World Cup 2014 Outlook: Africa
African Football Confederation
Nations eliminated: Botswana, Burundi, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Zimbabwe.
Nations alive (in order of FIFA ranking): Ivory Coast (13), Ghana (21), Mali (23), Nigeria (31), Algeria (35), Tunisia (42), Zambia (49), Burkina Faso (51), South Africa (60), Equatorial Guinea (64), Cameroon (65), Libya (69), Sierra Leone (70), Egypt (71), Togo (73), Morocco (77), Congo DR (79), Congo (80), Gabon (82), Guinea (85), Angola (91), Uganda (93), Senegal (99), Liberia (100), Ethiopia (106), Malawi (109), Tanzania (109), Benin (115), Namibia (120).
Nations qualified (in order of FIFA ranking): None.
There are 10 groups of four teams playing each other home and away (final games Sept. 6). The 10 group winners are then drawn into five head-to-head home and away ties, the winners of those qualifying for the World Cup.
1. Zambia or Ghana? One favored side is going to be eliminated from Group D as Zambia, African champions in 2012, battle for a playoff spot against Ghana, which was within a Luis Suarez handball of reaching the semifinal at the 2010 World Cup. Zambia has faltered of late and went out on the group stage of this year's African Cup of Nations, and there is pressure on its manager, Herve Renard, but it got extremely lucky when a 2-0 defeat in Sudan last June was awarded as a 3-0 win after Sudan was found to have fielded an ineligible player.
2. Cameroon. In 2002, Cameroon won its second successive Cup of Nations. It had won an Olympic gold two years earlier and four successive World Cup qualifications marked it out as the greatest force in Africa. So precipitous has been its fall that it hasn't even qualified for the last two Cups of Nations. Despite a defeat to Libya, it's in the running to make the playoffs this time around, but it would do so under yet another new coach, the German Volker Finke stepping in to replace Jean-Paul Akono, a decision taken before the former international defender suffered a mild heart attack.
3. Egypt. One of the bafflements of African football was how Egypt could be so clearly the best side on the continent, winning three straight Cups of Nations between 2006 and 2010, and yet fail to qualify for the World Cup. Now the situation seems to have been reversed. Political instability contributed to its failure to qualify for either of the last two Cups of Nations but, under Bob Bradley, it has enjoyed a lightning start to the group stage and looks all but certain to reach at least the playoffs, putting a first World Cup appearance since 1990 in reach.
Ethiopia. The distance-running mecca was one of the founders of CAF in 1957 and was an early power in Africa, winning the Cup of Nations in 1962. It fell rapidly, though, and its appearance in this year's finals was its first since 1962. Yet with South Africa wobbling, particularly in a draw in Rustenburg last June when the crowd was predominantly Ethiopian ex-pats, Ethiopia, against all expectations, finds itself in control of the group. The home game against South Africa on Sunday will be vital.
The African champion, Nigeria, never does anything easily and, while it should reach the playoffs, it could yet be that its home qualifier against Malawi in September is a straight shootout to top the group. Ghana's game against Zambia that same weekend is almost certain to be a winner-takes-all affair. Congo, Egypt and Tunisia should wrap up their playoff spots easily enough, as should Ivory Coast, even if it did slip up in Morocco. Cameroon and South Africa are struggling -- and could be supplanted by Libya and Ethiopia, respectively -- while there's a tussle in Group H between Algeria and Mali. Senegal has been less than convincing, but it would still be something of a surprise if it were to be overhauled by Uganda, Liberia or Angola. The real drama, though, will come in the playoffs: five two-legged ties, with the winners to qualify for Brazil and nothing for the losers. It's a crazy system, but it's a lot of fun.
Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Tunisia qualify (although much depends on the draw for the final playoffs).