While Africa’s elite battle for an ever-elusive spot in the World Cup, the dregs of the continent start their quest for an African Nations Cup berth in March. But…are they the dregs?
As we know, African football is highly unstable and very competitive. A team earning an unbeaten record that spans months could be eliminated in the group stage of the African Nations Cup. A team ranked than the Faroe Islands can advance to the quarterfinals.
So viewers should not skip out on reading about it. Although the World Cup will warrant more attention, some matches will be fun to see.
Of course, some of the teams on display will suck. The Eritrean team is ranked #202 in the FIFA Rankings. Most people reading this will not know where some of the countries are. For most, the preliminary qualifiers of the African Nations Cup are a tournament for the worst teams to say they tried.
Yet there is still magic in it, like March Madness and the Premiership. And although there may not be the appeal of watching two of the biggest teams duke it out, ten tremendous teams will be fighting for a chance at an African Nations Cup bid. That should not go under the radar, just like this magnificent Gambian national team.
Chad v the Gambia
Many African football fans probably know about this exciting Gambian side, headlined by highly-coveted Bologna right-winger Musa Barrow. The Gambia’s opponents are Chad, a relative minnow that has no titles at its senior level. Pundits expect the Gambia to win not only because of Barrow’s presence but because of its star power and recent run in the African Nations Cup.
Players like Sampdoria’s Omar Colley and Spezia’s Ebrima Colley fueled a quarterfinals appearance, giving the Gambia the experience and confidence it needs in their match up with Chad. The team relies on a compact defense as Diego Simeone leads Atletico Madrid. On offense, Barrow and an array of wingers and strikers control things. Yet surprisingly, the Gambia has not scored twice or more in a competitive match since November 2020. If Chad wants to win against the Gambia, they need to exploit their foes’ weak offense.
According to Sofascore.com, Chad’s last competitive win was against Egypt in November 2015. Angers winger Casimir Ninga is the jewel of the squad, but his side is far from brilliant. The odds are low for the Chadian national team, dominated by Chad Premier League players, to advance past the knockout stage.
My Pick: the Gambia
Somalia v Eswatini
The Somalia and Eswatini teams are far from elite. Somalia has not qualified for any World Cups or African Nations Cups, and neither has it won any trophies. Ranked at #194 in the FIFA Rankings, Somalia boasts talents like Nashville winger Handwalla Bwana and Auckland City winger Siad Haji. The last time Somalia attempted qualification for the World Cup, in 2015, they were routed 6-0 on aggregate by Niger.
By contrast, Eswatini is ranked at #147. Eswatini has not played in the African Nations Cup or the World Cup but saw success at the COSAFA Cup. Eswatini recently topped nations like Zambia and Lesotho en route to a bronze medal in the competition. Unlike Somalia, Eswatini usually only calls up players from its domestic leagues. Although Eswatini manager Dominic Kunene called up two players from the South African Premiership, the lack of diversity may hinder their progression to an African Nations Cup bid. All in all, despite all the Somali talent at the Ocean Stars’ disposal, they do not have the experience Eswatini does.
My Pick: Eswatini
Seychelles v Lesotho
Seychellois sports is well-known for its basketball team. It is no surprise that its subpar national football team fell out of the public eye. Its only major trophy was a championship in the 2011 Indian Ocean Island games, so the Pirates should not go into their qualifying matches expecting to be favourites. They only call up players from their domestic league. What is worst is Seychelles does not enter any teams to the CAF Champions League. There are low expectations from football fans that live in the Indian Ocean archipelago, and Lesotho is expected to destroy them.
Lesotho also calls up players from their domestic league, but some are based in Bolivia, Georgia, and even South Africa. They have no major trophies to their name and are ranked at #146, around 50 places higher than their opponents. Although Lesotho does not have much experience, it will easily beat a Seychelles, more suited to play against teams like San Marino.
Djibouti v South Sudan
Djibouti was founded in 1977, and South Sudan gained independence in 2011, meaning they are pretty new nations. Yet the time its national football teams are counted as the dregs of the leagues may well be decades. South Sudan has not won a single game since a November match against Uganda. Although the results look worrying, South Sudan is better off than their Djiboutian opposition.
The Bright Stars boast players from many different leagues, including the Zambian Super League, the A-League, and even Atlanta United from the United States’ Major League Soccer. Its squad is young and full of promise, meaning that their youthfulness may be enough to beat Djibouti. Newcastle Jets winger Valentino Yuel will lead the team against Djibouti.
On the other hand, Djibouti, a team dwarfed by its East African contemporaries, has little diversity in its squads. Aside from players based in Malta and Belgium, Djibouti calls up players from the Djibouti Premier League. Their lack of options elsewhere stifles its growth and places them uncomfortably against South Sudan.
South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but its brief time on the sports scene probably will not hurt its chances at progression against a second-rate Djibouti squad.
My Pick: South Sudan
Sao Tome and Principe v Mauritius
Sao Tome and Principe and Mauritius will play each other in a battle of island national teams. They drew each other before in 2019, and the former advanced. Their 5-2 aggregate win means they know how to counter Club M. The question is whether they can execute and show they deserve to win.
Sao Tome’s roster has players from inferior leagues, including its domestic leagues. It explains why they rest at #189 in the FIFA Rankings. Yet they have a good mix of experienced and youthful players, stability in the coaching spot, and know its opposition. Luis Leal, striker for Bolivian club Guabira, will lead the Seleção dos Falcões e Papagaios.
Mauritius has the upper edge in the FIFA Rankings, around twelve spots ahead of Sao Tome. Its players, almost all based in Mauritius, know Sao Tome’s tactics. What separates a win from a loss is its execution, something both sides need to focus on. In a recent friendly with Nepal, Mauritius was rash and reckless. They let their foes score early, missed a penalty, and drew two red cards to end the gruelling match. They cannot let that happen against Sao Tome.
Based on form and previous matches, Sao Tome takes the cake. Its players are exposed to different playstyles and have players from many other nations. But Mauritius has more experience and talent to draw from and could take revenge if things go their way. It is a toss-up, but I think Sao Tome will prevail for the second time.
Eritrea v Botswana
This month, CAF received a letter stating Eritrea would withdraw from African Nations Cup qualification. It was not all that surprising. Ranking at #202, Eritrea last played a competitive match in September 2019 and was projected to lose against Botswana.
Surprisingly, they forfeited qualification to the Women’s U17 World Cup. A report from the BBC stated CAF did not receive a reason for the forfeits. Botswana, ranked several places of Eritrea, will automatically advance to the group draw as a Pot 4 team.
All in all, it is a very worrying sign for Eritrean football and Eritrea. What would warrant a forfeit from Africa’s most prestigious tournament? From civil unrest or an authoritarian government, anything could be the reason.