Aside from a slight faux pas by Marcel Desailly and Caf’s Head of Competitions Samson Adamu late on – they incorrectly read out Nigeria for Group A when the blue ball revealed the reigning African champions Algeria – the draw for the 2022 World Cup went off without a hitch.
Even in the unlikely event that the mistake had been ratified, it says a lot about the stakes that little would have changed in the grand scheme. Sure, Group A had drawn the highest-ranking team in Pot 2, but the Super Eagles would fancy their chances against Burkina Faso, one would imagine. As it turned out, it is in Cape Verde that Gernot Rohr’s side will face their sternest examination, at least on paper.
Caf’s decision to revisit the qualifying format for the 2014 tournament has effectively leached all of the potential jeopardy out of the Group Stage. Bar Groups D and G, the dynamic of the draw is very much Top Seed + three other quite beatable opponents. The imbalance, especially considering only group winners advance to the play-off round, is both stark and cruel.
If there are any exceptions to this, it comes from the presence in Pot 2 of Ivory Coast and South Africa, who will feel they can give their respective top-seeded teams – Cameroon and Ghana respectively – a run for their money. Indeed, in Group G, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia round out the closest thing to the fabled Group of Death.
That has more to do with the relative weakness of the Black Stars at this present time, really.
If there is any intrigue at all in this Group Stage, it stems from states of indecision within the set-ups of certain elite nations: following their fine showing at the Africa Cup of Nations, Uganda will most definitely fancy their chances in Group E against a Mali side that is capable of giving any side on the continent a game, but lacks variety in its approach; the propensity for low-percentage long range shooting and the sheer number of Adama Traores in the squad hardly help in this regard!
The Democratic Republic of Congo are not the force they once were, and so the door is open for someone else in the group to put together a run.
Group J is probably the best chance a side from Pots 3 and 4 has of getting involved: Benin, the group’s Pot 2 side, are obdurate but do not score enough goals, and so Afcon surprise package Madagascar, with their positivity, might have a proper go. Tanzania fans and journalists rate coach Etienne Ndayiragije very highly, and will feel all three teams in the group can be got at in Dar Es Salaam.
Egypt are yet to recover from their limp exit at the Afcon on home soil, and the appointment of Hossam El-Badry seems to have plunged them into even deeper torpor. Whether Gabon (or Libya and Angola) have enough about them to take advantage is another matter entirely, but certainly there is a chink there.
The rest of the top seeds should have it easy. Algeria’s only blow is likely to their pride at having five months less to cherish being champions of Africa. There is a call-back to their epic World Cup play-off against the Burkinabe in 2013, but the Stallions are somewhat diminished, and were absent from the first-ever 24-team Afcon. That is a quite eloquent summation of their current estate; there will be little resistance for Les Fennecs to get through.
Tunisia will have to be wary of a rising Zambia that seems to stray too far toward youth, and while it must be said that the Carthage Eagles are often quite a dull side to watch, their lack of excitement seems to lend itself to qualifiers rather well. They should pull through just the same. Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea complete Group B. The former found it much harder making a mark at their first-ever Afcon, although they did cadge a draw from the Tunisians, with whom they were grouped in Suez.
Afcon runners-up Senegal should make very easy work of their group, which features the Republic of Congo, Namibia and Togo.
Morocco will have to take care of a dangerous Guinea side that boasts some interesting midfield firepower, and while it must be said that Vahid Halilhodzic’s start to life in charge of the Atlas Lions has not been the smoothest, it would be a major failure were Morocco to not top the group, which is completed by Guinea-Bissau and Sudan.
In Group D, Mozambique and Malawi will likely be the casualties of the battle between the Indomitable Lions and the Elephants. Neither nation is at this time at the peak of their powers, but they still represent the elite of the African game, and will reprise their epic battle in 2006 World Cup qualifying.
Jonathan Kodjia and Karl Toko Ekambi do not exactly evoke memories of Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, but they are fine forwards in their own right, and have stellar supporting casts behind.
Nigeria have, possibly, the easiest draw of the top seeds.
A trip to Praia might prove tricky, as Cape Verde’s strength on home soil is pretty much the sole reason they are in Pot 2. However, Central African Republic and Liberia hardly set the pulse racing; the latter conjure up memories of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, but have little now to cause the Super Eagles any concern.
However, despite a kind draw, the uncertainty over contract renewal talks with coach Gernot Rohr is a layer of uncertainty that could very well threaten their progress. The German has done very well in his four years in charge, but appears not to have the confidence of the Nigeria Football Federation, who are insisting on more stringent constraints in his new contract.
That brief hesitation is unlikely to adversely affect the Super Eagles at this stage, really. Over the course of six matches, Nigeria – as well as most of the other top seeds – will largely expect their far superior quality to make the difference. It is not until the play-off that the danger is ratcheted up, and the stakes suddenly become all-or-nothing.
It makes this group stage little more than foreplay, for the most part. It is simply the prologue to the main event, and essentially reduces qualification to one two-legged tie in 2021: trickier for sure, but less taxing on the big teams on the whole.