Johannesburg - While four countries are sitting pretty at the top of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers after collecting maximum points, a few “home town” decisions have dominated the headlines.
Nigeria, Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt are the only countries to have amassed maximum points after the first two rounds of matches.
However, “dubious” penalty decisions have dominated the qualifiers so far, which mostly favoured the home countries.
South Africa, Egypt, Cameroon and Guinea were all awarded penalties at the weekend at home.
Tunisia also scored from the penalty spot, but away in Libya.
Ghanaian referee Joseph Odartey Lamptey even surprised South Africans when he awarded Bafana Bafana a dubious penalty against Senegal, after he adjudged Kalidou Koulibaly to have handled inside the box, although the ball was nowhere near his hand as it came off his leg. Bafana won the match 2-1.
In Limbe, Cameroon, Malang Diedhiou of Senegal awarded the Indomitable Lions a spot kick in their game against Zambia, which led to their equaliser. The game ended in a 1-all draw.
Mohamed Salah gave Egypt the lead in Alexandria after a spot kick when Gabon referee Eric Otogo-Castane awarded them a penalty in the game against Ghana. Egypt won the game 2-0.
Sidi Alioum also awarded Guinea a penalty but Seydouba Soumah’s strike was not enough to prevent them from going down 2-1 to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Conakry.
In the opening round of the qualifiers, Burkina Faso were awarded two penalty kicks by Moroccan referee Redouane Jiyed in Ouagadougou.
However, a former top referee did not believe match officials were out to fix games and denied these were home-town decisions, but that they were unfortunate mistakes.
The official, who did not want to be identified, said he did not believe the officials would deliberately cheat.
“For example, the referee [Lamptey] who was officiating the South Africa game is in line to go to the World Cup and I don’t think he would jeopardise that opportunity. I saw the penalty he awarded the home team and it was the assistant’s call, but obviously everyone looks at him as he is the one who blew [the whistle],” said the official.
He said Lamptey was also in line to go to the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon and would not risk that either.
“There is so much at stake for the match officials and I think these were honest mistakes on their part. Why do you specifically talk about penalties and not other infringements that were outside the penalty box?” he asked.
The next round of the qualifiers in August should give a clear indication of the five countries most likely to represent the continent in Russia in 2018.
Interestingly, Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are tied at the top of Group A, will have to fight it out as they face one another in back-to-back matches in the next round of the qualifiers.
Uganda’s Cranes will also have to dispose of Egypt at the top of Group E in their next fixtures – home and away – if they are to make history and qualify for their maiden World Cup.