not go down well with millions of football lovers in that country. As the Zebras return to the city, new Belgian coach Georges Leekens know that nothing less than maximum points will be accepted by the football crazy supporters in that country. Since winning the tournament in 2004, the Carthage Eagles have failed to impress at the continental showpiece. They bundled out in the first round when South African hosted in 2013.
Ranked just a place after Egypt in the CAF rankings, Tunisia remain the favourites to go through to the Morocco showpiece in January. Since being appointed as the head coach in March, Leekens has given debuts to a number of youngsters and there is no doubt he will name a few of them in his squad. After hosting the Zebras, five days later they will be visiting their neighbours Egypt in a crucial qualifier. The winner of this Northern African derby is tipped to be a strong contender to win the group.
CS Sfaxien striker Fakhreddine Ben Youssef is expected to lead their search for goals in the opening two qualifiers. The 23 year-old youngster is seen as the future of Tunisian football. Captain Aymen Abdennour will control the Tunisian ship from the defence while Issam Jemaa’s experience will also be vital.
Since their impressive run in 2002 under the late Bruno Metsu when they reached the final only to lose Cameroon on post-match penalties, Senegal have failed to be counted amongst the best sides in the continent. Despite having some of the best players in this continent, the Terranga Lions have failed to play as a team. In 2010, Senegal failed to qualify and when they did two years later in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, they failed to go beyond first round. It was painful experience for the Senegalese community considering the abundance of talent in their side. Last year, they once again failed to qualify for the tournament hence head coach Alain Giresse knows that he has a huge task in his hands. Giresse knows that for him to achieve his goals, he has to do away with players’ egos in the squad. An opening game against Egypt on Friday will be tough but the home support might be what they need to dispose the Pharaohs. Against the Zebras in Gaborone on September 10 anything is possible.
Former Chelsea striker Demba Ba is back in the squad after a long absence, He seems to be enjoying life at Besiktas in Turkey and he might be a threat to their opponents this month. Another newcomer is goalkeeper Pape Demba Camara of Sochaux in France who replaces former favourite Cheikh Ndiaye who is now clubless. While Ba returns to the squad, Newcastle striker Papiss Cisse and Diafra Sakho of West Ham have been left out due to poor form at club level. Senegal are ranked 10th in Africa.
The Zebras are the dark horses in this group as they are the only side ranked outside top 10. The Peter Butler-drilled outfit lies on the 22nd spot in the CAF rankings. The Zebras can take solace from the fact that when they qualified for their maiden tournament in 2012, they were in the same group as Tunisia and Togo yet they won the group. Since the arrival of Butler in February, there is a new belief amongst the local fans that the Zebras can once again qualify for the tournament.
Butler has gone for the unknown but performing individuals unlike in the past when Zebras was dominated by certain players. After disposing off Burundi and Guinea-Bissau in the preliminaries, Butler is confident that his side can compete with the three heavyweights in the group. “We need to believe in ourselves though we’re aware of the quality the three sides pose,” said Butler after the second leg tie against Guinea-Bissau. To show his seriousness in preparing the Zebras for the two matches against Tunisia (September 6) and Senegal (September 10), Butler has opted not to attend high profile Fifa/Caf Congress for national coaches and technical directors which started in Cairo yesterday till tomorrow. It is said that Butler believes that the country comes first before he can go and mingle with other national coaches.
In the squad he announced for the two qualifiers, Butler has recalled veteran goalkeeper Modiri Marumo who plies his trade at Polokwane City in the South African Premier League. Marumo last played for the Zebras at the African Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea. His return is seen as big plus for the Zebras as he has been through this road before. Marumo has played for the Zebras over a decade before he was sidelined due to petty issues.
The Zebras will once again pin their hopes on captain Joel Mogorosi of Bloemfontein Celtic, and Jerome Ramatlhakwana (CS Don Bosco) to score the goals assisted by the likes of Mochudi Centre Chiefs winger Lemponye Tshireletso. It is in these games where the Zebras’ defence will come under scrutiny. But the return of another veteran Mogogi Gabonamong might be what the doctor ordered for Butler.