BY EMMA NJOKU
With the race to next year’s World Cup in Brazil getting a step closer, tension and anxiety will engulf various cities across Africa this weekend as 40 teams, drawn into 10 groups of four teams each, will go into the final group matches to decide the 10 nations that will fight for the five tickets for Africa at the global soccer fiesta next year.
While Ivory Coast, Egypt and Algeria would be playing for mere formality, having grabbed the sole tickets in groups C, G and H respectively, some groups would have to wait till the final whistle to know their fate. One of the match venues that would attract special attention today is the U.J.Esuene Stadium in Calabar, where Nigeria’s Super Eagles would host the Flames of Malawi in the most crucial Group F fixture.
Nigeria currently tops Group F, with nine points from five matches and needs just a draw to snatch the group’s sole ticket to the last qualifying draws. Malawi is second behind Nigeria with eight points and would be seeking to turn the table against Nigeria in Calabar.
The build-up to today’s crucial encounter had been quite intriguing, as Malawi had engaged in serial mind-games, perhaps, to distract Nigeria’s preparation. Apart from the letter from the country’s football federation to FIFA, seeking for the venue of today’s match to be moved from Calabar to either Abuja or outside Nigeria, for alleged insecurity, the Malawi coach also petitioned the world football governing body over alleged racial comments against him by Nigeria’s coach, Stephen Keshi.
However, Keshi was not distracted by Malawi’s mind games, as he had assured that the Zebras would not only be beaten on the football pitch, but also would be thoroughly embarrassed with humiliating scores.
As at Wednesday, all the foreign-based players expected for today’s make or mar encounter had arrived in Calabar,Bayelsa brimming with confidence ahead of the clash.
Prominent among the players expected to be on parade for Nigeria are Chelsea of England midfielder, John Mikel Obi, his former teammate and Liverpool of England new signing, Victor Moses, goalkeeper and stand-in captain, Vincent Enyeama of Lille of France and Fenerbahce of Turkey striker, Emmanuel Emenike, who is returning to the Super Eagles’ line-up for the first time since the team won the Africa Nations Cup in South Africa early this year.
Other notable regulars in the Super Eagles squad expected to help Nigeria get past Malawi to the final draws of the World Cup qualifying race include CSKA of Russia striker, Ahmed Musa, Efe Ambrose of Celtic FC of Scotland, Portugal based Elderson Echiejile and Lazio of Italy midfielder, Ogenyi Onazi and Rizespur of Turkey newly-signed defender, Godfrey Oboabona, who would be making his debut as a foreign-based player in the national team.
Sunday Mba whose foreign deal with Bastia of France failed at the last minute was expected to retain his place in the first team, even as a home-based player with Azubuike Egwuekwe likely to start in the absence of injured Kenneth Omeruo.
In Younde, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon currently on top of Group I with 10 points would need just a draw and a point, against second placed Libya, to pocket the group’s sole ticket, while Libya, second with nine points had an uphill task to post an upset against Cameroon to qualify for the final draws for the World Cup qualifiers. DR Congo and Togo would be playing for formality in the other group’s fixture.
The situation in the city of Durban is no less interesting, as host, South Africa and neighbor, Botswana, head to the wires for the mathematical chance of picking the Group A ticket. South Africa is second on the group’s log with eight points behind, leader, Ethiopia (10 points), while Botswana is third with seven points. Victory for the Bafana Bafana would give South Africa the group’s ticket should Ethiopia fails to beat bottom-placed Central Africa Republic. Ethiopia would have since retired the group’s sole ticket but for the three points deducted from its points haul for fielding an ineligible player in one of the qualifying matches.
Another exciting fixture in the World Cup qualifying race across Africa is the match at the famous Rades Stadium in Tunisia, where Tunisia and Cape Verde Island would slug it out for the Group B ticket. Tunisia currently tops the group’s log with 11 points, with Cape Verde in the second position with nine points. A draw would see Tunisia through, while Cape Verde needs to win to turn the table against its host. In terms of pedigree, one would be tempted to give victory to Tunisian but if the recent record of Cape Verde in the round leather game is anything to go by, then Tunisia should watch it. It would be recalled that the tiny Island nation stopped almighty Egypt from qualifying for the last Nations Cup in South Africa early this year.