We waited three years for this. From the first round of CAF World Cup qualifying, where the minnows of Africa sparred for entrance into the second round, all the way to the much-anticipated World Cup playoffs, African football fans have waited excitedly for a chance at a World Cup berth.
There were lots of special moments to remember. A great run from Algeria where they once beat Djibouti 8-0 and closely fought with Burkina Faso for a playoff berth will always stick out. So will Victor Osimhen’s first-minute score to ensure Nigeria waltzed into the third round of competition.
Chants, cheers, and cries could be heard. Blood, sweat, smiles, and tears could be seen. But what will be most cherished are the memories. Some are good, some are bad. Yet in all of them, the chants and screams of millions of fans will always be remembered.
World Cup Qualifiers
Allez Les Leopards! Allez Les Leopards! It was a cry that could be heard throughout the Stade des Martyrs as the DR Congo team leveled the playing field and sparked hope for another World Cup berth. Brentford attacker Yoane Wissa scored early in the match, and the Leopards fiercely guarded their one-goal lead until late in the game. Their opponents, Morocco found the net, a strike that could have potentially given an away-goals advantage for them. Gent winger Tarik Tissoudali scored, leaving the match 1-1 until the match ended. An ejection from Ngonda Muzinga may have hampered their chances of a victory in the second leg, but the optimism was high going into the second leg.
Yet as the game went on and on, fans of the Leopards grew more angry and frustrated. Angers star Azzedine Ounahi scored in the first half, and the gesturing from Congolese keeper Joel Kiassumbua grew more urgent. Tissoudali doubled Morocco’s lead just before halftime started. Life did not get any easier for the DRC when halftime ended. Ounahi scored within ten minutes of the start of the second half, and Achraf Hakimi netted not too long after. An explosive attack made the Leopards into housecats, and the motivated roaring dulled as fans headed for the exits. Al-Sharjah attacker Ben Malango scored a consolation goal, but it meant nothing as Morocco gleefully rolled towards the World Cup. The DRC, with flashy talent and an array of European-based players to use, would have to wait until 2026 to try for a World Cup berth.
My Pick: Morocco
It was Islam Slimani’s time throughout the qualification in 2021, and it looked like it would be Slimani’s time yet again come 2022. The Algerian forward, who infamously knocked four past a beleaguered Djibouti side, knocked a goal past Cameroon’s Andre Onana and was a terrific source of leadership throughout the match. Cameroon dominated Algeria in possession and shots taken, looking every bit like the team who took home bronze last January. But there was one sole difference between Algeria and Cameroon: their attacks. As Slimani scored just before the first half ended, fans looked toward star forward Vincent Aboubakar to retaliate. His half time substitution and general mediocrity from the rest of the team cemented the scoreline. The advantage went to Algeria as they entered the second leg on a flimsy one-goal lead.
The roles changed. Cameroon took a one-goal lead and firmly clutched it to force extra time. Bayern’s Eric Maxim Choupo-Mouting scored and put on one of the better performances in the Indomitable Lions’ squad. Algeria and Cameroon played one of the most entertaining matches in the international break, as both sides threatened to score and book a ticket to Qatar. But, of course, nothing good is forever. Ahmed Touba scored in the 118th minute, and Mustapha Tchaker Stadium erupted into overjoyed roars. It was there! The vets foiled the newbies yet again. All they needed was just two or so minutes of defensive brilliance. And…oh, is that Karl Toko Ekambi? Lyon’s Karl Toko Ekambi scored in the 124th minute, preventing any hope of a penalty shootout. Historic images of Djamel Belmadi helplessly sobbing on the pitch just minutes after screaming with joy and the widespread celebrations around the stadium drew headlines. Now, with Cameroon gratefully in Qatar, Algeria will be left wondering what went wrong.
My Pick: Algeria
Could Moussa Sissoko have cost Mali a chance at a World Cup berth? Most Malians may agree, as whistles could be heard miles from Bamako as he trotted regretfully off the pitch. Just seconds after toeing a ball too forcefully to his keeper and scoring an own goal, he was dubiously donned a red card and an ejection. “An own goal and a red card? Brutal for just one player,” a comment with above 150 likes on YouTube proposed. Tunisia had the match’s momentum, creating numerous chances and nearly doubling their lead. But Mali hung in there and even challenged Tunisia’s keeper once or twice. They entered Tunis with only one goal down.
Someone forgot to tell Mali’s attack that they needed to score. Not only did a dreadful, scoreless tie see just six shots sent from Mali, but Mali did not log any shots on target. Depressing performances from Al-Jazira’s Abdoulay Diaby and the stacked Malian midfield’s bad luck meant Mali would not book a trip to Qatar. Where the attack was mediocre, the defence was magnificent. All four defenders played 90 minutes and repelled Tunisia’s attack. The same was true for Tunisia. Zamalek’s Seifeddine Jaziri could not lead his attack into action, leaving the defence to carry the brunt of the load. An altogether frustrating encounter for the Malians helped Tunisia reach Qatar, albeit in the most dreary way possible.
My Pick: Tunisia
Nigeria was usually an explosive team. Filled with stars like Victor Osimhen and Kelechi Iheanacho, the Super Eagles headed to Baba Yara Stadium trying to overload Ghana for a big win. But, as the 0-0 scoreline evidenced, things did not go to plan. For starters, Victor Osimhen rarely got the ball, touching the ball 17 times. Kelechi Iheanacho lost a total of 11 duels in the midfield, putting extended pressure on his defensive teammates. Balls lofted in from the flanks were easily intercepted. Omonia Nicosia stopper Francis Uzoho looked at home, turning away two good shots and recovering the ball a whopping 15 times. On the other hand, Ghana was magnificent. Led by Thomas Partey and Ajax’s Mohamed Kudus, Ghana mounted steady, fluid counter-attacks to pressure and break the Nigerian backline. If Roma’s Felix Afena-Gyan was a bit more dangerous in the final third, Ghana would have changed the 0-0 scoreline. Nigeria held strong and optimistically headed into their home portion of the tie.
What had been a brilliant performance from Nigeria’s Uzoho slowly morphed into a living nightmare. Just ten minutes into the match, what was a routine save suddenly jeopardised the Super Eagles’ chances of making the World Cup. Thomas Partey’s speedy strike from beyond the 18-yard-box squirted from underneath Uzoho and struck the back of the net. Advantage, Ghana. The Super Eagles bridged the gap with a penalty drawn from newly-converted Ademola Lookman. William Troost-Ekong solidly slammed a penalty into the bottom right corner, with only an away goal keeping Nigeria from Qatar. But Nigeria could not find a goal. Despair increased, and no matter how many times Osimhen tried to dominate in the air, Ghanaian defenders had his number. The match ended with Ghana going to Qatar as the lowest nation in the FIFA Rankings. Ghana, the victor of the Jollof Derby wildly celebrated their return to football’s biggest stage.
My Pick: Nigeria
Saving the best for last, an epic rematch of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations saw Senegal and Egypt fight to the very depth. A star-studded Senegalese side, headed by superstar Sadio Mane, entered their playoff with Egypt excitedly. They did just win the Africa Cup of Nations, right? Senegal aimed to recreate the climactic victory that went down to penalties as they stepped foot in Cairo International Stadium. Yet Senegal put their wrong foot first. AS Nancy’s Saliou Ciss could only watch and stare in alarm as an errant shot pinged off the woodwork. The ball bounced into his side and rolled into the net as Egypt wildly celebrated. Matters were made worse when Abdou Diallo limped off the field after a worrying injury. From there, neither attack showed why they each made it to the Africa Cup of Nations final. Despite flashes of brilliance from the frontline and Idrissa Gueye’s remarkable performance, the Lions of Teranga could not find an answer to Ciss’ own goal.
Heading home down by one goal, Senegal knew it needed all the firepower it could. Mo Salah and Trezeguet were good on the flanks, but most were certain that Senegal would find a way to strike back. Which they did. Villarreal striker Boulaye Dia scored within the first five minutes, and the entire nation of Senegal went crazy. Dread filled Egyptian fans, and once play resumed, everyone in Africa nervously waited for another goal on either end. Yet it did not come. Dia touched the ball just 17 times, wingers Mane and Ismaila Sarr were brilliant. Trezeguet and Stuttgart’s Omar Marmoush had a forgettable game, and Salah was smothered by a very good Senegalese back-line. 90 minutes passed, extra time stretched on, and Senegal pushed and broke down Egypt’s defence. The Pharaohs were lucky to prevent a conceded goal when extra time ended.
On came the penalties to decide which talented team would go on to the World Cup. Captain and Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly took the first penalty, but his shot clanged off the crossbar. Up next was Mo Salah. His face was filled with tens of laser beams, and the rays from the lasers scattered across the pitch like flies. It would be impressive if he could see through the laser beams. Inevitably, he skied his penalty. Al Ahly stopper Mohamed El Shenawi, impressive throughout the two games, leaped quickly to save Ciss’ penalty. Imitating Jorginho’s signature penalty-taking style, Zizo hopped in front of the ball and shot, but his attempt veered just right of the goalposts. Sarr slammed his penalty to the bottom left corner and made it, but Amr El Soleya countered with a skillful shot to the top left. Bamba Dieng made a vital penalty, gesturing excitedly in front of the crowd. Mostafa Mohamed shot, but Edouard Mendy saved his penalty in the centre of the goal! There was an opportunity for Senegal! The shouts were deafening. And then…silence. Sadio Mane started his runup among the beams. Kicking the ball, he forcefully attempted a Panenka and completed it.
Mane emerged victorious yet again, and questions were raised in Cairo about the quality of the Egyptian team. But for now, Qatar and the history books await the victors. Come November, it will be time to see whether the five winners can prove why they can be there. Joy, disappointment, happiness, despair, and everything in between await them.