Well, maybe I'm indulging in just a wee bit of hyperbole or journalistic license, as we writers like to say. But, there's no denying that half way through the Africa qualifying competition for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, things are not looking too good for several of the continent's traditional football powers.
If you don't believe me, a quick check of the five competition tables will say it all. Let's run through them, group by group.
The real surprise in Group One is this year's Olympic heroes, Mali. Not only are they languishing in last place with a paltry two points from their five matches, but in their latest must win match, the Malians got beat, 1-0 in Lome, by a surprisingly upbeat Togolese side. So, given their decidedly lackluster form to date, the Malians will need to run the table if they are to stand any chance of qualifying for Germany. And so unlikely is that happening, that Da Ole Emperor thinks it's time to stick a fork in the Malians, 'cause they're done.
True, the Malians are not a traditional African powerhouse. But, after their scintillating Olympic run in Athens, hopes were sky high that they could muscle their way into the upper echelons of African football. But based on recent performances, that’s not likely to happen, at least for now.
“Bafana Bafana” of South Africa, however, is a traditional soccer powerhouse in Africa. The South Africans lead the way in Group Two with nine points from five matches. But, to my mind at least, they have not been all that convincing. The South Africans are under increased pressure to be one of Africa's five representatives in Germany. Having received the honor of hosting the 2010 World Cup, the South Africans are desperate to keep their run of World Cup appearances intact as a fitting lead up to 2010.
Lurking in second place along with Congo DR is Ghana, hungrily seeking its first ever World Cup appearance, as amazing as that seems, given Ghana’s record-tying four African titles. Lacking high profile stars of yesteryear like Abede Pele or Tony Yeboah, the Black Stars are quietly but surely blending a more home-based talent pool into an increasingly cohesive squad. And Da Ole Emperor believes that strategy, in the long run, will lead the Ghanaians to the top of the group and earn them a trip to Germany in two years time.
It's been a stampede in Group Three, where “The Elephants” of Ivory Coast have rung up the best record to date of all competing teams. Garnering 12 points from their five matches, the group title is really theirs for the taking. And the Ivorians, led by their potent strike force of Didier Drogba and Aruna Dindane, have been quite lethal in the process. They’ve scored 10 goals while giving up a mere three. Very impressive indeed.
Also impressive indeed has been the thoroughly surprising performance to date by Libya, whose latest victory, a 2-1 win over neighbor Egypt, cost that team’s national coach, the Italian Marco Tardelli, his job.
If the Egyptians are in dire traits, much the same can be said about “The Indomitable Lions” of Cameroon, who have been a fixture when it comes to African teams that qualify for the World Cup. The Lions have booked tickets to the past four World Cup finals, and their total of five World Cup qualifications is the best of any African team. True, it's way too soon to push the panic button. But four points adrift and languishing in third place with only five matches to go, is definitely not where the Lions want or expected to be. But don't count the Lions out quite yet, as they do have head to head matches with frontrunners Cote D'Ivoire, and when the chips are down, they generally find a way to win.
Group Four is down to a two horse race between current front runners Angola and perennial powerhouse Nigeria. Both are locked in a titanic struggle for supremacy, with only a single point separating them. While the Angolans have their nose in front, the Super Eagles have a slightly better goals for and against average.
But spare a thought for once mighty Algeria, totally embarrassed in the cellar, with a mere three points from five games, and nary a victory to show for all their efforts. A closer look at the Algerians' plight reveals the general basis for their woes -- a paltry two goals in five matches. That's par for the course, because the north Africans never score much. But they've been let down on their traditional strong suit, defense, where they've conceded six goals in their five matches to date.
Group Five is not proving too kind for two other North African nations, Morocco and Tunisia – the finalists at the 2004 African Nations Cup. Guinea is the surprise leader half way through the competition, with eight points and a strong eight goals for and three against average. The Moroccans are lurking close behind, with six points, with Tunisia still technically in the hunt for the top spot despite managing only five points to date.
But Group Five is more wide open than others, due to the fact that Guinea, Morocco and Tunisia have played only four matches each, while Kenya has played a mere two, after having an international suspension lifted. With eight matches to go and a useful three points from their two qualifiers to date, I would certainly not rule Kenya out, especially as no one team has taken a stranglehold on the group.
Clearly, with at least five more matches to go for each of the 30 teams vying for Africa's much coveted five World Cup berths, lots can still happen. But, as I said earlier, it's already clear that some of the perennial powers are in dire straights. And with that in mind, we could easily see one, two or even three World Cup debutantes representing the continent in Germany.
With this being only the half way mark, it would be the height of arrogance for Da Old Emperor to even pretend to know which five African teams will ultimately book their tickets for Germany in 2006. But, I'll go as far as to name the top 12 teams I think stand the best chance to play in Germany in two years time.
In Group One -- Senegal, Togo and Zambia.
Group Two -- South Africa and Ghana.
Group Three -- Cote D'Ivoire, Libya and Cameroon.
Group Four -- Angola and Nigeria.
Group Five -- Guinea and Morocco.
And think of this -- of those twelve, seven have yet to play in a single World Cup competition.
True cream generally rises to the top when the pressure builds. And remember this -- when the competition resumes on March 25th of 2005, a greater number of the established stars will be more readily available. And this alone will change the dynamics considerably. But, for some previously top flight teams, it's probably a case of closing the barn door after the cows have bolted.
Regardless, next year's resumption of this all important tournament promises much, not the least of which is a radical African face lift at Mundial 2006 in Germany.