|Coasting: Zambia celebrate in February this year|
TONIGHT at 8.30pm, all will be revealed. The Chief Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban will show its balls and the African Cup of Nations, hosted in South Africa from January 19 to February 10, will show its true colours.
It’s only eight months since Zambia’s epic triumph in Gabon - the change of calendar from even years to odd means everything has had to be sorted out in 12 months rather than 24. After a condensed qualification process which doesn’t even allow group winners automatic access to the 29th edition of CAF’s continental showdown, nobody doubts AFCON will be tough.
Tonight we find out just how tough when 16 balls are placed in four seeded goldfish balls to reveal who will play who on the road to the final at Soccer City.
The dream draw for Group A? South Africa, Angola, Niger and Cape Verde. The nightmare? Bafana, Nigeria, Algeria and lowly-ranked sleeping giants DR Congo.
We can only pray that the days of FIFA-sanctioned warmed balls and fixed draws are behind us. But whoever comes out with South Africa, qualification will not be easy - especially if Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers are fit to play for the Ivory Coast. What we do know is that Bafana Bafana will kick-off the competition as the top-seeds in Group A with the opening game at Soccer City on January 19.
Their next two games will take place at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium. Should they top Group A, they will then face a quarter-final in Durban too. But that would be expecting a lot from a side rated 10th of the qualifiers according to the latest FIFA/CAF rankings (see table at the foot of this blog).
Though Bafana Bafana have not lost a game against African opposition on home soil since Guinea in 2008 (a 15-game list that includes Zambia, Senegal and Ivory Coast), Gordon Igesund has his work cut out if he is to complete the first of his harsh requirements in the job of national coach.
Igesund, with defeats against Brazil and Poland in direct contrast to wins over Mozambique and Kenya in his four friendlies since he assumed control from Pitso Mosimane and caretaker Steve Khompela, will have Bafana’s credentials tested by Zambia at Soccer City on November 14.
With African opponents yet to be lined up for friendlies on December 23 in Durban and Johannesburg on January 13, SAFA today have confirmed a friendly against Norway in Cape Town on January 8.
According to the powers that be at SAFA, Igesund HAS to reach the AFCON semi-finals – and he may find the going tougher than expected despite the absence of seven-times winners Egypt and four-time winners Cameroon.
More than 2,000 guests – including President Jacob Zuma – will fill the ICC tonight to see the deeply questionable CAF head Issa Hayatou oversee the draw which will see one team from each pot selected for the four qualifying groups.
Top seeds: South Africa, Zambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast.
Second seeds: Mali, Tunisia, Angola, Nigeria.
Third seeds: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Niger
Fourth seeds: Togo, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia.
That means South Africa could face a nightmare qualification featuring a resurgent Nigeria, Algeria/Morocco and DR Congo, raising the ghost of 2010, when Bafana became the first World Cup hosts to fail to qualify for the knock-out phases, going out on goal difference despite a shock win over 1998 Champions France.
The easiest route? I’d say Angola, Niger, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, and Cape Verde, shock conquerors of Cameroon in the final qualifying round.
If Togo don’t secure the release of Emmanuel Adebayor from Tottenham in January, they could be a plum fourth pot draw too, while Burkina Faso in pot three would be relief of sorts.
However the draw turns out, it’s worth listening to South Africa’s greatest footballing export when it comes to judging Igesund’s chances of success.
Lucas Radebe, in Durban for tonight’s draw, told CAF: “It’s going to be too difficult for Gordon. There’s a lot of expectation but I don’t think we can win it.
“People look back to the 1996 winning squad and what we achieved, but a lot has changed since that time. It's unfair on the current team.
“You look at 1996, we had a stable team. We had been together for a long time and had gelled well leading up to the tournament. Now there’s been chopping and changing of players.
“There’s a new manager as well. Yes, we are playing at home and naturally that should be an advantage. But if we get out of our group we would have done extremely well.
“It will take a lot of commitment and sacrifice for any team to win this competition. Look at a big team like Cameroon, they didn’t even qualify. The Cup of Nations is difficult to predict.”
"Once you’re in the knockout phase anything can happen. You can get all the way to the final but I don’t think we can win it.”
But Radebe told CAF online: “There has been a lot of criticism levelled at Bafana, but for next year, every South African will have to give the team full support. Home support is the biggest incentive we can have. It will surely uplift the morale of the players.”
FIFA WORLD AND AFRICAN RANKINGS OF THE 16 QUALIFIERS:
16 1 Côte d'Ivoire
24 2 Algeria
27 3 Mali
31 4 Ghana
41 6 Zambia
45 7 Tunisia
51 10 Cape Verde Islands
63 13 Nigeria
75 18 Morocco
76 19 South Africa
83 20 Angola
91 23 Burkina Faso
93 24 Togo
103 30 Congo DR
118 33 Ethiopia
137 42 Niger