The continent of Africa eagerly awaited its arrival. From when France lifted the FIFA World Cup Trophy in Moscow, Africans thought giddily of their team hoisting the trophy in front of an excited audience.
Nations faced hard, heartbreaking hurdles. Burundi narrowly missed out on advancing when Tanzania triumphed in a penalty shootout. The away goals rule foiled Lesotho against evenly-matched Ethiopia. For some, the dream was not realistic. In the first qualifying round, Seychelles lost 10-0 in a two-legged tie against the exponentially-bigger Rwanda.
Yet when the second round came, competition grew tighter. In a winner-take-all match between Ghana and South Africa, former Swansea striker Andre Ayew slotted home a penalty to ensure progression into the next round. In Nigeria’s final game, Victor Osimhen scored early to advance. Equatorial Guinea challenged Tunisia, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast viciously struggled with each other, and DR Congo barely edged Benin.
Now, over 1300 days, a playing field of a potential 54 countries was slowly trimmed to just ten. Those ten all have a story to tell, one they hope to show to an excited audience in Qatar. But, of course, only five African countries can seal a ticket to Doha. These matches will be instrumental in shaping how the World Cup will turn out, starting with a 2021 African Nations Cup rematch.
Egypt v Senegal
The African Nations Cup final was pitted as Mo Salah v Sadio Mane, a battle between Liverpool teammates. Yet it obscured the incredible paths it took for Egypt and Senegal to get there. The all-star attacker had a rough start but pulled through to earn second in their group. Salah was assisted by Basaksehir winger Trezeguet and Al Ahly stopper Mohammed El Shenawy. After that, they completed a tense penalty shootout against the Ivory Coast, a nervy extra-time drama against Morocco, and yet another shootout against Cameroon. All that led to a match against Senegal, who advanced to the knockout round out of a close group.
Senegal is a star-studded team, headlined by Mane, Edouard Mendy, and Kalidou Koulibaly. They showed their skills in the group stage with an unbeaten run over Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Malawi that earned them first place in the group. They subsequently dominated Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea in the knockout rounds. They stuttered against Burkina Faso, but Mane saved them with a scintillating performance.
We all know what happened in the finals. An exciting penalty shootout, led by Mendy’s brilliant play, won Senegal its African Nations Cup. Now Egypt is out for revenge and a World Cup bid. Senegal has the talent, the coaching, and now its first major title. Senegal will be the favorite, but no one should underestimate Mo Salah and Egypt.
My Pick: Senegal
Cameroon v Algeria
Vincent Aboubakar, Nicolas Ngamaleu, and Karl Toko Ekambi were a set of scary attackers in the African Nations Cup. Their unstoppable play led Cameroon to a bronze-medal finish on home ground. Some credit goes to Ajax stopper Andre Onana for his impeccable work and a usually flexible defence.
On the opposite end, Algeria was a dumpster fire that never got going in the African Nations Cup. They only forced a draw and bounced out on the group stage, shocking many. With European talents like Riyad Mahrez, Said Benrahma, and Youcef Atal, Algeria seemed destined to defend its 2019 title and dominate a competitive field of opponents. Yet their flop made fans of the Fennecs somewhat nervous.
This match is a classic case of an underdog on a red-hot streak and a favourite in a slump. It is hard to pick between the team that earned a bronze medal or the team that entered the African Nations Cup with a sizeable unbeaten run. Algeria looks more talented than Cameroon, but Cameroon could continue their impressive winning streak with red-hot form. It is a toss-up, but Algeria is the favorite for the match.
My Pick: Algeria
Ghana v Nigeria
Called the Jollof Derby because of frequent arguments over which countries have the best jollof rice, Ghana and Nigeria are in for an entertaining two-legged tie. Ghana called up Arsenal star Thomas Partey, Rennes wunderkind Kamaldeen Sulemana, and skipper Andre Ayew. Their squad has a lot of youth, which is not bad, but maybe disadvantageous going against a more experienced Super Eagles squad. It does not help that Ghana had an Algeria-Esque explosion in the African Nations Cup, leaving Cameroon with only a draw to show for their struggles.
“It will mean a lot for us to go back to the World Cup, but Ghana will not be easy,” Wilfred Ndidi confided to ESPN. “To be honest, we have to be careful about their whole team and not just any specific players. It will be two tough games.” Games between Nigeria and Ghana are usually tough for both sides. Ghana dominates the rivalry, winning 25 games to Nigeria’s 12. The last time Nigeria beat the Black Stars was in 2006.
Yet it could be Nigeria’s time to ink a new chapter in the Jollof Derby. Nigeria has numerous stars and spends time at the highest levels of international football. Napoli virtuoso Victor Osimhen, Leicester stars Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho, and Villarreal winger Samuel Chukweuze will make appearances against the Black Stars. They did end their African Nations Cup campaign early against Tunisia, and the sudden loss of momentum will hurt them. But Nigeria has more talent, more exposure, and better form than their Ghanaian rivals.
My Pick: Nigeria
DR Congo v Morocco
It was one of the biggest surprises of the 2021 Africa Nations Cup qualification. Stagnant offensively and mediocre in defence, the DRC was eliminated from African Nations Cup qualification. They were foiled by Gambia and Gabon, two nations nowhere near the Congo’s prestige. On top of a lack of true star power, the DRC does not have the African Nations Cup bid they wanted before their World Cup qualifying matches. It does not help that the Congo put in an unconvincing performance against Bahrain, losing 1-0.
It means that Morrocco gains another advantage over the Congo. Bono, Youssef En-Nesyri, and Achraf Hakimi will look to wreak havoc and build upon their quarterfinals appearance in the African Nations Cup. With more star power and better form, Morocco is a definite favourite against a declining DRC side.
My Pick: Morocco
Mali v Tunisia
Although Mali was foiled by an extraordinary Equatorial Guinea team in the round of 16, the seeds of African success are still ready to bloom for Mali. They have some of the best midfielders in Africa, with Brighton & Hove Albion’s Yves Bissouma, RB Leipzig’s Amadou Haidara, and Red Bull Salzburg’s Mohamed Camara eligible to play for Mali. One of the bad things about their team is a lack of experience in the club, as the average of the Malian squad is 25.6.
While Mali has the raw talent and potential, Tunisia has skilled players and a phenomenal structure. Tunisia is led by defensive midfielder Ellyes Skhiri but has many players who can also chip in. One player to look out for is Manchester United prospect Hannibal Mejbri, who poses a goalscoring threat to Mali’s Djigui Diarra. Although they did not go as far as they wanted to in the African Nations Cup, Tunisia can go as far as they like against Mali.
Tunisia show consistently they can get to the world’s biggest stages, qualifying five times and winning the 2004 African Nations Cup on home territory. On the other hand, Mali does not have the accolades Tunisia has. They have the star power and the talent, but not the established formula Tunisia uses. Tunisia could book a ticket for their sixth World Cup, but Mali slots in as a wild card and an underdog at the same time.
My Pick: Tunisia