African challengers face steep World Cup obstacles

2010-06-09 10:15

A second round at the first World Cup in Africa without a team from

the continent is too ghastly a thought to contemplate.

But an unkind draw followed by a series of unexpected blows raise

the possibility of all six challengers biting the dust after the mini-league

opening phase in South Africa.

Apart from South Africa, guaranteed a place as hosts, Algeria,

Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria came through a two-round qualification

process to create a record six-prong title assault.

All is not well among these challengers, though, with just 48 hours

before the kick-off, injury has ruled out Ghana superstar Michael Essien, Ivory

Coast icon Didier Drogba is also injured and Cameroon talisman Samuel Eto’o is

allegedly “unpatriotic’’.

Algeria bore more resemblance to an amateur club than a qualifier

for the most-watched global sport event as they crumbled in Dublin recently and

Nigeria have left it all very late when it comes to preparations.

Despite an embarrassing world ranking of 83 and administrative

blunders, South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira appears to have fostered a

team spirit that could catapult the hosts into contention for a last-16

slot.

Chelsea midfielder Essien was always a long shot, not having played

since injuring his knee during African Nations Cup training in Angola last

January and was omitted.

The weakened Ghana team that finished runners-up to Egypt in Luanda

has been bolstered by the return of England-based defenders John Mensah and John

Paintsil and Italy-based midfielders Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah.

But in a group likely to be topped by three-time champions Germany,

the “Black Stars’’ face a three-way struggle with Australia and Serbia for the

other second-round ticket.

There can hardly be a more unhappy star in South Africa than

three-time African Footballer of the Year Eto’o after verbally slugging it out

with Cameroon legend Roger Milla and then getting a red card in Portugal.

Milla, a 38-year-old international when he burst on to the world

stage at the 1990 tournament with two-goal salvos against Romania and Colombia,

believes there are two Eto’os.

The former star claims the striker who performs consistently

brilliantly for European champions Inter Milan, falls far short of that standard

when in the national colours.

Having rubbished the allegations, Eto’o was sent off in a 3-1

friendly loss against Portugal that extended the Indomitable Lions win-less run

to six matches and they subsequently conceded four goals when failing in

Serbia.

While warm-up form should not be treated too seriously, there was

an air of inevitability about the way Ivory Coast squandered a 2-0 lead when

drawing with fellow qualifiers Paraguay on the French shore of Lake

Geneva.

A major World Cup contender from Europe or South America would

rarely let such an advantage slip so late in a game and the inability of African

teams to “shut shop’’ remains a concern.

Ivory Coast rely heavily on leading English Premier League scorer

Drogba, probably too heavily, and the last thing they needed was for him to

break a forearm against Japan in another friendly.

A national football federation comment about “extremely

encouraging” first results from an operation was tempered by team spokesman

Ouattara Hegaud saying no decision had been taken on the Chelsea striker.

Facing world top-20 teams Mexico, Uruguay and France represents a

mammoth task for South Africa, whose 12-match unbeaten run since last November

cannot camouflage problems in central defence and a shortage of clinical

finishers.

But home advantage, 1 800-metre altitude, headache-inducing

vuvuzela plastic trumpets and encouragement from iconic ex-president Nelson

Mandela could inspire Bafana Bafana to dizzy heights, and no host has failed to

get through.

Nigeria are following a familiar path with a late change of team

base, a late change of coach and a late start to the warm-up schedule, but Swede

Lars Lagerback claims his team can beat any World Cup rival.

Although the Super Eagles squad falls below the level of those who

reached the second round in 1994 and 1998, a top-two finish is not beyond the

realms of possibility in a group completed by Argentina, Greece and South

Korea.

The absence of Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, however, could

prove a problem.

No such hopes extend to Algeria – shock qualifiers at the expense

of Egypt – whose outsider status in a pool containing England, United States and

Slovenia was not altered after a 3-0 humbling from the Republic of

Ireland.



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