Qualifiers reflect Africa's shifting powers

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When you think of African football, which teams spring to mind? The Black Stars of Ghana? Nigeria, resplendent in green and white? Perhaps you think of Cameroon and the sepia-tinted images of Roger Milla running jubilantly to make silent love to a corner flag. Or Egypt, the North African powerhouses that have dominated the continent for half a decade. Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa are others that have carved storylines and success into the rockface of African football's recent history.

That a reasonably high chance exists that not one of these countries will be present at the 2012 African Cup of Nations tells its own story about the shifting sands of the continent's international football landscape. Approaching the final round of African Cup of Nations 2012 qualifying fixtures this weekend, the winds of change currently whispering sweetly over the region's football now threaten to escalate into gale-force blusters.

Like various high-profile political regimes, dominant, established players in the football world also look like being toppled in 2011 as new nations challenge the status quo. A fascinating weekend's football is in store as qualifying reaches its doubtlessly dramatic denouement.

We already know one thing. Holders Egypt will not defend their crown in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Champions the last three tournaments running, Egypt, who some might argue have had more pressing concerns in 2011 than football, are last in their group. The Pharaohs sit below the likes of Sierra Leone and Niger and will stay there – a startling indicator of their rapid fall from grace.

Though there are mitigating circumstances – namely the fall of president Hosni Mubarak in February this year, ensuing political and social upheaval and its adverse effect on the country's football – it doesn't hide the fact Egypt have so far failed to win a single game in qualifying. Victory at home to Niger this weekend could restore some pride but also deny Group G's surprise leaders their shot at a first-ever Cup of Nations. Tied on eight points, South Africa and Sierra Leone wait in the wings hoping to capitalise on any slips.

With Botswana, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and Burkina Faso and Senegal already qualified alongside hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, the African Cup of Nations 2012 has a refreshing look about it (although the Burkinanbes are being investigated over an alleged ineligible player, with a decision pending). Twenty-one teams will compete for the ten remaining places, with Cape Verde, Niger and Central African Republic all dreaming of joining Botswana in a maiden tournament.

There is an interesting parallel in African football between the development of sub-Saharan African countries both politically and economically, and the emergence of potential new powers in football.

In 2010 Steven Radelet, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, wrote Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way. In it he performs a fascinating study that identifies 17 sub-Saharan countries as emerging economies in Africa.

Basing his study on the political and economic reforms brought about by, among other factors, more accountable and democratic governments, advances in technology, a new generation of leadership and the end of the debt crises, Radelet identifies a new class of emerging African powers. In each nation identified, GDP growth between 1996 and 2008 remained above 5%, averaging 3.2% per capita – for reference; the UK’s growth was 1.7% in 2008.

There lies an interesting correlation between the nations Radelet identifies and those now looking to take centre stage at Africa's flagship competition.

Of the 17 nations Radelet concludes lead the way in this renaissance of African economic development, nine are in line to take their place at the 2012 African Cup of Nations – Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Though not on the list, Niger are an example of this rapidly developing underclass. For such a true minnow to top their group is a quite remarkable feat. Ranked 154th in the world by FIFA when qualifying began last September – and third from bottom in the world according to the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index in 2010 – the Mena were given a snowball's chance in Hades of reaching the finals when placed in a group with Egypt and South Africa. Three wins from five games have shot Niger up to 93rd in the rankings and one win away from a guaranteed place at the finals.

The majority of Niger's players are scattered around African clubs, with a small number plying their trade in Europe. Spearheaded by their main man, CSKA Moscow's promising striker Moussa Maazou, the side need a result in Egypt this weekend to complete the fairytale and go down as one of the biggest shocks in African Cup of Nations qualifying history.

Botswana are a similarly inspirational tale – huge outsiders when grouped with traditional powerhouses Tunisia – but whose collective spirit, tenacity, and impressive performances have seen them reach their first ever finals with games to spare.

Several other underdogs from around Africa hope to draw inspiration from Niger and Botswana this weekend.

In Group A, Cape Verde and Zimbabwe wait in the wings hoping to pounce on any slip-up by Mali, who travel to Liberia knowing only a win will guarantee their place in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea.

The mind games have already begun in Group B as Nigeria host Guinea in a straight shootout to decide who qualifies. Guinea need only a draw in Abuja to eliminate the Super Eagles, and failure would be a humiliating blow for Nigeria, who last failed to qualify in 1986.

“The pressure is on the Nigerian side because they’ve not failed to qualify for a Nations Cup in over 25 years,” said Ibrahima Barry, Secretary General of the Guinean Football Federation. “They have no choice – they have to win.”

Super Eagles coach Samson Siasia has called on the Nigerian people to provide a raucous atmosphere to help the team secure the win they so desperately need.

Including Niger's group, five others are on a knife-edge, to be decided in what will effectively be do-or-die playoffs.

In Group C Zambia play Libya, another side with much-publicised political turmoil. In the midst of a citizen-led revolution, a win would see Libya reach the finals for only the third time, 30 years after finishing runners-up in 1982.

Group D is the most open, with all kinds of permutations for the four sides. Morocco and Central African Republic are in pole position with eight points each, but Algeria and Tanzania, both on five points, still have a minor chance of turning the group on its head. Morocco host Tanzania while Central African Republic travel to Algiers looking to reach their first ever finals.

Group I is another that promises drama as Ghana travel to Sudan with both sides tied on 13 points. Runners-up in Angola 2010, the Black Stars now face the possibility of missing out altogether should they lose, and Sudan coach Mohamed Abdallah was in confident mood ahead of the game in Khartoum.

“I think we have convinced people that we have a strong chance to win and that we deserve to go to the finals. We are not afraid of this match or the challenge.” Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic's decision to rest key player Andre Ayew has dumbfounded many, a situation he may regret should Ghana lose.

The big East African derby between neighbours Uganda and Kenya will likely decide Group J, though Angola between the pair in second with a chance of qualifying should they beat Guinea-Bissau away and group leaders Uganda lose. A win for Uganda would send the Cranes, coached by Scottish manager Bobby Williamson, to their first African Cup of Nations finals in 34 years.

“It means everything to me,” the former Chester City boss said. “I want it for the fans, they have supported us well the few years I have been here. I have seen a lot development in Uganda football. I know the transition period is going to happen. Hopefully we beat Kenya and this will be the catalyst for Uganda football to progress further in building a bright future.”

With Botswana already qualified in Group K, Tunisia and Malawi both have a chance to claim the runner-up spot in the only five-team group. Tied on 11 points, games against Togo and Chad respectively will decide their fate in a qualifying process full of potential shocks. Africa is changing.