Essam El Hadary of Egypt celebrates after saving Bertrand Traore of Burkina Faso penalty in shootout, embraced by Omar Gaber (l) and Mohamed Salah (r) during the 2017 African Cup of Nations Finals Afcon semifinal football match between Burkina Faso and Egypt at the Libreville Stadium in Gabon on 01 February 2017 ©Gavin Barker/BackpagePix
Tuesday Nov 28, 2017. 09:30
With the 2018 World Cup set to be held from 14 June to 15 July at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, we take a look at the road to the tournament for Africa’s five representatives.
The CAF preliminaries for Russia 2018 began with the First Round all the way back in October 2015: two-legged knockout ties which saw the likes of Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Swaziland and Liberia progress into the next phase.
The Second Round was another batch of two-legged knockout ties, but this time the heavyweights were all present. The 20 ties in the Second Round whittled the field down to 20 teams in November 2015, and without any major upsets (though Uganda’s 4-0 aggregate thrashing of Togo was somewhat of a surprise).
Africa’s World Cup qualifying tournament was then put on the backburner until June 2016, when the draw for the Third Round took place at CAF’s headquarters in Cairo. The 20 teams were split into five groups of four, with the top team in each group set to qualify for Russia 2018.
Nigerian fans would have been worried to see their team drawn in the obligatory ‘group of death’ alongside three fellow Africa Cup of Nations winners in Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria.
Yet the Super Eagles dominated Group B, laying down a marker with a 2-1 away win over Chipolopolo in Ndola in October 2016 to set the tone for a superb campaign under coach Gernot Rohr.
Their peak arrived in September 2017 when they annihilated reigning AFCON champions Cameroon 4-0, and qualification was secured with a 1-0 win over Zambia the following month, making them the first African team to book a spot at the 2018 tournament.
Nigeria’s impressive showing aside, Africa’s 2018 qualifiers were underlined by two major themes: the rise to prominence of North Africans teams, and the controversy surrounding Group D, where FIFA ordered a replay of a match that was handled by a tainted referee.
In terms of North African teams, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco dominated Groups E, A and C respectively. The Pharaohs, inspired by the brilliance of Mohamed Salah, secured their first qualification since 1990, and in the process stopped Ghana from reaching a fourth successive World Cup.
It was a similar story in Group C, where Ivory Coast were beaten 2-0 at home in their final match by Morocco to miss out on a fourth successive showing. The defeat was made even more painful by the fact that the Atlas Lions – who qualified for the first time since 1998 and didn’t concede a single goal in the group stage – were managed by former Elephants favourite Herve Renard.
In Group A, Tunisia needed a nervy goalless draw at home to Libya in their final match, but the Carthage Eagles were clearly worthy qualifiers after going through the pool unbeaten, with the four points they took off nearest challengers DR Congo in September 2017 proving to be decisive.
Group D was where the controversy arose, stemming from a 2-1 win for South Africa over Senegal in Polokwane in November 2016. The match was handled by Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey, who was later found guilty of ‘match manipulation’ for awarding the hosts a soft penalty.
In March 2017, Lamptey was banned from football for life by FIFA, who also ordered a replay of the SA-Senegal match, throwing the pool wide open. In the end, the Teranga Lions won the replayed match 2-0 in November 2017 to become the fifth and final team from Africa to secure a place in Russia 2018. It will be Senegal’s second World Cup appearance, following their incredible debut in 2002 where they were captained to the quarterfinals by current coach Aliou Cisse.