As World Cup fever slowly whirls Africa into a state of frenzy for some the focus diverges for a few days as the road to Morocco and the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations gets underway on Saturday.
The continents 4 lowest-ranked sides, aside from the non-entrants of Somalia and Djibouti, were set to play out their first-legs of the preliminary first round ties over the weekend before meeting again on the 19th.
Improving Mauritania will host Mauritius in Nouakchott before travelling to the Indian Ocean for the second leg. In Juba, Africa’s newest capital city, South Sudan were meeting fellow East Africans Eritrea for the first time before the latter withdrew on Sunday.
Les Mourabitones have improved vastly since a record low FIFA ranking of 206th in December 2012 losing just 2 of their last 8 games. They claimed a shock 1-0 win over Canada in September and drew 1-1 with Niger, participants at the last 2 Africa Cup of Nations, last month.
Mauritania have options going forward with Adama Ba of Ligue 1 side Bastia and Oumar N’Diaye, having a fine season in the French 3rd-tier with Luzenac, standout. Dominique Da Silva recently moved to Zamalek from Al-Ahly in Egypt and is another attacking outlet.
Whether these players will be released by their clubs is an issue that shouldn’t concern the West Africans too much. Earlier this year they qualified for the African Nations Championship, a tournament for domestic-based players, after shocking Senegal in the qualifiers.
Reaching a continental tournament was an unprecedented achievement for Mauritania and despite finishing bottom of their group in South Africa they scored 4 times and lost out to 90th minute goals in 2 matches.
Their best stab at African Cup of Nations qualification came in the 2008 tournament when Nouakchott became a fortress. However an unbeaten home record was not enough as they missed out on reaching Ghana by 5 points.
Next weekend’s opposition Mauritius have, somewhat remarkably, reached the finals of an Africa Cup of Nations before way back in 1974. The islanders haven’t been back to the continental event since that trip to Egypt 40 years ago.
A 3-0 loss in Qatar last September was the Mauritians last outing though they too featured in the African Nations Championship qualifiers, seeing off Comoros before losing out to Zimbabwe.
They were runners-up at the Indian Ocean Island Games in 2011 but haven’t won an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier since 2003 when they went out on away goals to Uganda.
That Mauritius team of the early 2000’s was something of a golden generation with wins over South Africa and Tanzania as well as record FIFA rankings position prominent achievements for the tiny nation.
Melbourne Victory player Jonathan Bru and his brother Kévin, who plays for Levski Sofia, add overseas experience to a largely domestic-based squad. However Mauritius have lost 8 of their last games at home and Mauritania will be favourites to progress.
In the other tie two CECAFA members were set to go head-to-head as FIFA’s newest member South Sudan prepared for a first-ever Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against the Red Sea Camels of Eritrea.
However the Eritreans announced their withdrawal on Sunday and South Sudan will advance as a result. The news comes as little surprise – at the last 4 CECAFA Cup finals Eritrean players, normally the majority of the team, have fled and sought asylum in the host country.
The South Sudanese were part of BBC Four’s Storyville in February as former coach Zoran Đorđević’s attempted to organise their first national team since independence in 2011. However, the story ended with bitter infighting and a seemingly corrupt FA sacking the Serbian coach.
A 2-2 draw with Uganda in their first-ever game, which was under Đorđević’s reign, remains the only occasion South Sudan have either played at home or avoided defeat. Trips to the last 2 CECAFA Cups have resulted in zero points though Zanzibar were run close last year.
Despite the lack of positive results South Sudan were never thrashed in those CECAFA Cup campaigns and a 3-0 loss at 2012 African Cup of Nations qualifiers Botswana in a friendly last month can be considered a fairly decent score.
Captain Richard Justin has a respected reputation in the Sudan domestic league and is South Sudan’s record scorer with 2. Goalkeeper Jumma Ginaro is another player with experience north of the border and James Moga has spent the last few years playing in India.
Despite training 3 times a week for the tie the South Sudanese will now go straight to the second preliminary round where they could meet some powerful sides including previous World Cup finalists Togo or Angola.
This penultimate round will take place during May and June before the final qualification ties in July and August. The last 28 teams will play out a group stage process during the autumn ahead of the finals draw on November 26th.
By Ed Stubbs (@ed_stubbs1)